Picture books

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
As World Book Day approaches, Ted Dewan prepares to be enchanted If there was ever a primary school library must-have, it is the late Richard Scarry's Busytown series. What a treat, then, that these enchanting and inspiring titles are back in print. The new hardbacks include What Do People Do All Day?, Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, ABC Word Book, Best Counting Book Ever, Funniest Storybook Ever and Busiest People Ever (Collins Children's Books, pound;5.99 each).

After 11 years illustrating other people's books, Richard Scarry (rhymes with "marry") created his first Busytown book in 1963; it became a worldwide bestseller. Busytown's trademark is its hundreds of animal characters doing pretty much everything: working on construction sites, putting out fires, studying in school. Cars and other machines lie at the heart of this imaginary world, which has the flavours of both Europe and the United States, making these books a natural favourite for machine-mad youngsters (especially boys). Busytown has inspired a TV series and plenty of merchandise, but first and foremost they remain high-quality books - works of passion.

An illustrator friend of mine, and fellow Scarry fan, described Scarry's books as visual playgrounds; you don't really read Scarry books so much as play with all the things in them. Scarry once described himself as a fun-man disguised as an educator, valuing the learning at the heart of his unique kind of play. It's difficult to know whether to shelve these as picture story books or non-fiction. The Busytown world, teetering on the edge of hilarious chaos, may seem a little random and disorganised if you're looking for clarity of purpose or sensible storylines. The detail is a little too dense to make them ideal for reading with children; they're far better suited for children to look at by themselves - which they do, for hours.

Critics might pick at the odd bits of gender stereotyping typical of the era. Mums often do "mothers' work" in aprons, but dads push the pram, female car mechanics change the oil, and nobody smokes. A less sensitive publisher might have tried to "correct" those few dated details, or crank up the colours in a mistaken bid to cater for today's over-stimulated youngsters. But Collins Children's Books has carefully reproduced the original art, capturing all its subtle colouring and charm. And pound;5.99 is a bargain for an oversize, 44-page hardback with nice, thick pages. Those pages need to be thick, because Busytown books are read to bits.

The sort of enchantment practised by Scarry is difficult for adults to recognise with a cursory glance at a picture book, possibly because it is easily drowned out by distractions such as bright colours or Big Hugs. But among new titles, there are more understated enchanters worth a longer look.

Kiss the Cow!, illustrated by Will Hillenbrand with text by Phyllis Root (Walker Books pound;9.99), is a skilful and subtleenvironmental fairy tale. It features an oversized cow, her bovine owner, a rebel daughter, and an unfeasible number of children. The enormous magic cow gushes enough milk to feed the huge family, demanding only a tiny ritualistic kiss on the fuzzy nose in return. But the family faces starvation when, after milking, Annalisa grasses on the deal. Root's writing style is perfectly matched with Hillenbrand's precisely zesty pencil-and-wash illustrations. The characters are unusually charming without being sugary, capturing the delightful raucousness of huge families.

Splosh! by Philippe Corentin (Andersen Press pound;9.99) has the simple purity of an Aesop fable, using greed and foolishness as motivation. A wolf, a pig and some rabbits sucker one another into acting as the counterweight to lift them out of the bottom of a well. It is terrifically clever and skilfully illustrated in an easy-going, cartoon style. Its unusual vertical format (spine along the top) gives it the added bonus of being easy to hold open in front of a class, presenting a large narrow illustration that the children at the back can see.

Boris, the Beetle Who Wouldn't Stay Down, illustrated by Tony Ross with text by Hiawyn Oram (Andersen Press pound;9.99), has a similar Aesopian feel. Boris is an upwardly mobile water beetle whose rise to the top of the pond's social spectrum brings him into contact with the aristocratic Toptoads. His diving skills enable him to do a good turn for the nobs, finding the lost keys to the castle. His most valued prize for this favour is his new-found social mobility rather than social position alone.

Colours by Robert Crowther (Walker Books pound;9.99), the latest creation from the prince of pop-up, is a sublimely minimalist flap-and-tab book. Each spread opens to a blank canvas of a single bright colour (purple is missing but you get black and white instead).

Characteristic of Crowther, there is a distinctive cleverness to his paper engineering. Colours will surely inspire copycat classroom activity. As with all Crowther pop-ups, this is a robust book that should withstand a fair amount of abuse.

The Yellow Train, illustrated by Francois Roca with text by Alistair Highet (Pavilion Children's Books pound;9.99), has the most arresting cover I've seen this year, full of mystery and anticipation. A boy's magical train journey with his grandfather takes place in an intriguing retro-world inspired by films such as Metropolis and Brazil. Roca's powerful illustrations, reminiscent of American illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, make skilful use of muted earth-tones. But Highet's story fails to distinguish between the nostalgic and the truly enchanting, making this more a picture book for sentimental grown-ups than one for children.

But if the text runs out of steam half-way through, the nobility and vertiginous magnificence of Roca's artwork will keep you turning pages until the end of the line.

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