Fresh perspectives

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Jane Doonan selects picture books to bring young readers' imaginations into play

The Conquerors

By David McKee

Andersen Press, pound;10.99

The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit

By Christopher Wormell

Jonathan Cape, pound;10.99

The Puddleman

By Raymond Briggs

Bodley Head, pound;10.99

Once Upon an Ordinary School Day

By Colin McNaughton

Illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura

Andersen Press, pound;10.99

There are whole new worlds for children to enjoy, ponder over, talk about, and return to, inside the covers of these recent picture books.

David McKee, on top form, delivers The Conquerors, a peaceable parable about winning friends, rather than making foes. A large country is ruled by a general who attacks nearby countries for their own good. Eventually, only one uninvaded country is left and it surprises the general by integrating his forces, rather than resisting them. The aggressors gain a new perspective on life and generous ways of being, which return with them when they go home, until in subtle ways the values of the large country is changed.

So who won - those with firearms or those with open arms? Playground veterans might assess their personal strategies and their teachers can link the book to several areas of the curriculum. A simple wiry line and crayon carries David McKee's consummate cartooning.

The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit by Chris Wormell has an unusual closure for a younger child's book, and profound themes accessibly presented. It nourished seedling philosophers in Years 1 to 3 of my local primary, on various levels. It's the secret history of how a monster, so ugly that his looks wither nature and send animals fleeing, resorts to making a stone rabbit his friend. Although the rabbit does nothing but just "sit there", his very existence makes the monster happy. The monster ages and one day goes into his cave forever; the barren countryside regenerates.

The tale is wise and true in what it implies about need, appearance, friendship and contentment, and a beautiful work visually, pictured in a bold grainy line and breath-taking hues. As for the ugly monster, actually he looks like the benevolent first cousin to a Wild Thing.

Raymond Briggs takes off down a characteristically idiosyncratic path in The Puddleman, a portrait of a lively relationship between the generations in which imagination is given full play, together with a fantastic proposal for the origin of puddles: the eponymous hero fits them by hand.

During a dry spell, young Tom, who has named puddles after members of his family, takes his grandfather for a walk to see how they're doing.

Grandfather says the puddles won't be there, but with lead and collar fixed on his wrist, he goes along pretending to be Tom's dog - a game they enjoy together.

The old boy is in for a big surprise. Lightly drawn grainy images on strip format panels treat the ensuing magic as a matter of fact.

The book comfortably straddles the early school years. Very young children will have tales of games with grandparents, or older children will find plenty to smile about on walks, and newly independent readers will feel encouraged to negotiate the dialogue, delivered in speech balloons, comics-style.

Colin McNaughton and Satoshi Kitamura's collaboration proves that we don't know what we are capable of achieving until someone inspirational nudges us into trying. In Once Upon an Ordinary School Day everything is just as usual for the central character, a little boy, until a new teacher Mr Gee bounds into the classroom. He carries a gramophone and a record of tempestuous music (by maestro Klaus Flugge, the book's publisher) to stimulate creative writing.

The ordinary children discover that they have extraordinary talents: the viewer joins the young hero on his adventurous tale, which becomes literally too wonderful for words.

The illustrations are in grey or sepia monotone, until the arrival of Mr Gee, after which the pictured world is increasingly orchestrated in Kitamura's extraordinarily beautiful colour. It's time for a musical interlude in the literacy hour, for Year 2.

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