Far-out fables and frogs

24th January 2003 at 00:00
Picture books reviewed by Ted Dewan

THE RED TREE. By Shaun Tan. Lothian Books, Ragged Bears pound;8.99

HARE AND TORTOISE RACE TO THE MOON. By Oliver J Corwin. Abrams pound;9.95

TWO FROGS. By Christopher Wormell. Jonathan Cape pound;10.99

MAN ON THE MOON. By Simon Bartram. Templar pound;9.99

One of the great pleasures of picture books is how often they combine the domestic and the surreal. This is a selection of fairly far-out fairy tales which are well on their way to bouncing off the wall while keeping one foot on the ground.

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is a search for the silver lining in the black cloud of everyday life: a book you might offer to buck up a young person finding their way in the world. The narrative follows a downcast young female through a day in a series of Tan's overwhelming eerie landscapes.

Enthusiasts of the Quay Brothers' animation and Terry Gilliam's films will love Tan's books. They are published in Australia, but The Lost Thing (reviewed in Friday magazine, June 22, 2001), The Rabbits and Memoriam (both reviewed in Friday magazine, February 11, 2000), are available in the UK. As in Gilliam's films, dread and humour are always folded within one another in Tan's books. Each illustration is a complex allegory loaded with symbols which take several readings to fully appreciate. The Red Tree places Tan firmly at the top of my list of favourite picture book illustrators. My hope is that his books will work their way into UK art schools and finish off the vogue for "ironic" poor draughtsmanship in experimental book illustration. Keep The Red Tree in mind for children over seven and adults; younger readers are likely to find the sophisticated material incomprehensible.

Hare and Tortoise Race to the Moon serves up a space-age version of Aesop's fable. Wealthy Hare zooms off in his expensive rocket while Tortoise's home-made rattletrap makes its way slowly but steadily. Corwin describes in some detail how he came about the style used in his book, inspired by "traditional Moroccan art, modern design from the 1930s and 1950s, and patterns". These patterns introduce an interesting graphic vehicle for describing motion and energy in the rocket race to the Moon. It's an easily assimilated approach to pictorial storytelling with potential for primary art and literacy.

Chris Wormell's contemporary fable, Two Frogs, is an ironic exploration of cause and effect, foresight and hindsight. Doomsayer stick-wielding frog prepares himself for an attack by a theoretical dog, while sceptical frog finds it all a bit ridiculous. Sceptical frog unwittingly triggers a series of disasters from which the pair narrowly escape (the stick comes in handy, but not for its original purpose). It's a good thing, too, as eventually the dog comes along soon after the frogs have disappeared. This book reminds me of the Sufi Nasrudin stories which don't have an obvious moral or lesson, but instead prime the mind in a more general and deep-rooted way.

It also demonstrates Christopher Wormell's versatility as an artist: here he has chosen a classic watecolour style which works perfectly in this land of lily pads, while his previous work has used block printing and a retro colour-pencil style. My only complaint is that I feel Wormell hasn't explored the illustrative potential of the first half of the story, effectively a dialogue between sceptical frog and doomsayer frog. But I wouldn't be surprised if this was a deliberate lulling device to make the action that follows seem more shocking and explosive.

The most far-out tale of all has to be Man on the Moon. Once again, the groovy Templar has let Bartram loose on his surreal tale of Bob, a sort of park ranger who commutes daily from his suburban house to the Moon to pick up astronaut rubbish, entertain and inform Moon tourists, and hang out with his buddies who look after adjacent planets.

Bob's no-nonsense dismissal of the existence of aliens is subverted in the pictures; we can see that he unwittingly ferries aliens from the Moon back to Earth when he returns home to his fire and mug of cocoa. The homely weirdness of this book is reminiscent of Nick Park's Wallace and Gromit films. Bartram's Hopper-style paintings contribute to the normality which sets the surrealism off so nicely, providing a delightful counterpoint throughout.

Ted Dewan won the recent Blue Peter Best Book to Read Aloud award for his picture book, Crispin - the Pig Who Had it All, published by Doubleday

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