Picture books

16th June 2000 at 01:00
Fathers and friends. With Father's Day imminent, a trio of good dads appears in picture books for young children. Guido Van Genechten shows the pre-school child's universe in My Daddy, one of the Cat's Whiskers series of European picture books made available here by the OrchardWatts group (pound;9.99, originally published in Belgium).

Large images, strong, flat colour and closed outlines catch Jack jumping on Daddy's tummy, riding on his back, flying over his head. While Jack and Daddy play games, the relationship between words and pictures plays a game with viewers - it's Daddy's strength, imagination and patience that create Jack's success.

For slightly older readers, Anthony Browne widens the horizon and shifts the viewpoint in My Dad (Doubleday pound;9.99). Again, there is no linear narrative; instead, the child narrator lists what makes his Dad so special. Different kinds of playfulness emerge: the incongruous sight of Dad in a tartan dressing-gown in all his manifestations (weightlifter, flamenco dancer and tightrope walker); the fairy tale and nursery rhyme references as Dad shows Big Bad Wolf the door, or jumps over the moon; play between language and visual images in which similies are depicted as metaphors (Dad eats like a horse and swims like a fish). There is also playfulness in the treatment of masculinity: Dad is fantastic at football, but he also radiates tenderness.

Rainy Day, by Emma Haughton, illustrated by Angelo Rinaldi (Doubleday pound;9.99), uses the weather as a metaphor in its subtle treatment of the complex feelings surrounding a family separation. It's Dad's turn to have Ned, and a promised trip to the fair is rained off. The child is sad about more than that, but dad is determined to salvage the sitation. Scenes of playing in the park, walking beside the sea, sitting on a bench, lead to the moment when both can admit how much they miss each other, and that, like the weather, things will get better. Rinaldi illustrates in oils, with the figures of father and son portrayed with photographic realism against atmospheric backgrounds.

Relationships with friends are key picture-book material too. Rob Lewis's Friends (Bodley Head pound;9.99) is a child's guide to the art of making them. The Rabbit family has moved and young Ambrose sets out to make new friends. The young rabbits he meets welcome him but Ambrose finds fault with them. Once he learns how to be a friend, his loneliness is over. The rabbits are old-fashioned, clothed toys, with an engaging, stiff-limbed presence and big, expressive eyes.

Frog and a Very Special Day by Max Velthuijs (Andersen Press pound;9.99) is the ninth story to feature the animal hero with some all-too-human foibles. This time Frog misjudges his friend Hare. Frog's been told by Hare that it is a special day, but not why. He asks their mutual friends and there is a light-hearted ambiguity as to whether the answers of Duck, Pig and Rat are knowingly misleading or an innocent reflection of their personalities. Then Frog discovers that, without telling him, Hare is going to a party. Frog feels hurt, jumps to the wrong conclusion, and fumes and weeps before he gets home to a lovely surprise.

Velthuijs's illustrations are, as always, masterly. These small, seemingly simple paintings communicate the story with feeling and give pleasure through an interplay of clean shapes and vibrant colour. Any day which brings another book about Frog is, in itself, a Very Special Day.

JANE DOONAN


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