Flukes and feathers

16th August 1996 at 01:00
Jane Churchill reads children's books about animals.

There is more to summer than sea and sand. Few of these picture books would make it for beach reading. They are books for the older child to savour and pore over, sharing experiences and ideas.

In Michael Foreman's Seal Surfer (Andersen Press Pounds 8.99) a young boy and his grandfather watch a seal being born. As they follow her progress through the seasons a special relationship develops between boy and seal, cemented when the seal saves the boy from drowning.

This is an exceptional picture book of simple, powerful concepts. Michael Foreman is in brilliant form, exulting in the opalescent blues of the storms and calms of his beloved Cornish coastline. There is much to explore here - the cycle of birth and death, the rhythm of the seasons, humankind's symbiosis with nature and the courage to accept life as it comes. The real challenge, though, is in the understated and totally unsentimental portrayal of a hero who happens to be disabled.

The setting of Indigo and the Whale by Joyce Dunbar, illustrated by Geoffrey Patterson (Frances Lincoln Pounds 9.99) is more Mediterranean - the colours rich and exotic. Indigo longs to be a musician but his father wants him to be a fisherman and throws away his ebony pipe. When his father falls ill, Indigo must bring back a catch or they will starve. But instead of fish it is a whale who, charmed by Indigo's new rainbow pipe, follows the boat inshore. As the whale's life ebbs away, all the colours fade. Indigo is so sorry he destroys the rainbow pipe which releases the enchantment. His own pipe reappears and he finds he can play the whale's song. At last his father accepts him as a musician.

This is a cautionary tale; it has a subtle but commanding environmental message. It is a pity that in some places the illustrations and text feel constricted. A larger format might have helped.

A more obviously "green" tale is The Smallest Whale by Elisabeth Beresford. based on a real-life incident off Alderney (Orchard Pounds 9.99). Accidentally separated from his family, a baby whale mistakes a fishing boat for his mother and follows it into harbour. The fisherman's son, Josh, gathers his friends to help keep the beached whale from drying out before the tide rises to float him off. This is a reassuring, warm-hearted story of a community pulling together. The "naive"-style artwork by Susan Field gives an unusual bird's-eye-view of events. But ultimately the book is rather prosaic.

Lord of the Winds by Maggie Pearson, illustrated by Helen Ong (Magi Pounds 8.99) is an allegorical tale about human rights from the original African story, "The Eagle That Would Not Fly". A hunter captures an eagle thinking that he can train it to hunt for him. But he is afraid of the pecking eagle and cages it. The eagle pines away until the hunter's granddaughter notices the pathetic bird. Contrite, the hunter releases the eagle but instead of flying away the once proud bird is content to pick among the chickens. The granddaughter suggests that the eagle should be returned to the mountains. Then at last it soars into the sky to freedom.

Helen Ong's paintings are dark and brooding one minute, clear and serene the next. Together with the lyrical prose they create a magnificent picture book, and one that will provoke discussion on injustice and oppression.

A respect for other people's culture and way of life also underlies Muhamad's Desert Night, a story of the Tuareg people by Cristina Kessler (Gollancz Pounds 8.99Pounds 3.99). Muhamad, learning the ways of the desert, takes his father's herd of goats to graze every day and dreams of the time when he will pass a test of courage and can wear a man's blue turban.

One day one of the goats lags behind and he realises that he will have to spend the night in the desert while the goat gives birth - first night as a true nomad.

Beautifully told, this remarkable picture book is a celebration of a threatened way of life. Ian Schoenherr's paintings magnificently capture the vast open spaces and the dramatic contrasts of light.

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