Mortal fear of what's taboo

6th September 1996 at 01:00
THE CAROUSEL. By Liz Rosenberg Illustrated by Jim Lamarche Orchard Pounds 9.99.

THE MAGPIE'S SONG. By Laurence Anholt. Illustrated by Dan Williams. Heinemann Pounds 8.99.

CLOUDLAND. By John Burningham. Jonathan Cape Pounds 9.99.

THE KITE AND CAITLIN. By Roger McGough. Illustrated by John Prater. Bodley Head Pounds 9.99

HEAVEN By Nicholas Allan. Hutchinson Pounds 6.99.

Naomi Lewis studies picture-book treatment of death and loss.

Death - a brave new junior subject? Hardly. Even in the main years of taboo (roughly the Twenties, Thirties and Forties), history, myth and fairy tale, Robin Hood and King Arthur (all abounding in corpses) were exempt. Nursery rhymes freely presented their curious plaintive deaths and violences.

Yet even nearer to our time - never mind the horror books and media crudities - the sense of taboo has lingered. That Narnian death-book, The Last Battle, was thought daring in 1956. So, in 1978, was K Paterson's The Bridge to Terebithia (a child's loss of a close child friend), now held as an innovative classic of the genre and recently republished by Puffin.

This caution about death diminishes other elements, most of all the element of grief. And grief is a complex feeling; the death of someone loved is not only a loss but a vast infidelity. It was the old dogmatic assurances that made the Victorian child-death scenes so compelling and so possible. Readers weep over them still. When the child Jane Eyre was sternly catechised, "And what must you do to avoid going to Hell?" her response was prompt: "I must keep in good health and not die." An enjoyably pert reply, we like to think (perhaps wrongly), but one with its basis of belief. This cannot be readily called on now.

Death is the linking theme of the storied picture-books here. I doubt if any is therapeutically meant. They are not easy weepies, though The Kite and Caitlin does draw on the Victorian well of tears. As for the afterlife, the only one with even a hint of convention is the funniest, and it's about a dog. But what every story, poem or picture holds for a very young child is experience - of feeling, fact and thought. What's here of these for the wondering five-to-eights?

Of the books that deal with loss, The Carousel has the most interesting approach. An hour contains the whole dream-like fantasy - two young sisters, walking home from school in a February twilight, have their dead mother much in mind. They stop at the carousel, shrouded in canvas, its machinery broken. "Mum used to say that the horses woke in spring," the younger girl reflects. Suddenly they hear whinnying. They lift the cloth and the painted horses soar into the air. The pictures strongly mirror the text - the darkening dusk, the wild flight of the horses, the practical expertise as the girls mend the machinery, the return to their waiting Dad. The grief today is spent.

In The Magpie's Song, the tale - again one of loss - is told through letters between grandfather and grandchild. He, wise and kind, writes from his woodland home, she from the hated city where her father is looking for work. When Grandad gives news of a magpie's nest in a hollow tree, he recalls the old rhyme: "One for sorrow" and the rest. It runs through the story like a prophecy. Sharing the letters over months, the reader too can feel a grief at Grandad's death - though the "secret" does bring happiness. The bold illustrations work well in scenes, both urban and rustic. The life-size magpie is fine, less so the realistic close view of human faces (Carla's, Dad's). But I do commend this book; its story and detail live.

Afterlife? Well, when nothing's proven, the mind is free to range. In his huge and splendid Cloudland John Burningham offers a playful guess at what goes on Up There. The splendour comes from great (photographed) skyscapes - clouds, storms, sunsets, summer blue, but in the foreground are the Burningham folk we know, in their kind, guileless, quirky, brilliant line. Albert, a simple lad in oddly unmodish clothes, is out on a mountain walk with his parents when he trips and falls. But the merry cloud children catch him in mid-drop and take him to their spacious home above. Leaping from cloud to cloud, drumming out thunder noises, rainbow painting - every day there are new delights. But he doesn't really belong (you know why?) and, when he suddenly feels a call to Earth, the kindly Queen (looking not unlike our own dear monarch) arranges his return. Fairy tale or theology? The question's yours. Another Burningham classic, anyhow.

A dying child (who looks rather too well in some of the pictures) is the emotive centre of The Kite and Caitlin. The kite, scorned by trendier children, is for Caitlin (who "loves it for its sadness") a symbol of hope. As soon as she's well she takes it to fly from the highest mountain in the world. One hot night, when she lies "limp as a leaf", the kite tells her to come. Out they float, through the window, over peak after peak, to the Great Mountain of Light, "where happiness waits ever after". For both. On paper, away from the manic vocalising of his verse delivery, McGough shows to advantage. A sterner editor might have queried such flights as "in touch with infinity, tete-a-tete with the stars". But with its cunning poignancies and Prater's attractive pictures, how could this story fail?

Heaven by Nicholas Allan is absurdly funny - yet maybe something more. Lily finds Dill the dog packing a neat suitcase. "Where are you going?" she asks. "Up there." "Can I come too?" "Er - not yet." Indeed, two dog-headed angels, in clinical white, are waiting for him outside. Lily's (vain) attempt to stop him going involves a nice dialectic exchange between them, at simplest nursery level. How sorrowful now are the empty basket, the unused dish.

But be cheered. Lily is soon adopted by a dottily hopeful homeless pup. You have to admire the economy of the whole. The pictures are a treat.

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