Get your teeth into a literary feast

15th December 2006 at 00:00
Jane Doonan serves up picture books good enough to eat

Delicious! A Pumpkin Soup Story Helen Cooper Doubleday Pounds . Four to seven-year-olds

The Incredible Book Eating Boy By Oliver JeffersHarper Collins pound;10.99 Five to nine-year-olds

Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook for Young Readers and Eaters By Jane Yolen, Heidi E Y Stemple and Philippe Beha Tradewind Books (Canada) Pounds 17.99

Six to 11-year-olds

Silly Billy By Anthony Browne Walker Books pound;10.99

That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown By Cressida Cowell and Neal LaytonOrchard Books pound;10.99 Four to seven-year-olds

The Emperor of Absurdia By Chris Riddell Macmillan pound;10.99 Five to eight-year-olds

Feasts of all kinds are waiting to be enjoyed within the covers of this selection of picture books. Delicious! is Helen Cooper's third book starring Duck, Cat and Squirrel, whose lives revolve around making and eating pumpkin soup. However, circumstances force the trio to try a different dish, and, in quick succession, fish soup, mushroom soup and beetroot soup get thrown away because Duck is a very fussy eater.

What a waste, you might say. Well, no. Helen Cooper has two stories running simultaneously. While the kitchen is in turmoil, bugs and beetles are ingeniously making good use of what goes down the drain. As for the vibrantly painted pictures, she can imbue a wooden spoon with an aura, and bestow joviality on uncooked beetroot; the portrait of Squirrel looking at a mushroom has such presence that it is the picture-book equivalent of a Holbein.

Henry, hero of Oliver Jeffers' The Incredible Book Eating Boy, loves books.

He began by eating words, moved on to sentences, then whole books - all kinds of them. (He has Moby Dick with chips.) The more he eats, the smarter he gets, which suits him fine because he wants to be the smartest person on earth.

When indigestion catches up with him, he takes to reading books and feasting on broccoli. The sophisticated visual style of this book, on Richard and Judy's Christmas shortlist, will interest a wide age range. An abundance of wry humour is carried on paper stock which mimics all kinds of pages: faded, mellowed, printed, lined and squared. Colour is muted, cartooning is elegant. The whole thing looks good enough to eat, which is probably why Henry has lapsed and nibbled the back cover.

Folk and fairy tales often feature food, and children enjoy cooking. Put the two together, stir well and you have Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook for Young Readers and Eaters, with tales retold by Jane Yolen, recipes by Heidi E Y Stemple, and illustrations by Philippe Beha. They've done it brilliantly. Each of the 20 tales is accompanied by a robust illustration, and a recipe (Jack's Magic Party Beans, Cinderella's Pumpkin Tartlets, etc).

Notes in the margins record the tale's history and facts about the foods.

Did you know, for example, that one of the first references to soup appears in a Chinese poem of the third century BC? The recipes, which require various levels of skill and adult supervision, cover mealtimes from breakfast to dinner, and encourage healthy eating.

There's food for thought in the next three books. Anthony Browne sympathetically explores irrational childhood worries in Silly Billy, and, though not a chimp, the main character bears a strong resemblance to Willy the Wimp. Billy is a chronic worrier at bedtime. His parents try unsuccessful-ly to cuddle his fears away, but when he stays at Grandma's, she gives him tiny Guatemalan worry dolls to project his anxiety on to.

When Billy worries about worrying the dolls, he acts independently and resolves his problem. The story is illustrated in Browne's characteristic style of non-photographic realism.

On the wall above Billy's head, when he's in bed at his Grandma's, hangs a reproduction of Caspar David Friedrich's famous oil painting, "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog". It's a touching sign for Billy's state of mind at that point of the story.

That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown (another Richard and Judy choice) shows that love cannot be bought. Emily concocts wonderful adventures for herself and her old, grey toy rabbit, Stanley: Outer Space, the Sahara Desert, the Barrier Reef, all lie just on the other side of her kitchen door. When the envious Queen Gloriana repeatedly tries to buy Stanley from Emily, the answer is always the same: he is not for sale. When the Queen has Stanley stolen, Emily goes straight round to the palace to get him back and offer the Queen some sound advice. Neal Layton's mixed media artwork, displaying a range of stylistic approaches - from purposeful scribble to sophisticated com-puter graphics - mirrors the freedom of Emily's imagination.

An extraordinary dream world is vividly portrayed in Chris Riddell's The Emperor of Absurdia. Here skyfish nibble at umbrella trees, supper is served before lunch, and the ruler - who looks all of five years old - gets dressed by his hir-sute Wardrobe Monster. The emperor's main pursuit for the day is a hunt for a baby dragon, there's a change of plan, and the final scene, in a small boy's bedroom, makes sense of it all. Chris Riddell doesn't underestimate the ability of young children to make meanings from visual cues, and this picture book will sustain many revisits

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