The people's armada

11th July 1997 at 01:00
THE SEA HOLE. By Ross Collins, Macmillan Pounds 8.99

THE GOLD AT THE END OF THE RAINBOW. By Wolfram HanelI, llustrated by Leok Koopmans North South Pounds 9.99

THE FISH PRINCESS. By Irene Watts, Illustrated by Steve Mennie. Tundra (distributed by Ragged Bears) Pounds 8.99

THE LITTLE SHIPS. By Louise Borden, Illustrated by Michael Foreman. Pavilion Pounds 9.99

The sea, the sea. Too big to grasp, too deep to comprehend - ideal, really, in picture books, as a whopping great symbolic yonder.

Ross Collins, in The Sea Hole, likens the sea to a skin. According to Ben's dad, "when the waves rush forward too fast they make holes in the sea". Dad, who wears a purple knitted cap and walrus moustache, is a bit of a fantasist. Ben too (not to mention Ross Collins) makes no distinction between the factual, the improbable and the impossible. Accordingly, one stormy night he takes dog and boat out to sea to effect sea-repairs. Gallantly, he sews up the hole with "shipping rope" and returns homewakes up to clear skies and an amazed dad. Perky illustrations are not enough to sustain the off-shore burlesque.

Fantasy extends to include a leprechaun on a wee elderberry-clad isle in The Gold at the End of the Rainbow, a Swiss-Irish reassembly of folk tale ingredients. Again, the boy could be dreaming when he embarks with his grandfather on a scary voyage through heavy seas to the rainbow's end. Leok Koopmans has worked away at fretting the seas and frizzing the elder leaves, but for all his efforts the intended magic fails to spark.

More mysterious and allusive, The Fish Princess has a grandfather by Hans Andersen and Oscar Wilde, and achieves a meaningful relationship with the prince she liberates from the inert body of the Salmon King. Steve Mennie suffuses the pages with a Nova Scotia air and attends well to the themes of birth and death, ebb and flow and underwater monarchy slung together in this bouillabaisse of a heritage-style legend.

History informs The Little Ships. It's Dunkirk 1940, and an account of evacuation of British and French troops in which a girl - unlikely, but so what? - accompanies her fisherman father across the Channel to help in the loading of troops on to boatsbigger than theirs.

The incidents are recounted in poetic-documentary style, horrors described, but diluted a little in Foreman's fluent watercolours, some of which, incidentally, derive from Richard Eurich's paintings of Dunkirk scenes.

This is fact gently finessed into narrative shape, encouraging the reader to go on and find out more.

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