Nature takes its course

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Jane Doonan finds myth, fiction and fact wrapped in attractive packages

Mister Seahorse By Eric Carle Puffin pound;12.99

Tigress By Nick Dowson Illustrated by Jane Chapman Walker Books pound;10.99

Escape from Pompeii By Christina Balit Frances Lincoln pound;10.99

Dotty Inventions and Some Real Ones Too By Roger McGough Illustrated by Holly Swain Frances Lincoln pound;10.99

I Said Nothing: the extinction of the paradise parrot By Gary Crew and Mark Wilson Lothian Books pound;8.99

Myths and Monsters By Katy Edwards Illustrated by Simon Mendez Frances Lincoln pound;10.99

This selection of picture books, which embody information in an enjoyable story, can be used for various purposes in and outside the literacy hour.

For reception and Year 1, there's Mister Seahorse by Eric Carle. The natural history is a source for smiles, the illustrations in collage and paint are little works of art, and the turning pages produce almost magical effects thanks to some leaves of acetate that reveal hidden surprises.

The theme is animal behaviour in fishes. Generally, after the mother has laid the eggs and the father has fertilised them, they are left on their own, but in some fish families the father does the earliest parenting. The story follows Mr Seahorse, who carries eggs from his wife in a pouch on his belly. On his drift through the sea he meets Messrs Stickleback, Tilapin, Kurtus and Pipe - exemplary fathers all.

Tigress by Nick Dowson imbues natural history with poetic effects. There are two texts. One, set down as unrhymed verse, covers 18 months in the life of a tigress as she bears, rears, and trains her cubs, then leaves them to find their own way. The other text, in a different typeface, unobtrusively sited on images of undergrowth, grasses, rocks, and water, gives complementary factual information. Jane Chapman's handsome, painterly illustrations avoid the anthropomorphic pitfall. Retrieval devices at the end teach how books work.

Christine Balit's Escape from Pompeii transports the class back to AD 79.

Taking in many sights, her readers follow Tranio, an actor's son, around the city to the bakery, where he meets his friend Lucia. Then buildings begin to quiver. As the children escape by sea they watch Pompeii disappear beneath a blanket of ash and stone. The book concludes by putting the story into a historical context, complete with maps. Balit's linear decorative pictorial style is elegant, with characters displaying elongated forms, mask-like features and dramatic poses; earth reds, ochre, copper green and cerulean blue create harmonious colour patterns.

On a wacky note, Dotty Inventions and Some Real Ones Too, a collaboration between Roger McGough and Holly Swain, is an inspired combination of science and fantasy. True stories about the invention of the ballpoint pen, windscreen wiper, parachute, Frisbee and Velcro vie with a gamut of fanciful inventions, including voice-activated socks, from the archetypal absent-minded Professor Dotty Dabble, supported by her robot assistant, Digby. Masterly cartooning, good jokes, sly digs, absurdities and comic irony will be relished by eight-year-olds and upwards.

What's the full cost of a lamb chop? asks multi-award winning writer Gary Crew in I Said Nothing: the extinction of the paradise parrot. The story raises ecological issues about our effect upon plant and animal life as humans encroach on natural spaces. Paradise parrots, possibly the most beautiful of all Australian birds, were sighted for the last time in 1927.

The birds became extinct because the seeds that grew in the wild grasses on which the parrots depended were no longer available; sheep had grazed on the land. No grass, no seed. Food for man, food for sheep, food for birds: food for thought for Year 6 discussions. Mark Wilson's artwork in mixed media ranges from charcoal pencil sketches to impressionistic oils.

Finally, Myths and Monsters, based upon Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry exhibition, is an illustrated book that links information of all kinds to stories. Myth and scientific reality are presented side by side to suggest how the former may have arisen in the past, and how the basic idea still manifests itself today. For example, the section on the chimera moves from Ancient Greece to genetic engineering. Other subjects include the unicorn, the yeti, the hydra, and the elusive Nessie.

Simon Mendez, a specialist natural history illustrator, portrays mythical and real creatures in an acutely heightened naturalistic style, blurring the boundary between them. A reference section offers young researchers (and their teachers) more routes of enquiry. The book would make a useful addition to a key stage 2 library.

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