Picture books

11th February 2000 at 00:00
We've welcomed New World wines on to our wine racks; why not make room on the bookshelves for imported New World picture books?

The weirder ones may taste funny at first and take a while to catch on, but eventually the best earn their welcome - for example, US-based illustrator Lane Smith's work (The Stinky Cheese Man, Maths Curse, and Squids Will Be Squids, all with author Jon Sciezka) is now familiar to UK children.

Australian author John Marsden and illustrator Shaun Tan have created a remarkable parable about colonisation and slavery. The Rabbits (Lothian, distributed by Ragged Bears pound;8.99) takes its cue from the introduction of European rabbits to Australia. Anthropomorphic rabbits run roughshod over the native possums in a marvellous metaphor for colonisation. So often, this kind of story is preached at children rather than told to them. I can only surmise that "white guilt" accounts for the way fake Native American sentimental pap wins children's book awards in the US. This is the first time I've come across a picture book about colonisation and slavery that I thought was worthy of a child's attention.

However, The Rabbits can also be read as a tale about competition between real animals. European colonisation is thus used as a metaphor for the devastation caused by the introduction of alien species; a history and an ecology lesson rolled into one.

It took a while to become accustomed to Shaun Tan's unusual characters and outrageous angular shapes. But his marvellous visual storytelling speaks volumes as his strangely beautiful widerness gives way to a frightening urban grid. The Rabbits is as visually loaded as a Terry Gilliam film, despite its slender 32 pages. It deserves to become a classroom classic.

Memorial (Lothian Ragged Bears pound;9.99) is also illustrated by Shaun Tan but this time in a very different 3-D collage and mixed media style. The story examines the meaning of memorials, both living and stone ones, but author Gary Crew's stumbling text doesn't come up to the standard of Tan's painstaking work.

An entirely different New World voice is that of J.otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh. Their books are hugely popular in the United States, and have been in the eager clutches of British art students and graphics geeks for years. Until recently they've been available only in a few specialist art-book outlets. Olive the Other Reindeer and Penguin Dreams (Chronicle BooksRagged Bears pound;8.99 each) combine the friendliness of H A Rey's Curious George books with the New York graffiti art style of the late Keith Haring. The visual storytelling makes up for any weaknesses in the wordsmithing; the artwork delivers most of the story anyway and it provides natural inspiration for making computer art.

Seibold's liberating style might just spur children to try their hand at using the computer as an art tool. He does away with most rules of traditional drawing, preferring to be schematic and abstract; just the antidote for, say, 10-year-olds preoccupied with drawing realistically or children who lack traditional drawing skills and might like to create polished imagery.


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