Italy at a stroke

11th October 1996 at 01:00
Elaine Williams gets lost in the ravishing landscapes of Shirley Hughes's new picture book. ENCHANTMENT IN THE GARDEN By Shirley Hughes Bodley Head Pounds 9.99.

A picture storybook that will entice older children is a rare commodity. In a world where young people's visual language is informed by an action-packed TV screen or the hard-edged graphics of comic and magazine, it takes an ambitious illustrator to attempt to create an alternative as radically different as that conjured by Shirley Hughes.

Enchantment in the Garden entices the reader into a mythological world set in the ravishing dream-like landscapes of Italy. This is the story of Valerie, a lonely, rich Italian girl whose daily life outside the splendid house in which she lives is confined to walks in parks and gardens, constantly chaperoned by her governess.

On these walks her imagination takes flight and she falls in love with a statue of a beautiful boy straddling a dolphin, and brings him to life. Her Cherubino, as she christens him, is the son of a sea god, and though he becomes her adored companion, he rebels against the cloying constraints imposed by her bourgeois family.

The tale is made all the more compelling by illustrations which draw the reader into the drama. Enchantment presents an opportunity to dream and explore through the still image - an opportunity Shirley Hughes believes many older children severely lack.

Atmospheric pictures awash with blues, violets and ochres are reminiscent of Pierre Bonnard; rich, free brushstrokes matched by fine detail of character rendered in line make the pages of this story shimmer and leap, changes of mood communicated through colour.

While so many books present drama through hard line and primary colour, Shirley Hughes attempts to entice through her knowledge of post-Impressionist painting.

This book, vast and operatic in its conception, is a far cry from the world of the Alfie books, in which she captured the daily life of a London street through the wondering eyes of a small child, down to a fascination with putting on socks. Even her more recent Stories By Firelight, which takes a leap into myth and magic, has an innately English quality to it in both narrative and use of colour.

Shirley Hughes has been visiting Italy for years, keeping sketchbooks in which she uses colour freely, sweeping over landscapes, drawing people in bars, making "masses of notes" on paintings she sees in galleries. In Enchantment, for the first time what she refers to as "this side of my life that nobody has known about" has directly informed her book illustration to stunning effect.

This is one of the most effectively laid-out picture books I have seen. Rolling landscapes, stormy seascapes and luscious garden scenes spread lavishly over double pages, while sumptuous interiors, characterisation, or some gem of narrative detail are presented in narrower panels or small black-and-white drop-ins below the text.

Shirley Hughes wanted to create a romance that "a boy might also allow himself to enjoy". Cherubino's ultimate rebellion certainly appealed to my sons. This story does not have a happy ending, but it does present hope in the triumph of nature and the wilder gods over the man-made world. The book has a deep ecological message that will appeal to all young people.

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