Picture books

25th August 2000 at 01:00
DINOSAUR BOB AND THE FAMILY LAZARDO. By William Joyce. Pavilion pound;9.99. SITTING DUCKS. By Michael Bedard. Walker Books pound;9.99. BABAR AND THE SUCCOTASH BIRD. By Laurent de Brunhoff. Abrams pound;9.95. ALONE IN THE WOODS. By Ian Beck. David Fickling Books pound;9.99. 10 MINUTES TILL BEDTIME. By Peggy Rathmann. Viking pound;12.99.

If you're packing some picture books for a final excursion in the last few days of freedom, choose carefully. The wrong book could drive you crazy after a few dozen re-readings. Here's a selection with a flavour of holiday or adventure.

Dinosaur Bob and the Family Lazardo heralds the introduction to British readers of the US artist William Joyce. Dinosaur Bob, an oversized diplodocus, is adopted as a pet by a wealthy family on their globe-trotting holiday. This corny story of a misfit's liability turning into his asset is pushed into a surreal dimension by the unfeasibly large protagonist. The charm of Joyce's work is the shimmering frisson between his spectacular retro style of painting and the weirdness of his subjects. His sunny world of pre-war American exoticism is constantly subverted by inspired and cosy lunacy. He invests a massive amount of creative energy in his acrylic paintings and will spend up to two years on a single picture book.

Joyce's books have a distinctive American look rooted in N C Wyeth's paintings, quite different from the casual line-and-wash style of many mainstream British picture books. I have high hopes that Dinosaur Bob will win Joyce the admiration he deserves from children, art students, and lovers of quality picture book art.

Sitting Ducks by Michael Bedard is the unlikely tale of cross-border friendship between an alligator working in an egg-hatching factory and his stolen duck. The alligator eventually reveals the dreadful fate in store for all hatched ducks (being served up in alligator restaurants). What follows is consciousness-raising and fitness training among the ducks, bringing to mind, of course, the recent Aardman feature film Chicken Run (note that Sitting Ducks' US publication in 1998 preceded the release of Chicken Run by two years). Bedard paints in a surreal three-dimensional cartoon style, reminiscent of the backgrounds in Chuck Jones's animation and Edward Hopper paintings. Top marks to Walker Books forpublishing Sitting Ducks in the UK: like Joyce's work, Bedard's painting style is a daring American presence on British bookshelves.

Babar and the Succotash Bird by Laurent de Brunhoff preserves the gentle atmosphere of the earlier 1930s Babar stories by De Brunhoff's father, Jean. This somewhat predictable tale involves a magic bird subjecting Alexander to various resizings. My hunch is that Babar's enduring appeal is largely due to its nostalgic brand profile rather than the enthusiasm of modern children (Abrams being a publisher strongly associated with art books for adults). However, this is the first Babar title in seven years, so if you've been a patient fan, the wait is finally over. Abrams has certainly produced a yummy-looking edition, but don't be surprised if it bores the kids.

Alone in the Woods by Ian Beck is among the first titles from an exciting new imprint of Scholastic Books; the legendary editor David Fickling has recently ventured out with his own list. Beck's third "lost Teddy" adventure book sends Teddy on a high-flying adventure, from kite surfing to the ultimate Teddy Bears' Picnic. Verdant abundance, an explosion of blossoms, dappled afternoon sunlight, and the perfect hill for a picnic offer an enticing escape from the cramped car seats and steaming fug that have become part of the August Bank Holiday experience.

Four readings have not been enough fully to appreciate the genius of 10 Minutes till Bedtime. This deceptively sophisticated story involves a coach tour of hamsters invading a young boy's 10-minute bedtime ritual, which the boy finds bewildering, amusing, and exceedingly wearing. While the text consists almost entirely of father's off-camera countdown ("seven minutes till bedtime", and so on), the illustrations detail the complex jumble of hamster-tourist activity.

Rathmann's detailed visual storytelling rewards observant eyes; each of the hamsters has a characteristic obsession that I enjoyed tracking throughout the story. Although I occasionally find Rathmann's quality of line and colour choices a little clumsy, there's an Ahlberg-like brilliance in her ideas that more than makes up for any technical shortcomings. pound;12.99 may seem steep, but of this collection Rathmann's book offers the most mileage.

Ted Dewan

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