Fears put to flight

11th December 1998 at 00:00
THE lION AND THE UNICORN. By Shirley Hughes. Bodley Head. Pounds 12.99.

Shirley Hughes sets her latest picture book during the evacuation of children from London during the Second World War. Young Lenny, a Jewish boy from the East End, is billeted at a country manor house and launched into a world of strangers. He has to face a host of new fears, but also discovers courage.

The emotionally-charged illustrations skilfully pitch these contrasting elements throughout the book. Lenny's fears are represented by the lion, which constantly shows up as a shadow or a statue. On the other hand, a statue of a unicorn in Lenny's garden sanctuary watches over his introduction to a war hero whose sage words help him find courage. Younger readers might benefit from help in linking these symbols to the feelings they represent.

At 71, Shirley Hughes is clearly still experimenting and stretching herself more than most art students a quarter of her age would find the energy to. Gloriously cinematic watercolours and energetic wax-resist textures shimmer on every page, even when depicting the grey gloom of wartime London.

Miniature, black-and-white ink illustrations comment directly on the text and sometimes follow their own sequences complementary to the main artwork. In some instances the illustrations do the storytelling with more elegance than the text, which is much longer than in most of today's picture books.

The Lion and the Unicorn is a fine introduction to the subject of upheaval, as well as to the use of symbolic imagery in literature and cinema.

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