New kids on the block;Review;Children's books;Review

24th December 1999 at 00:00
GRANDMOTHERS' STORIES. By Burleigh Muten. Illustrated by Sian Bailey. STORIES FROM THE SILK ROAD. By Cherry Gilchrist. Illustrated by Nilesh Mistry. WHILE THE BEAR SLEEPS. By Caitlin Matthews. Illustrated by Judith Mills. THE BAREFOOT BOOK OF STORIES FROM THE OPERA. By Shahrukh Husain. Illustrated by James Mayhew. Barefoot Books pound;12.99 each. THE STARLIGHT PRINCESS AND OTHER PRINCESS STORIES. By Annie Dalton. Illustrated by Belinda Downes. Dorling Kindersley pound;12.99. THE BOOK OF THE SEA. By Desdemona McCannon. MOON TALES. By Rina Singh. Illustrated by Debbie Lush. Bloomsbury Children's Books. pound;14.99 each.

Adele Geras revels in story collections with a life beyond Christmas.

Barefoot Books has carved out a reputation as a producer of beautifully illustrated books with fairly long and sophisticated texts. These always attractive volumes could be described as "uni-age" (along the same lines as "unisex"). They are more digestible than the plum-pudding type of story collection that comes stuffed full of Christmas goodies but loses its appeal after the holiday.

I have a soft spot for grandmothers, and Burleigh Muten's tales of wise old women from around the world stands out. There's a framing story of a grandmother telling the same stories that we are reading to her grandchildren, and they are full of wisdom, humour and magic.

Sian Bailey's illustrations are sumptuous: a feast of luscious colour and delicious detail, and I'm all for glorifying old ladies (who get a raw deal in fiction), particularly when so many children live far away from their extended families.

The Silk Road has fascinated me since I saw a documentary about it on television, so I was thrilled with Cherry Gilchrist's collection; as far as I know, it's the first to take us across this ancient trade route.

The maps on the endpapers are an inspired idea and Nilesh Mistry's illustrations are just right: exotic without being atall hippyish. As for the tales,they are about ghosts and goddesses, and bring the romanceof the landscape to life. A real treasure.

In While the Bear Sleeps, a furry companion travels with our young heroine through the world in wintertime, and tells her stories of Saint Nicholas, Baboushka, Chanukkah and all sorts of other customs and legends. It's a wonderfully inclusive book,and one which gives us afascinating glimpse intodifferent celebrations.

The style of illustration is dramatic and striking, and the production is a far cry from the assembly of extracts that are often served up in this kind of publishing package.

I must come clean: my own collection of stories from the opera came out three years ago. But in the immortal words of Mae West: "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful", and Barefoot's collection is beautiful. The stories are interestingly and engagingly told by a welcome new voice. James Mayhew's illustrations are exactly right for each work, and remind me often of watercolours by Watteau.

The choice of operas is good too, and includes works by Britten, Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov. Opera is for everyone, and reading this book with children will enhance your pleasure as the lights dim and the overture begins.

The Starlight Princess is, three times over, one for the girls. Fairytales, princesses and embroidery are a truly enchanting combination. Dalton has found tales from all over the world, some well-known and some less familiar, each one told in the most beguiling of voices. Belinda Downes tells us in afascinating introduction howshe chooses the fabrics and colours she uses in her exquisitely stitched illustrations. This bookis a portable work of art, and would make a glorious last-minute Christmas present.

Bloomsbury Children'sBooks, famous for publishing the Harry Potter books, is also good at lavish, full-colour productions. Desdemona McCannon's bookis particularly lovely, andher illustrations have a Japanese influence - she lived in Tokyo, and the evidence is in her elegant lines and delicate colours.

The stories about the sea are mostly variations on quite well-known themes, withselkies and kingdoms beneaththe waves and sailors being resourceful and outwitting the evils that await them on the water. But children cannot learn too soon that humans are partof a small world in which the same tales go round and reappear in other versions, exactly as stories do in families. A really enticing book from a talent to lookout for.

Rina Singh comes from Canada and Moon Tales is the first of her books to be published in this country. She, too, is someone to watch, and her stories of the moon are most entertainingly written.

Her collection is wide-ranging, and I was pleased to see a story about Chelm, the town full of fools from the Jewish myth. Pedantic nitpicking apart (Pentecost is in spring, and you eat blintzes with sour cream at Chanukkah in December), this is a beautiful book and the illustrator, Debbie Lush, whose first book this is, is going to be sought-after and praised.

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