11th August 2000 at 01:00
VISION OF BEAUTY: THE STORY OF SARAH BREEDLOVE WALKER. By Kathryn Lasky. Illustrated by Nneka Bennett. Candlewick Press Walker Books pound;10.99.

LONELY WASP. By Charles Fuge and Vicki Churchill Oxford University Press pound;4.99.

WHERE DO YOU COME FROM SAM? By Lesley Yoneda. Pen Press Publishers pound;3.99 Enquiries to 39-41 North Road, London N7 9DP. FAMILY TREE. By Pierre Coran. Illustrated by Marie-Jose Sacre. Carolrhoda Books pound;9.99. Distributed by Turnaroundtel: 020 8829 3000.

WHAT DID I LOOK LIKE WHEN I WAS A BABY? By Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross. Andersen Press pound;9.99.

SUPERHARE. By Helme Heine. Hazar pound;4.99

In a busy and confusing world, identity is everything. Working out who are we, where we come from, what we believe in and how we should live our lives is an essential part of growing up into a confident person able to play a full part in society.

As they grow up children are constantly looking to the past, asking questions about what they were like as babies - about their family history, about how they might be different from others - and then constantly thinking about the years ahead, what they want to be, how they want to shape their future. A number of recent picture books deal ably with some of these issues.

Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker is the powerful story of a black girl born just after the abolition of slavery in the Southern United States, whose vision and hopes of being proud and successful made her one of the richest and mostinfluential women of her time.

Sarah might have been free, but her family was poor, working the cotton plantations as sharecroppers, vulnerable to consumption and cholera and to the White Brotherhood and Ku Klux Klan members who burned down their schools.

But Sarah dreamed of being assured, healthy and well-dressed, and despite her profound deprivation put aside money for education and to buy ingredients in order to make cosmetics suited to black women's skin and hair.

She founded the Mme C J Walker Manufacturing Company, which produced alternative products to those of most other firms. Her vision of beauty was that of a proud black woman, not of a white man telling her how she should look. This moving story is beautifully and simply told, and complemented by Bennet's clear narrative drawings.

Lasky's imaginative recreation of this history breathes new life into the lesson of Breedlove Walker's life - that a vision of self-worth can help you to achieve against all the odds.

Lonely Wasp isvery different in style and format, but the message is similar - a belief in who you are and what you can do is an enormous help on life's journey.

Bugs are in vogue, and Fuge's insect characters will no doubt appeal to young readers. His dragonflies, grasshoppers and stick insects, as well as his enormous blubbery toad, are keenly observed, yet animated with wit and imagination - illustrationat its most inventive and assured.

Churchill's accompanying text relates the story of a wasp who has no friends because everybody is afraid of him - until a dragonfly comes to his aid. Wasp, however, proves his worth when Toad makes an appearance.

In the global village, parents can end up working in a variety of countries far from home, which can be confusing for their children. Where Do You Come From Sam? is the story of a little boy, the author's son, who grew up in Germany and now lives in England, and whose opera-singing Scottish mother and Japanese father communicate only in Italian.

Sam's mind starts to turn somersaults when his teacher does the rounds in class asking that very innocent but potentially most troublesome question, "Where do you come from?" Yoneda's expressive and comic line drawings make a wonderful accompaniment to this humorous tale.

Family Tree is a wonderful portrayal of a little girl and her attempts to explore and find her own place in a family tree. This includes great grandmother Allegra, who once owned a circus, and her cousins, Peter and Tom, identical twins who couldn't be less alike in character.

Sacre's illustrations are a joy, with luscious colours and shapes combined with warm humour and graphic inventiveness. They bring the story to life, giving it enormous resonance.

What Did I Look Like When I was a Baby? explores with great hilarity that question all children ask. Many older children are often horrified by the sight of themselves as a red-faced, scrawny new-born, and so little Bullfrog is horrified when he sees pictures of himself as a tadpole. But all ends well - and it ends with a song: score, lyrics and all. This is a delightful, rip-roaring tale. Willis's light, zippy text is given added zest by Ross's sublimely funny illustrations.

Superhare is a cautionary tale about the disasters that can ensue if you try to be other than what you are. You might be able to fool others, but in the end the truth will out. Heine's manic, slightly surreal but immensely know-ledgeable illustrations add real bite to this sobering fable.

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