Picture books

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
THE SKETCHBOOK OF THOMAS BLUE EAGLE. Text by Gay Matthaei and Jewel Grutman. Illustrated by Adam Cvijanovic. Chronicle Books Ragged Bears pound;12.99. TESDirect, 10 copies pound;125

THE LOST THING. By Shaun Tan. Lothian Ragged Bears pound;9.99, TESDirect pound;8.99. 10 copies pound;85

THE TIN FOREST. Text by Helen Ward. Illustrated by Wayne Anderson. Templar Ragged Bears pound;9.99. TES Direct pound;9.49

NEXT PLEASE. By Ernst Jandl. Illustrated by Norman Junge. Hutchinson pound;9.99, TES Direct pound;8.99, 10 copies pound;85

Setting and environment are leading characters in these stories; one setting is historical, two are surreal, and one is all too familiar.

The Sketchbook of Thomas Blue Eagle presents itself as the travel sketchbook of a fictitious Lakota Indian working for Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. At its heart is a great historical irony: men like Thomas Blue Eagle were hired by Cody to perform Native American skills before the very people who were in the process of wiping out the Indians' communities and threatening the survival of their skills. Thomas comments on his mixed relationship with Cody and his impressions of Europeans and their chosen environment, illustrated in a pictographic style typical of contemporary Native American tribes (as Thomas learns European drawing techniques, his style subtly changes). The way Thomas interprets white culture is sophisticated and reveals much about his character and culture.

I've seen many picture books about the complex relationship between European settlers and Native Americans that are simplistic and coloured in various shades of white guilt. With its superior scholarship and careful analysis The Sketchbook of Thomas Blue Eagle puts many of its preachypredecessors to shame.

Shaun Tan's The Lost Thing is aimed at sophisticated readers, being visually challenging, intelligent, and highly original. It's a surreal tale examining one's place in the scheme of things in which an enormous bio-mechanical foundling is taken under the wing of a nerdy bottle-top collector. The setting, a comically wired world overwhelmed by gizmos and industrial conduits, is as significant as the story, since these artefacts reveal the insensitivity and sense of proportion of this world's inhabitants. Even the slowly drifting shapes of clouds act as a chorus. The Lost Thing will reward children with well-developed picture-reading skills and a fascination for engineering and collecting.

Wayne Anderson's elegant illustrations for The Tin Forest create a beautifully bleak junkyard world which an old man's dreams manage to transform into a riot of flora and fauna. By assembling bits of junk into mechanical creatures and trees as stand-ins for real nature, the old man attracts seed-bearing birds, leading to the flourishing of a real forest. Anderson's gentle Gothic style complements Ward's poetic text, and though this tale of the transformative power of nature and the imagination is sometimes twee, The Tin Forest stands out as an enchanting and atmospheric book.

Next Please by Ernst Jandl and Norman Junge depicts a queue of broken toys in a dark waiting room awaiting repair. Each toy is called to the surgery, later to emerge bouncing with health. Nonetheless, there is a foreboding atmosphere in the waiting room, which sets up a curious counterpoint to the cheery fate of every toy. The eeriness lends a sense of drama to this otherwise ordinary counting story.

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