Pictures with star quality

6th December 1996 at 00:00
THIS IS THE STAR By Joyce Dunbar Illustrated by Gary Blythe Doubleday Pounds 9.99

THE NIGHT THE STARS DANCED FOR JOY By Bob Hartman and Tim Jonke Lion Pounds 7.99

THE CHRISTMAS MOUSE By Toby Forward Illustrated by Ruth Brown Andersen Pounds 10.99

THE SNOW WHALE By Caroline Oitcher Illustrated by Jackie Morris Frances Lincoln Pounds 9.99

LAO LAO OF DRAGON MOUNTAIN By Margaret Bateson-Hill and Francesca Pelizzoli De Agostini Pounds 9.99

Naomi Lewis pores over a stunning shepherd-and-stable Nativity edition and other alluring winter's tales.

What is the shelf-life, gift-life, read-through-the-year life of a shepherd-and-stable Christmas picture book? An occasional text isn't bound by season (one that comes to mind is Kipling's stunning Christmas Eve poem,"Eddi's Service"), but picture books can have a very short existence. And of the two treatments of the traditional story reviewed here, just one is a sure survivor.

In This is the Star, Joyce Dunbar traces the legend - star, wise men, babe and all - not only in rhyming verse but in that most ancient and potent of forms, especially for the young - the mounting, cumulative narrative.

Gary Blythe complements the gathering text with his night-shadowed paintings, fitfully lit by star or lamp. Don't miss his wholly un-Florentine infant.

The Night the Stars Danced for Joy is the Nativity story again, cheerfully told by a Pittsburgh minister who is also a children's storyteller. It's a handsome-looking book with an attractive cover, but I wonder how well its manner crosses the ocean.

There's the continuous trick (or tic) of the link-repeated, main-verbless sentences. "Angry bitter voices. Voices hurling words that hurt. Words she wished she'd never spoken." The chatty style will pass. "Don't be afraid, " says the shepherd. "He's got to be joking." ("He" is the angel.) But how is the most seasoned reader-aloud to deal with this: "Like tiny white buds blossoming into gold flowers, the stars began to swell and spread, until their edges bled together and the sky was filled with a glowing blanket of light." The mingled metaphors (buds, bled, blanket) might be forgiven if they worked - but do they? Bled? And is "manger" no longer a permitted word? "You will find the baby in a feed trough," says the angel. And they do.

If babe-in-manger (or feed trough) picture books are scarce this year, the winter-story variants are many. Of these, the most striking is The Christmas Mouse, a simplified version of the Scrooge saga played out by mice.

Mouse Ben is mean and greedy. Mouse Tim (note the Cratchity name) is poor and kind. Ben scorns Tim's little present (a gift-wrapped grape); he has a huge sugar plum. But that night, unable to sleep, Ben is lured to join a spirit mouse on a chastening journey.

The visit to a bare, bleak room, where Tim seems to be dead from cold and hunger, completes the course. Tim and Ben end up together by Ben's fireside. The pictures make the book, plunging us into the dark alleys and tunnels of the Victorian mouse world. There are even glimpses of the human society above. One haunting left-hand page shows Scrooge with his spirit mentor toiling up stone steps. This is for five to seven-year-olds, but is best explored first with an adult.

The Snow Whale offers a new idea for snow-time and adds some useful facts to its story. Laura learns that snow can come from the sea by way of clouds. With her little brother Leo, she starts to make, not a snowman, but a snow whale. They draw his tail flukes with a rake; they give him a blow-hole.

A few days later the sun shines. The following morning the whale has gone. Where? "Melting snow," Laura is told, "flows through rivers and back into the sea." "Then whale has gone home, " says Leo. An engaging book with evocative pictures of snow, sea, clouds and real whales in the sea. A good choice for the thoughtful three to six-year-old.

In Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain, another snowbound tale, an old woman of ancient China (Lao Lao) lives at the foot of a mountain, the realm of the Ice Dragon. She makes wonderful paper flowers, birds and butterflies, and gives them to the children. The Emperor (a baddy) thinks she has magic powers and has her dragged through the snow to an attic cell in a tower at the mountain top, bare except for scissors and paper. "Make diamonds," is the order. But the Emperor hasn't reckoned with the dragon (a goody) and a thrilling end awaits.

Such are the wild simplicities of sterling fairy tale, which has its own good laws. This eventful book is ideal for reading aloud. But listeners will gain too from the pictures of landscape, tower, cell and dragon's flight. For up to seven-year-olds.

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