Picture books

7th April 2000 at 01:00
A picture book that sets out to make children think, or spurs them into action, is worth its weight in gold. But all that is glitters is often a far cry from gold.

Perhaps Marcus Pfister's publisher dares not mess with its golden goose after the worldwide success of his hologram-scaled Rainbow Fish books. But without the glittering gewgaws, The Happy Hedgehog (North-South pound;9.99) fails to shine in the same way. A laid-back herbalist hedgehog marvels at the absurd ambitions of his stressed-for-success fellow animals, eventually demonstrating the "superior value" of his knowledge of healing drugs.

Although Pfister may have been aiming to lampoon the folly of useless toil in the service of blind ambition, the message that comes across is "hard work is for mugs". He's ended up working an empty, hippie-era cliche to death.

I was also disappointed by Sara Fanelli's Dear Diary (Walker pound;9.99). At first glance, Dear Diary seems a clever cutting-edge-ish sort of book. Using the device of a series of diaries, it tells an everyday story of school and family life using multiple points of views.

This approach was used expertly by Anthony Browne (in Voices in the Park) and David Macaulay (in Black and White) but Fanelli's book lacks the coherence needed to tie the stories together. The chapter headings provide an illusory underpinning of sense with semi-relevant quotes from The Greats. Good design does what it can to make the book hang together, but my mind still felt shredded by the scribbles, faux-naif imagery, photomontage cliches, and a handwritten text that was often difficult to read. Art students and trendies will enjoy the very qualities of the book that were not to my liking, and if you'rea Sara Fanelli fan, don't let me put you off completing your collection.

The current hardcover reissue of Chris Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (Andersen Press pound;9.99) is a different kettle of fish. Van Allsburg is one of the most accomplished picture book illustrators in the United States, best known for his picture book Jumanji. His marvellously three-dimensional pencil illustrations are intense and loaded with mystery.

The (presumably fictitious) Harris Burdick is described as an author illustrator who disappeared after leaving some picture book fragments at a publisher's office. The illustrations follow with tantalising fragments of text. The fragments always fall somewhere in the midst of the missing stories, and they offer an irresistible challenge to complete the rest of the tale. If ever there was a picture book to inspire creative writing from readers of any age, it is Harris Burdick.

Claudia Fries has created a classic tale of prejudice with A Pig Is Moving In! (Siphano Picture Books pound;8.99). A trio of animals adopt a "there goes the neighbourhood" stance when a pig moves into their apartment building. Of course, their preconceptions inform the way they react to minor incidents of the pig's clumsiness. But it turns out the minor messes made by the pig (which he always cleans up) are all in the cause of a gesture of goodwill for his new neighbours, who are pleasantly surprised by the end.

The story is well told, and the illustrations, although not masterful, are well laid out and stand up to repeated viewings. This is a heartfelt book that will challenge children to consider how their own prejudices colour their opinions about others.

TED DEWAN


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