Picture books

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
THE ANIMAL TRAIN. By Christopher Wormell. Jonathan Cape. pound;9.99

SANTA CALLS. By William Joyce. Pavilion Children's Books. pound;9.99

OLIVIA. By Ian Falconer. Simon amp; Schuster. pound;9.99. ROBERTO THE INSECT ARCHITECT. By Nina Laden. Chronicle BooksRagged Bears. pound;10.99

BLING BLANG. By Woody Guthrie. Illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky. Walker Books. pound;9.99

The Animal Train has everything you could want in a picture book: tons of animals, toy trains, vast quantities of food, a gloriously messy disaster, an infuriated and impotent adult, a massive impromptu picnic, and a satisfying resolution.

If you've seen Christopher Wormell's Blue Rabbit books, you might be surprised at his clever use of an outdated pastel pencil technique; this has a curious contrapuntal effect set against the outrageous twists in the tale. The pacing of the story is perfect, punctuated by repeated rhythms and phrases. The oversized animal characterisations are great fun and well observed. An ambitious array of complex elements collide with the balletic thrill of a destruction derby.

Wormell has obviously worked hard to polish this dynamo to near perfection, only slightly let down by the book's indifferent design. The Animal Train is worth 10 ordinary picture books, and is deep enough to withstand dozens of re-readings.

William Joyce makes similar subversive use of a painstakingly retro illustration style in his oversized Christmas bonanza, Santa Calls. Three children are summoned by Santa to undertake a mission that has the desired effect of bonding brother and sister. The capture-and-rescue plot is entertaining, if slightly flawed, but the charm of the characters makes up for occasional flab in the storytelling.

Like the makers of many big-budget fantasy films, Joyce has lavished most of his attention on setting and atmosphere: picture Slumberland in the Little Nemo stories, Metro Goldwyn Mayer's Oz, Fritz Lang's Metropolis and the magic kingdom in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang rolled into a gigantic Toyland where every machine and building has a face. Santa Calls was a huge hit in the United tates in 1995, inspiring everything from New York department store window displays to a new centre for children's literature in the real-life Abilene, Texas (where the story begins). Those UK readers who have yet to discover Joyce have some great fun to look forward to.

Fans of Hilary Knight's Eloise books will recognise their influence on Ian Falconer's Olivia, a whimsical character sketch of a porcine performing arts wannabe. Olivia's childish ebullience is endearing and exhausting. The book's urbane wit has no trace of ingenuousness and graciously leaves room for plenty of heart. Falconer, a cartoonist for The New Yorker and a ballet set designer, employs a variety of styles to distinguish reality from fantasy. Design is daringly minimalist: you may be surprised to see just how effective and engaging a picture book in only two colours - black and red - can be.

Nina Laden makes magnificent use of collage - a tricky medium which presents itself as unimpeachably cool but often masks an inexpert hand - in a book that is the new standard-bearer for use of this technique. Roberto the Insect Architect, a tale of urban planning with a social conscience in which Roberto (illustrated, top) confronts building industry prejudice against termites, is full of corny insect puns and nods to adults au fait with architectural history. By painting on top of certain areas of the collage elements, Laden gives some objects a sense of dimension that integrates them perfectly with her acrylic painted characters. At other times she exploits the "punky" quality that collage does so well.

Vladimir Radunsky's cut-papercollage illustrations are a perfect fit for the easy-going folk mood of Woody Guthrie's allegorical house-building song, Bling Blang. Like its companion prequel, Howdi do!, it comes with sheet music printed on the inside of the dust jacket. Guthrie's lyrics are fun to read aloud and the book's design reaches Walker's usual impeccable standard. Bling Blang could easily spark off several primary classroom activities in the little time left for art and music.


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