Hope springs eternal

20th June 2003 at 01:00
Jane Doonan chooses picture books to help children deal with loss, death and separation


Evie and the Man Who Helped God

By Michael Foreman Andersen Press pound;10.99

Petar's Song

By Pratima Mitchell Illustrated by Caroline Binch Frances Lincoln pound;10.99

Up in Heaven

By Emma Chichester Clark Andersen pound;9.99

Lovely Old Roly

By Michael Rosen Illustrated by Priscilla Lamont Frances Lincoln pound;5.99


By Alexis Deacon Random House pound;10.99


By Posy Simmonds Random House pound;5.99

Separation, loss and death are counterbalanced by hope for the future and a sense of renewal in this collection of picture books. Michael Foreman's Evie and the Man Who Helped God is structured on the concept of time, linking the human life cycle to that of nature. The story about the relationship between an old gardener and a young child, Evie, spans two years, beginning in the spring. When he dies, Evie knows how to take up his spade. As well as richly painted full-page frames complete with a "spot the robin" recurring motif, the text panels are decorated lavishly with leaves, flowers, insects and birds.

Petar's Song is a cameo tale showing the impact of war on ordinary people.

It opens in a village community in Eastern Europe; armed conflict comes, the valley is under fire, a family is separated. The mother takes her three children over the mountains to the West where they live as refugees. The father stays behind, promising to join them. Petar, the oldest child, who plays the violin, has no heart for music but, at Christmas, he realises that he can make a special gift for his absent father - a song of peace.

Petar's recovery brings Pratima Mitchell's story to a moving conclusion.

Illustrator Caroline Binch's highly accomplished style produces near photo-realism; she draws with the brush, and figures and settings appear almost perforated with light.

Up in Heaven, by Emma Chichester Clark, is about coming to terms with the death of a pet, Daisy, an old dog belonging to young Arthur and his family.

Daisy dies and goes to a paradise of flowers and comfy chairs. She can run around again, she finds friends, and she can see everything she has known down on earth. It would be perfect but for one thing: Arthur is inconsolable. To help him through his grieving, Daisy sends him dreams, including one of a puppy, and Arthur is able to make the dream come true.

Golden yellow, both as local colour and reflected light, provides visual links between Daisy's celestial fields and Arthur's home ground.

Michael Rosen's Lovely Old Roly, now in paperback, has the same theme, although the hope for the future comes in the back door on four paws. Roly the cat dies, and his young owners lose their zest for play. After a while, a persistent stray wins her way into the household. While the children love their new cat, old Roly is still very much present in their reflective moments. Priscilla Lamont pictures it in line and wash. But the anthropomorphic all-too-knowing expressions she gives the cat are at odds with Rosen's subtle text and its focus on the process of recovery.

The heroine of Alexis Deacon's second picture book, Beegu, is an infant extraterrestrial being with three eyes and long floppy ears. She gets lost and finds herself in a very strange place. No one can understand her: she speaks to rabbits, a tree and leaves in vain. By the time she is reunited with her parents she has learnt that Earth creatures are mostly big and unfriendly, though small ones accept differences readily. The artwork is powerful, with sombre hues and black shadows. A school playground sequence shows a radical change of technique which in effect defamiliarises the familiar - not so much how Beegu might be seeing the scene, but how she is experiencing it. Decoding Beegu's pictogram speech balloons adds another dimension.

All together now: "Caterwauley-waily-woe"; lay wreaths and feast (from dustbins). A new paperback edition of Posy Simmonds' Fred celebrates the life of her feline creation, the much loved pet of Sophie and Nick, whose story was first published 25 years ago. Fred's lost none of his charisma.

When he dies, his owners discover that this seemingly lazy cat had a double life as lead singer in a pop group.

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