Patriarch's progress

17th October 1997 at 01:00
NOAH AND THE ARK. By Antonia Barber. Illustrated by Ian Beck Doubleday. Pounds 9.99. NOAH MAKES A BOAT. By Pippa Goodhart. Illustrated by Bernard Lodge Heinemann. Pounds 9.99. THE BIRD. By Nicholas Allan, Hutchinson. Pounds 6.99.

A FIRST BIBLE STORY BOOK. Stories retold by Mary Hoffman Illustrated by Julie Downing. Dorling Kindersley. Pounds 8.99. NOAH'S ARK. By Lucy Cousins, Walker Books. Pounds 3.99

The Bible is a rich source of narrative. Jane Doonan looks at Noah's story and Brian Alderson examines other Biblical texts

In Noah and the Ark, Ian Beck's illustrations for Antonia Barber's text display all the conviction and intensity of the Northern Romantic approach: symmetrical compositions, a patriarchal Noah with hair whirling about his head, God appearing as Light, trees clinging to the earth with their leafless branches bowed, ruined monuments, the wonders of springing flowers, the moon and the sun as witnesses, figures in hieratic poses.

We are given perspectives on Noah's story through his eyes and God's, the Dove's, an Ark animal's and a marine creature's. The illustrations begin with a darkened view over green hills desecrated by belching, satanic smokestacks, while the last picture is of the world recaptured in a more lovable form, a peaceable kingdom where the lamb lies down with the tiger.

The text flows in unrhymed verse and Biblical cadences, while brief humorous asides and occasional use of the vernacular successfully lighten the gravitas. Barber's imaginative retelling includes her elegiac description of the year passing, waiting for the flood to subside, the Ark moving over a vast waste of water, while deep below the old world dissolves. On the sea floor, Beck shows the sunken city of Ozymandias: a pharaonic head, reeded columns, submerged mountains.

Beck achieves various tactile surface effects akin to old engravings. Although in pencil, the lines of the drawing have a richness added by mimicking the burr of a drypoint needle; hatching and cross hatching settle the forms on the page. Colour, rich but muted, has been stroked in with crayons. The design of the book itself is also outstanding, particularly in the way pages are framed.

Since grandparents are much in evidence in picture books these days, it's not surprising to find Noah, his wife, and Young Noah, his grandson, fulfilling God's commands in Noah Makes a Boat. The trouble is, Noah doesn't know how. Work it out, says God, manifesting Himself as a swirl of clouds. We watch the Noahs, an equal-opportunities family, do just that, getting their designs from ducks' undercarriages and fishes' skeletons.

Pippa Goodhart's text, with its rhythms and repetitions and witty one-liners, reads well aloud.

Bernard Lodge's medium is lino-cut. He has a splendid sense of page design and a seemingly easy command of technical effect. Bold geometric shapes with thick black outlines, decorated in stipples and textures, are blocked in vibrant colour. Although lino-cut is a 20th-century technique, the appearance - somewhere between wood-cut and wood engraving - and skilled craft association make it a perfect medium for this tale about hand-building a boat from timber.

A scatological perspective is taken by Nicholas Allan in The Bird. A hermit has the island all to himself and it is quiet, tidy, peaceful - just as he likes it. One day a bird arrives, shatters the peace and splats on more than just the sand. Hermit and bird attempt a series of peace settlements over their shared space, but these break down and the hermit is so inhospitable that the bird flies away. The old man grows lonely and is overjoyed when the bird eventually returns, until he discovers that the bird has merely been away to fetch "the others" - an Arkful. The Dove has the last word, metaphorically and literally.

This little picture book has a laconic text augmented by plenty of sound-effects in bubbles. The vitality of Allan's fine pen-line and the surreal nimbus which he gives his figures more than make up for their lack of size. Detail is telling and some of it carries more than an insouciant whiff - like the unwelcome visible reminders animals drop behind them. The hermit is not amused, but young readers will be.

"Noah's Ark" is one of 13 stories in A First Bible Story Book. The gently animated voice and quiet humour of the narrator are matched in visual terms by fluent watercolour painting and clarity of communication. And for those still at the "look and say, point and chew" stage, there is a simplified version of the story from Lucy Cousins, delivered in a sturdy board book, and illustrated in Day-Glo colour.

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