Guess what I did, mum?

30th May 1997 at 01:00
NICKY. By Tony and Zoe Ross. Andersen Press, Pounds 8.99

THE SPOTTY PIG. By Dick King-Smith. Illustrated by Mary Wormell. Gollancz,Pounds 8.99

WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE, BRIAN? By Jeanne Willis. Illustrated by Mary Rees.Andersen Press. Pounds 8.99

THE BAND OVER THE HILL. By Shirley Isherwood and Reg Cartwright. Hutchinson. Pounds 9.99

SING, SOPHIE! By Dayle Ann Dodds and Rosanne Litzinger. Walker, Pounds 9.99

Elaine Williams looks at picture books about growing up

The first day at school. A major landmark in life's journey, with parents and children full of anticipation and anxiety. But the moment when children realise school is forever and not just a one-off adventure is when trouble can really start.

The simplest ideas are so often the best, and Tony Ross has dealt with this early rite of passage with the same zany simplicity with which he wrote and illustrated I Want My Potty. We all know little girls like this one. She's not going to school - she'll be the littlest, she won't know anybody, school dinners will make her sick and "Marcia says the teachers will bite me". Her mother - perky, stylish, nail-varnished, looking very new Labour - gets her there by various degrees of subterfuge.

The girl emerges from the first day full of beans, full of her new friend "Nicky" - whom the relieved mother immediately invites to stay the night (a little disturbing). Everything goes swimmingly until the girls cry: "Tomorrow? You mean we have to go again tomorrow?" The drawing is loose, open and spontaneous, building up webs of coloured pencil strokes. It is sophisticated yet shares the energy of a child's drawing. It is witty and original, displaying canny characterisation that really gets inside the minds of both child and mother. This has joined the to-be-read-over-and-over-again pile.

Dick King-Smith has come up with a simple farmyard fable for children exploring their identities. Spotty pig doesn't like his spots and tries every way possible to get rid of them until an attractive spotty female pig turns up to teach him the error of his ways. It's a classic tale illustrated in a classic way - Mary Wormell's handcuts following in the pastoral tradition of Edward Bawden. If anything, they're a little heavy, but the book has ready appeal for early readers.

Brian does not have an identity crisis. He knows exactly what he wants to be. What Do You Want to be, Brian? is about adults' aspirations for their children - a gentle dig at pushy, middle-class parents who want to structure their children's time to maximise their development. Whatever happened to letting children be children? Mum wants Brian to be a violinist, the greatest since Yehudi Menuhin; his father dreams of his computer buff son; his older sister forces him into ballet tights; his uncle wants a jockey. But Brian has no doubts - he wants to be "the most ordinary little boy in the world".

This is a whimsical, quirky book. Mary Rees's illustrations, very much in the tradition of Quentin Blake, are entertaining but over-busy at times.It's a sophisticated product that I suspect will have more resonance for adults than children.

The Band Over the Hill is the latest - and best so far - in the series about Mr Manders, the bear who roleplays his way through life with his long-suffering sidekick Edward James. This time they rush to the dressing-up box after seeing a brass band marching past and spend the rest of the book in luscious red and gold uniforms, searching streets and parks for the musicians.

This book uses the genre of naive painting, loaded with stylised figures and landscapes, full of references to the paintings of Henri Rousseau and Beryl Cook. But the sight of these red figures crashing through the pages is child-enticing.

Sing, Sophie! is the story of a cowgirl with a song in her heart that's bursting to come out. Nobody wants to hear it until a stormy night and a crying baby requires her special skills. The songs have a lovely cowgirl rhythm to them and a special message - hang on in there and your time will come.

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