Punch lines

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Ted Dewan selects picture books that combine wit with innovation

Space Pirates and the Treasure of Salmagundy

By Scoular Anderson

Frances Lincoln, pound;10.99

Dougal's Deep-Sea Diary

By Simon Bartram

Templar, pound;9.99

Guess Who's Coming for Dinner?

By John Kelly and Cathy Tincknell

Templar, pound;9.99

The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish

Pictures by Dave McKean. Text by Neil Gaiman

Bloomsbury Children's Books, pound;12.99

America the Beautiful: A Pop-Up Book

By Robert Sabuda

Simon Schuster, pound;19.99

It's difficult to wrap a narrative around a modular concept such as map-reading, but Scoular Anderson succeeds in Space Pirates and the Treasure of Salmagundy. In a story that combines comic strip with instructions and maps, a crew of aliens sets off on a high-tech quest to accumulate a series of treasure chests.

This is more than a typical treasure-hunt book; in order to proceed from spread to spread, readers have to relate abstract map-like representations to the three-dimensional objects in the pictures. Scoular Anderson's bedevilling landscapes have the appeal of Where's Wally? with a scent of the cartoon world of Steven Appleby, and the silly story keeps the laughs going. I've not come across this approach to map-reading before; if it's a first, it's quite innovative and a compelling challenge.

The next two books demonstrate Templar's commitment to producing picture books characterised by top-quality artwork and a quirky wit, eschewing the long-standing fashion for throwaway punkster artwork. Dougal's Deep-Sea Diary by Simon Bartram is a companionable follow-on from his Man on the Moon (a Day in the Life of Bob), which was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal. Dougal's dreary everyday life is a far cry from his undersea treasure-hunting holiday, cavorting among a phantasmagoria of fish and monsters of the deep. Not only does he score treasure, but he stumbles on a New-York-style Atlantis populated by urban mermaids and mermen, all of whom bear an uncanny resemblance to Dougal himself; even King Neptune turns out to be a Dougal doppelgAnger, underscoring Dougal's rightful place among the undersea population.

The bright rubbery retro paintings are loaded with Bartram's particular form of domestic surrealism, reminiscent of US picbook artist William Joyce, as well as the aforementioned Steven Appleby. What I especially love about Bartram's work is how he subverts the studied normality of his text with illustrations that dwell on unanswerable questions and quirky preoccupations.

Guess Who's Coming for Dinner? by John Kelly and Cathy Tincknell is another first-person account by Horace and Glenda Pork-Fowler, a middle-aged pig and goose couple, who accept an invitation from a mysterious Dr Hunter for a weekend-long elegant gastronomic holiday in his baronial mansion.

Their host's sinister absence mystifies Horace and Glenda, while Tincknell's cinematic paintings depict the couple's unseen peril in a series of clues towards Dr Hunter's cunning scheme to fatten and cook them for a feast eagerly anticipated by his wolf buddies. But pig and goose slip through his complicated trap in the fashion of Mr Magoo, while Dr Hunter's come-uppance is brilliantly ironic. The book is a gadget-freak's paradise, with plenty of "he's behind you!" panto moments. It's a meaty and truly funny tale which will enjoy a wide age-range of readers lucky enough to get hold of this book.

Carrying on with the mixture of the surreal and the domestic, Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman's The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish begins with a boy's hard-earned success in swapping his boring father (head perpetually in the newspaper) for his friend's goldfish bowl. Unfortunately, when the boy is scolded by his mother and instructed to retrieve his father, it seems Papa's too boring for anyone to hang on to for very long. Boy and sister go off desperately seeking daddy, who eludes them through a series of swaps.

McKean's angular and multi-layered artwork lends a scratchy elegance and hipness to the story. This book is a remix of the story's original publication in comic form; in book form, it's quite challenging and rambling in its storytelling and illustration style, all of which might alienate readers under eight years; it would be more rewarding for older children and art students. It's not as tight and refined as we've come to expect from the picture book form, but it's bold publishing on the part of Bloomsbury, which is doing its bit to pull the picture book out of the nursery ghetto. Thumbs up for this diplomatic move between the worlds of picture books and comics.

My former countrymen have just re-elected the US president, but I would have cast my vote for Robert Sabuda as president of the pop-up. America the Beautiful is his three-dimensional tribute to familiar (and some unfamiliar) American landmarks. A Mississippi riverboat's paddles churn sparkling water as it cruises down the book's gutter, The Golden Gate Bridge rises majestically out of a paper San Francisco Bay, the Statue of Liberty unfolds to full height in front of a New York skyline, and the Mesa Verde opens to reveal a multi-layered adobe settlement. The text to the classic anthem "America the Beautiful" is the scaffolding on which these gorgeous white tableaux are hung. Tucked into a pocket is a mini pop-up booklet of the anthem's lesser known verses. Sabuda's choice of pop-up imagery in the mini book is surprisingly moving, as his pop-ups underscore the anthem's ideals into a challenging contemporary context; two mini pop-up Twin Towers stand alongside a verse which includes the lines: "God mend thine every flaw Confirm thy soul in self-controlThy liberty in law!"

The book is nothing short of an act of artistic patriotism using a medium innocent of politics. In this way, it stands tall as a reminder of what the democratic experiment is supposed to be about, without a trace of mawkish sentimentality.

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