YOU CAN SWIM, JIM. By Kaye Umansky Margaret Chamberlain Bodley Head Pounds 8.99
NEARLY BUT NOT QUITE. By Paul Rogers. Illustrated by John Prater Bodley Head Pounds 9.99
BABA. By Ruth Brown. Andersen Press Pounds 8.99
THERE MIGHT BE GIANTS. By Hilda Offen. Hodder Pounds 9.99 (Pounds 4.99 pbk)
TANGLEBIRD. By Bernard Lodge. Heinemann Pounds 9.99
The point about books written to fill a specific need is that for one brief moment they can be the right book in the right place at the right time. Thus, any young child learning to swim this summer will love You Can Swim, Jim and a little sister or brother trying desperately to keep up with the older ones on a holiday adventure will enjoy Nearly but Not Quite.
But will anyone else? The delightful You Can Swim, Jim is a case in point, with its rhymes about Doreen and the chlorine, Lola and her lilo and Jeannie's wee bikini. As for Jim, he is grim, grim, grim as he stands by the side of the pool making sure his waterwings don't get wet. Then he falls in and discovers that, indeed, Jim can swim. It's great fun, but only potential Jims will want to read it.
Nearly but Not Quite follows little Simon tagging along with bigger James and Harriet on a day out. The book is well drawn and the pictures contribute as much to the story as the fairly substantial text. The idea is a good one, if self-limiting, and it is also a theme of Baba, a superbly illustrated book by Ruth Brown. Her drawings are so realistic that you can hear the toddler screaming as the tears run down her face.
This crying fit is the culmination of several pages of whingeing as the little girl struggles to keep up with her older brothers and sisters on a walk. To really give her something to shout about, she finds that her comfort blanket (or Baba) has unravelled as well. Most toddlers would simply collapse at this point, but Ruth Brown's little girl treats the episode as one great learning curve.
There Might Be Giants is not nearly as prescriptive. Its purpose (besides entertainment) is to prompt a child's imagination. This is the story of Sally and Joe who spend their walk to the shops with mum chasing away giants, dragons and wizards. Mum, who insists there are no such creatures in the world, is unaware of the excitement that accompanies every step of the journey. It's a good story, and grown-ups will appreciate the suitably harried mum, the bags under her eyes almost as huge as those she uses for shopping.
The most inventive of all these books is Tanglebird - a rather surreal tale about a strangely coloured bird who simply cannot build a neat nest like all the other birds. So he heads off to the big city - causing mayhem as he tangles up a woman's knitting and tries to make a nest out of the park-keeper's rubber hose. He is rescued by a girl named Gina and she teaches him how to play cat's cradle and tie knots and bows. Needless to say, these new skills come in handy to show off to fellow birdbrains when he returns.
All of these books are about children (or birds) trying to do things but none, except Tanglebird and There Might be Giants, succeeds in going beyond this specific goal. This is fine if you need to teach a child that specific something - but it all is a trifle pat in a marketplace where everything is so obviously seeking a specific audience. One wants to send Tanglebird in to make a big mess of it all and create some magic.