Life's rich seesaw

12th March 2004 at 00:00
Alvie Eats Soup

By Ross Collins

Oxford University Press pound;4.99

Watch Out Wilf!

By Jan Fearnley

Walker Books pound;10.99

Yuk! (a Daisy book)

By Kes Gray Illustrated by Nick Sharratt

Bodley Head pound;10.99

Dog Story

By Kathy Henderson

Illustrated by Brita Granstrom

Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;9.99

Adults and children sit opposite one another on life's seesaw, and here are four books that track the ups and downs with empathy, insight, and energy. For teachers, these stories are not only excellent springboards for all sorts of class discussions and projects, but good reads that will enchant key stage 1 pupils (to heck with the literacy hour "ck" phoneme lesson!).

Alvie Eats Soup is Ross Collins's best picture book yet. Alvie's obsession with soup is the bane of his mum and dad's existence. Parental anxieties about eating are caricatured in the extreme measures mum and dad take to persuade single-minded Alvie to expand his diet. But in spite of their hand-wringing, the soup truck delivers weekly, and Alvie thrives. When Alvie's celebrity chef granny comes to visit, his parents fear she'll be shocked and disappointed with his singular diet. There isn't an illustrator in Britain who uses a more intelligent visual storytelling language; Collins somehow manages to combine the cosy stasis of Maxfield Parrish with a dynamic modernist angularity and make his books warm, child-friendly, and hip. Surreal domestic settings, unique visual metaphors, and pathos are essential ingredients of this remarkably nutritious book.

Jan Fearnley's Watch Out Wilf! is a cautionary tale with a twist and a warm heart. Wilf, a young mouse, fails to pay attention to his mother's words of warning, and inevitably gets into scrape after scrape. The setting is an outdoor mouse-world but all the miniature hazards are none the less familiar: climbing too high and falling off flowers, getting muddy while goofing off with a frog. Mother's litany, "I wish you'd listen to me," comes back to haunt her when the roles are unexpectedly reversed and she fails to listen to Wilf's words of warning. This modern style of cautionary tale is a far cry from the "mama knows best" narrative or the scare stories of an earlier generation. Watch Out Wilf! proves that small disasters are best made light with sympathy, and that dispensing wisdom is best done with humility and love.

Yuk! shows how tricky it can be for adults and a headstrong child to agree on matters of taste. Daisy is forced to try on a series of bridesmaid dresses she finds universally yucky. The compromise she makes with her mother and aunty is that she'll only wear a dress if she can invent it herself. I defy anyone to predict what Daisy's dress will look like, but your class will enjoy trying. The Daisy books (including You Do! and Eat Your Peas) are characterised by Sharratt's graphic minimalism and Gray's sharp, subversive storylines. Throughout the series, the easygoing illustrations interfold with a painstakingly tooled story.

If you're a parent engaged in battle with a child bugging you for a dog, then steer well clear of Dog Story. Elegant and catchy as a well-crafted jingle, Dog Story makes an unlikely case for dog ownership, highlighting the disappointments of "lesser" pets. Jo harasses her parents for a dog for the duration of her mother's pregnancy. Understandably, mum and dad repeatedly say "no" to the extra hassle, expense, and spatial requirements involved.

Then well-meaning but clueless "Far-Away Granny" brings Jo the unwelcome canine right after the baby is born. All ends happily, but I could then only imagine a sequel, Computer Story, in which Jo further impoverishes mum and dad by pestering them to buy a new 2GHz PC in order to run the noisy, addictive, power-hungry computer game given to her by Far-Away Granny. Although the book is illustrated in an innocent line-and-wash style, it could well be the most subversive picture book currently in print. Extremely well-written and enjoyable, it is likely to be seized upon by pet-mad children.

Ted Dewan is creator of the Bing Bunny series (David Fickling Books) and the Crispin picture books (Doubleday)

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