18th August 2000 at 01:00
SWALLOW JOURNEY. By Vivian French. Illustrated by Karin Littlewood. Zero to Ten pound;9.99

In the 19th century, popular belief was that swallows spent the winter months hibernating in the mud at the bottoms of ponds. In fact, these little birds fly more than 9,000 miles every year, from Europe to the warmer climes of South Africa, and their extraordinary journey is a fitting subject for a children's book.

Swallow Journey is one of a series of Fantastic Journeys, published by Zero to Ten, the first of which, Whale Journey, was written by the same author and is a suggested national literacy strategy text for eight-year-olds.

For a picture book, the text is quite concentrated, but studded with interesting facts about swallows: for instance, that they return to their old nests in the spring, knowing exactly where they are going; an that they may raise three clutches of young before migrating in the autumn, with the older offspring helping to feed the younger. The text draws the reader's attention, too, to the way in which the flock knows when it is time to leave, without any signal being given.

All of this is greatly enhanced by Karin Littlewood's expressive watercolours, which capture the movements and patterns of birds in flight with pleasing freedom and energy.

But although Swallow Journey is a useful book, it is not perhaps one to which children will return again and again, because of an imperfect blend of story and information. Giving three of the birds names - Skinner, Sweet Claw and Blue - is not enough to make them live as characters. The narrative is cumbersome at times, and unlike the birds, fails ultimately to sing and take flight.

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