Monster fare;Children's Books

15th October 1999 at 01:00
THERE'S A WARDROBE IN MY MONSTER! By Adrienne Geoghegan. Illustrated by Adrian Johnson. Bloomsbury pound;9.99

MADELEINE THE CITY PIG. By Karen Wallace. Illustrated by Lydia Monks. Macmillan pound;9.99

NORMA NO FRIENDS. By Paula Metcalf. Barefoot pound;9.99

LIKE LIKES LIKE. By Chris Raschka. Dorling Kindersley pound;9.99

SCARLETTE BEANE. By Karen Wallace. Illustrations by Jon Berkeley. Oxford University Press pound;9.99

SIMPLY DELICIOUS. By Margaret Mahy. Illustrated by Jonathan Allen. Frances Lincoln pound;9.99

Jane Doonan finds some tasty ingredients in the latest picture book offerings

Picture books can too often be comfortingly familiar: here are some which are decidedly different. Their makers are thinking freshly about ways to open our eyes both to old ideas and to new artwork.

Adrienne Geoghegan's cautionary tale, There's a Wardrobe in my Monster! challenges gender stereotyping. Have we ever met an anti-heroine as outrageous as Martha? She's bored with traditional pets and, against the advice of the store owner, insists on buying a wood-eating monster. And we don't often see picture book illustration like Adrian Johnson's, in which sophisticated design is carried by simplified imagery, brilliant colour, and elegant line. The layout plays around with time and space in horizontal bands, and cheeky little arrows point the viewer in the right direction. The pet shop setting is a minor miracle of slightly skewed perspective, hard-edged shapes and zinging hues.

In the next three picture books, the central character goes out and changes life by taking on life, but each shows it in a totally original way. In Madeleine the City Pig, artist Lydia Monks brushes in the backgrounds with semi-opaque paint, and builds the images from spirited crayon drawing, collage elements of fabric and snippets of paper, plus flourishes of dots, dabs and squiggles. Karen Wallace's contemporary fable about a round pig in a square hole plays against the usual anthropomorphic association with greediness. Madeleine isn't greedy: she knows she has it all - important job, penthouse flat, designer clothes - but something's missing. She heads off for the country, there to discover her true self in a field of mobile-phone-free porkers.

Norma No Friends, Paula Metcalf's first picture book, is a visual feat - unconventional images, beautiful bold compositions, and unusual combinations of high key colour. She works in paper collage with closed outlines, the large-scale figures with huge heads looming off the picture plane and engaging with the beholder. The story, a touch too earnest but charmingly absurd, is about Norma Friends, who is shy about her middle name, "No". Just having it makes her lonely, until she meets up with Nelly No Friends and they change their middle names to Rose and Rhododendron, respectively. You can guess the rest.

In Like Likes Like, by Chris Raschka, two cats (one white, one brown, both looking for a mate) move from opposite ends of the book towards a meeting. The artwork is deceptively pure and simple, but notice how background colour is used to evoke emotional mood, how sensuously the grainy charcoal licks round the cat shapes, and how convincingly the stylised image is endowed with vitality. A playful minimalist text moves along in feline rhythms.

A tribute to green fingers - rare in picture books - is cultivated with humour in Scarlette Beane by Karen Wallace, illustrated by Jon Berkeley. Bulldozers and fork-lift trucks are needed to lift young Scarlette's carrots and onions. Dreams come true when she grows a castle out of vegetables as a new family home. Arcimboldo, the 16th-century painter of fantastic heads composed of greengrocery, would have marvelled at this bizarre sight.

Margaret Mahy re-routes the traditional cumulative tale and gives it a surprise ending, in Simply Delicious. Mr Minty takes a short cut through the jungle on his bike to carry a double-dip-chocolate-chip and cherry ice cream, with rainbow twinkles and chopped nut sprinkles, to his son. Evasive action is called for as ice-cream-crazy creatures give chase. Jonathan Allen's clean-line style and his varying perspectives illuminate the action.

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