Reader, there's a duck in my soup

30th October 1998 at 00:00
By Helen Cooper
Doubleday, #163;9.99.

By John Yeoman
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
Hamish Hamilton, #163;10.99.

30th Anniversary Edition
.By Judith Kerr
Collins #163;10.99.

By Judith Kerr. Collins, #163;10.99.

Jane Doonan feels sated by visual feasts

Birds of a feather flock together, and the picture books gathered here all have characters given to flights of one kind or another.

Helen Cooper's Pumpkin Soup, with its rhythmic text, syncopated layout, and rich and hot colour harmonies, is both a musical comedy (in time for Hallowe'en) and a visual feast about a bagpipe-playing cat, a squirrel with a banjo and a small singing duck who make soup together.

Stupendous discords are introduced when Duck (in charge of seasoning) wants to be head cook. Cat and Squirrel will have none of it, and Duck waddles away in a huff.

His companions search for him, their fears for his safety taking flight, inflating and floating across the page openings until he's found. Then the animals learn to share and take turns - well, temporarily. Though Cooper brings her story to an amusing resolution, the final illustration shows it's no more simple and permanent than those that occur in power squabbles in the playground. The trio are outrageously attractive characters and such is Cooper's command of technical effects, you can almost taste the colours, touch the textures and lose yourself in the autumnal landscape.

Up With the Birds by John Yeoman, illustrated by Quentin Blake, is a brilliant near-parody along the lines of one of Kipling's Just So stories, set several years ago before birds (and men) began to fly. Imagine how difficult it was then for the Fflyte family, who lived in a small town where there were lots of birds.

They clogged up Mrs Fflyte's vacuum cleaner nozzle, delayed Mr Fflyte's van, and were so thick underfoot that the children had to carry their bikes to school. To escape the birds, Mr Fflyte - a latter-day Leonardo - invents a flying machine suspended by gas-filled balloons. The birds are fascinated, especially the kestrel and skylark, but it's a sparrow that makes the evolutionary breakthrough. Blake's outlines mobilise the visual action, with paint touched in as lightly as the loose feathers which flutter through the scenes.

One of the most enduring of modern picture books, Judith Kerr's The Tiger Who Came to Tea, now appears in a 30th anniversary edition, to be shared between today's children and their parents, many of whom will remember the first appearance of this celebrated animal. Sophie and her mummy are taking tea in the kitchen, a ring at the door, and in the threshold is a huge hungry talking tiger, with beautiful sly eyes, an enigmatic smile and a svelte pelt. Kerr's treatment of this wild flight of fancy is a matter-of-fact feat.

Thirty years on, she gives us a new and equally monumental eponymous hero, this time with wings, in Birdie Halleluyah! Birdie is the guardian angel, secret friend and conscience of a young boy who loves football. When, on duty, Birdie is so often distracted by his own innocent pleasures that small accidents mount up like the sticking plasters on the boy's body,but Birdie swoops to the rescue when the child's obsession with his football leads him into real danger.

The artwork is beautiful, achieved with such modest means: pencils, crayons, sepia ink, and finest liquid gold pen line. The image of the guardian angel is one of ethereal solidity: immense hands and feet, skin pale as marble, seraphic smile, long fair hair. There is a striking difference between Kerr's two books in the dynamics of the relationship between words and images. In the earlier book, the pictorial context serves to underline the words; in Birdie Halleluyah! the words provide a simple framework upon which the story grows through the images.

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