Questions of life and death

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
French babies get a head start with this year's fiction winner. Geraldine Brennan finds out what other picture books are on offer

For the dog, barking and sometimes howling at the moon make it all worthwhile. The pilot's in it (life, that is) for the chance "to kiss the clouds", the sailor lives to sail the seas and the bird to sing its song.

For the blind man, it's all about trust; the baker lives to be happy enough in his work to get up early; for the stone, existence is an end in itself.

The profound and joyful answers to La Grande Question (the question itself, left unspoken, being "why are we here?") have won German artist Wolf Erlbruch and his French publisher, Editions Etre, the Bologna book fair's prize for the top fiction picture book of the year. Yet it's also an award for the 19,000 new babies who received the first copies, and the woman whose passion about young children's introduction to top quality books has made their welcome gift possible.

The Bookstart scheme gives new parents in the UK advice on reading to their babies plus a selection of baby books already on the market; the French departement of Val-de-Marne goes a step further in spending E800,000 (pound;532,609) a year to support the creation of a new picture book. Each year's title is published amid fanfare in November and sent to every new baby born the following year. La Grande Question, being sent to children born this year, is the 14th annual commission by Francine Foulquier, the departement's children's books specialist.

The guaranteed 21,000 print run means publishers can take a risk with potentially uncommercial books, she explains amid the frenzy of picture-book rights sales on the French independent publishers' stand at Bologna, where La Grande Question looked like a very good commercial prospect indeed. "We can support the author to take time and develop a project, perhaps something they have always wanted to do."

The extras go into Val-de-Marne's wide network of pre-school libraries in nurseries, doctors' surgeries and other official buildings. The departement is responsible for all children's services for up to three-year-olds, "and we believe access to literature and culture early in life is a crucial part of the child's wellbeing, as important as physical health". She considers submissions from French publishers (authors and illustrators can be based anywhere in Europe) but also likes to lobby authors she admires: Kveta Pacovksa, whose funky graphic pop-ups are art objects as much as books, is working on next year's giveaway.

"I knew Wolf Erlbruch (best known in the UK for The Little Mole Who Knew it was None of his Business) would do something wonderful," Mme Foulquier says. "I love this book because it gives the child a sense of the fullness of life and diversity of experience and it is open-ended. So much is left to the reader's mind. I like books that take the children into the wider world away from the home, that show and also celebrate each child's uniqueness."

She also wants the new baby's gift to be appreciated by parents, siblings and grandparents ("In some families, this might be the first book that comes into the house - it's the baby's entry to the wide world but also opens the world to the family"). Wolf Erlbruch's unseen baby has a brother who believes in celebrating birthdays, a sister who focuses on the importance of loving yourself and a mother whose love for the child closes the book with the ultimate answer ("You are here because I love").

Child readers are expected to grow into the references to Death (who, on the centre spread, says we are here to love life) and the soldier who exists to obey. "There is material for discussion later. The book is saying that life is a search for answers and it can take your whole life." And, Mme Foulquier adds, it's fine to be like Erlbruch's duck, whose answer is "I have no idea". There's no UK publisher for this wonderful book as yet, but you can contact Editions Etre on 00 33 1 47974467.

Back in the UK halls at Bologna, another bird is concentrating on his song in Satoshi Kitamura's Igor, the Bird who Couldn't Sing, to be published next year by Andersen Press with a dedication to Ornette Coleman. Igor has a tireless teacher, Madam Goose, whose notes come out looking like silk scarves while her pupil leans more to barbed-wire knitting. Madam Goose tries every instrument in a variety of quirky landscaped settings to coax a tune out of Igor, but he is left looking on wistfully at alley-cat jazz bands, rocking hound dogs and sheep playing symphonies. When the breakthrough comes, Madam Goose doesn't get the credit but we know she must have helped.

In the quiet corner is the classic combination of Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross, whose Sshh! sees a tiny-voiced shrew trying to spread the secret of world peace in a discreet whisper of a typeface, drowned out by urban cacophony including a rackety old-tech typing pool of sheep supervised by a goat. Try this one for assembly, followed by Sam Williams and Mique Moriuchi's Talk Peace - "two words on the lips of the world" - coming next year from Hodder. Talk Peace can be delivered to stirring effect by a whole class, as could Kevin Crossley-Holland's poetic Christmas text, How Many Miles to Bethlehem?, this year's Christmas star from Orion Children's Books. There are parts for Ox, Donkey, Bright Star ("Night-sky's many-coloured flower") and others. But first enjoy Peter Malone's pictures: the ochre and rose dusk in Bethlehem, the silver and gold desert spread like a carpet for the wise men and the awestruck ageless shepherds clutching their gifts: "a fleece, a round of ewe's cheese and a palm fan".

Before Christmas, there's summer holidays and a chance to pore over Harry Horse's intricate bunny universe in Little Rabbit Goes to School (to be published by Penguin in August), a substantial tale of Little Rabbit, his hyper-active toy horse and his saintly teacher, Miss Morag. It's a riot from the lunchbox lettuce sandwich and carrot cake devoured on the way to school to the bedraggled homecoming, with gentle encouragement on every page. This year's new pupil could be next year's protective but irritated older sibling and A Big Kiss for Alice by Sally Grindley and Margaret Chamberlain gives Alice's big brother a chance to do the decent thing when she joins him at school. From Bloomsbury Children's Books in summer 2005.

Top picture books for older children include Jon Scieska and Lane Smith's Science Verse, coming this autumn from Viking ("Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the combustion reaction of O2 + heat + fuel to form CO2 + light + heat + exhaust" and so on), and Angela Barrett and Josephine Poole's story of Anne Frank (Random House). Helen Cooper's sequel to the prize-winning Pumpkin Soup, A Pipkin of Pepper (to come from Doubleday), sees Cat, Squirrel and Duck leaving the domestic dramas of their little round house in the pumpkin patch for the electrically hued pepper pot metropolis. Cat and Squirrel, single-minded in the pursuit of salt for the soup, are less open to the possibilities of the big city than Duck, a creative spirit who is easily swayed by advertising and fatally hesitates between jalape$o and cayenne at a crucial point. This simple lost-and-found-in-the-urban-jungle tale should win older readers with its rush-hour energy and buzzy graphics.

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