The main draw

16th June 2006 at 01:00
From surreal to eerily cosy and beyond, Ted Dewan enjoys a sophisticated bunch of visual texts;The Opposite

By Tom Macrae

Illustrated By Elena Odriozola

Andersen Press Pounds .

While You Are Sleeping

By Alexis Deacon

Hutchinson Pounds .

The Adventures Of The Dish And The Spoon

By Mini Grey

Jonathan Cape Pounds .

Captain Abdul'S Little Treasure

By Colin Mcnaughton

Walker Books Pounds.

Shark And Lobster'S Amazing Undersea Adventure

By Viviane Schwarz

Illustrated By Joel Stewart

Walker Books Pounds.

Picture-book publishing has been suffering a slump, but certainly not because authors and illustrators have failed to create material worthy of the most important readers of all - the young. All but one of the books in this selection are from newer artists and writers, proving that the picture-book form still has the power to pull the best talent.

In Tom MacRae and Elena Odriozola's story, hapless Nate is bedevilled by his nemesis, the eponymous Opposite, a mischievous spectre who wreaks havoc by mysteriously making everything that Nate attempts to do go wrong. He is falsely accused when his milk spills or his schoolwork isn't up to scratch when it is clearly The Opposite causing the mayhem, but Nate makes clever use of reverse psychology to defeat this spectral nuisance.

You could be forgiven for mistaking this philosophical and surreal story for a rediscovered classic from the 1960s, an impression aided by the creepy and intriguing Edward Gorey-esque atmosphere created by Odriozola's sophisticated and stylish illustrations.

Alexis Deacon handles the familiar subject of toys coming to life at night with grace and enchantment in While You Are Sleeping (pictured below).

Every one of Deacon's muted illustrations depicts a chosen moment in the nocturnal toil of bedtime toys as they monitor and protect their sleeping charge. The text describes the bedside toys' litany of duties, while the illustrations follow a new toy's first night on the job. Despite its small size, the newbie performs heroically and earns a place among the bedside toy A-team. The book's eerie cosiness and exquisite figure drawing is loaded with heart. Deacon manages to be sweet without being cute, demonstrating his expertise in saying just enough with his text and pictures, leaving plenty of room for the reader's imagination.

In The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon (pictured above), picture-book It-girl Mini Grey (whose Biscuit Bear is shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal) tells the further adventures of the Dish and the Spoon made famous in the nursery rhyme Hey Diddle Diddle. Spoon tells the story of the couple's runaway success as an acrobatic act, their high living, their downfall and descent into the underworld, and their eventual comeback. The story works best if readers are familiar with the conventions of such rags-to-riches-to-rags stories. Full of references to the other elements of the original nursery rhyme, Grey's sophisticated mixture of hand-drawing and computer imagery rewards repeated readings, calling to mind the seminal work of Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka. I'm keeping copies of this book on hand to give out as wedding cards.

Colin McNaughton returns to the world of pirates in Captain Abdul's Little Treasure. Captain Abdul's secret family life is revealed when his battleaxe wife unexpectedly dumps their young son aboard The Golden Behind and his pirates are suddenly stuck with a week's babysitting. This book is naughty-boy heaven, all splotchy skin, smelly feet, and horrendous piratese word-torture, underpinned by a comic-strip aesthetic.

Captain Abdul comic-stripbooks are especially good for attracting children of the age when they demand longer and more sophisticated texts with lots of wordplay, but are unwilling to have their colour pictures whisked away from them by well-meaning word-chauvinist teachers and parents.

Shark and Lobster's Amazing Undersea Adventure is a political allegory with a light touch. Mass hysteria hits the undersea world as rumours of an imaginary threat from an alien creature called a tiger spur aquatic animals, great and small, into defensive action. When a sea monster is press-ganged into acting as the ultimate defensive weapon, it turns out to be a far bigger threat than the perceived threat of tigers. Using a semi-comics format throughout, Shark and Lobster's Amazing Undersea Adventure is imaginative and original, apart from the book's lazy title.

Wouldn't I just love to sneak copies of this book into the White House and the Houses of Parliament.

Ted Dewan's third Crispin the Pig book is published by Doubleday

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