The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, By Sam McBratney, Illustrated by Ivan Bates, Walker Pounds 8.99
The Brave Ones, By Tony Kerins, Walker Pounds 5.99
Running Away From Home, By Nigel Gray, Illustrated by Gregory Rogers, Andersen Press, Pounds 9 99
A New Home for Tiger, By Joan Stimson Illustrated by Meg Rutherford, Andre Deutsch Pounds 9.99
Old Pig, By Margaret Wild, Illustrated by Ron Brooks, Viking Pounds 10. 99
The Nodland Express, By Anna Clarke, Illustrated by Martin Rowson, Macmillan Pounds 8.99
Picture books can help children cope with their fears. Robert Dunbar explains how. There is a well established tradition of picture books in which text and illustration combine to allay childhood anxieties. In the most successful of these the verbal and visual elements simultaneously work on the reader's imagination, skilfully balancing a suggestion of fear and a promise of reassurance.
Striking this balance is a complex business, as the temptation for writer and artist is often to sacrifice subtlety to message or, even worse, to whimsy. It is, therefore, to the credit of the titles reviewed here that, to varying degrees, they offer comfort without condescension.
Sam McBratney's text is a variation on one of the best known of all picture-book motifs, that of the child who wants to move from the security of home to experience the delights and dangers of a wider world. Here the protagonists are three young mice who eventually persuade their wise old mentor to allow them to travel up the staircase at the top of which, they understand, the monster lives. If the identity of this creature hardly comes as a surprise to the reader, it certainly comes as a shock to the mice, who hurriedly retreat downstairs "for warm, safe, wonderful home".
Ivan Bates's illustrations, particularly those which depict the ascent of the staircase, are full of shadowy menace.
The dark of the outside world figures also in Tony Kerins's The Brave Ones and, again, as a foil to the safety of home: here, however, the overall mood is lighter and the language more jocular. Five animals fearlessly march homewards through the various hazards of the woods, their thoughts focusing on their absent friend Little Clancy, who, to their surprise, is apparently not at home when they arrive. But, as his raucous welcoming of them gloriously demonstrates, he has been lying in wait, providing an even more "terrible fright" than they had encountered on their journey. The illustrations tellingly juxtapose windswept woods and warm interiors.
With its cast of human, as distinct from animal, protagonists, Running Away From Home provides a much more direct and hard-edged treatment of childhood pain than the preceding books. Sam, portrayed as about eight, has a father who on one particular Sunday is "even more bossy and obstreperous than usual". The boy's response is to make elaborate preparations to leave home, but his intent is thwarted by a downpour: he is forced to shelter, a waiting period stunningly depicted in a sequence of eight snapshot-size pictures, each marking the boy's gradual descent into loneliness and dejection.
Home he goes - he has forgotten his toothbrush - and slowly becomes integrated once again with his family, in a conclusion which beautifully places parental control beside youthful single-mindedness.
This is a triumph of co-ordination of text, layout and especially illustration, the last of these being typified by boldly naturalistic and symbolic detail.
With "the cheerful tawny tiger" who is the hero of Joan Stimson's text, the desire is less to run away from home than to run back to it. The traumas of moving house and the unease which can characterise accommodation to new surroundings are here conveyed with some humour in the guise of a pleasant, if predictable, animal story. It is all attractively cosy, a comment which applies equally to Meg Rutherford's artwork.
While porcine cosiness seems to dominate the opening pages of Margaret Wild's story, the careful reader (or listener) will soon detect the fragility which lies within it. From the moment that we hear Old Pig's granddaughter promise that she will eat up her corn and oats if it means that grandmother will live forever, we realise that we are not dealing with immortals. The narrative interest now focuses on the ways in which granddaughter will accept her growing understanding of the loss she will suffer - though not before, in a glowing succession of double-page spreads devoted to "looking and listening, smelling and tasting", she and grandmother savour life's final hours.
Ron Brooks's illustrations are affectionate (and often poignant) endorsements of the notion that love and happiness, short-lived as they are, must be treasured for every moment they are ours.
The Nodland Express is a clever, engaging bedtime story about bedtime stories, given particularly vivid representation in Martin Rowson's illustrations. Maude and Isaac embark by train on a magical mystery tour of childhood dreamland: a journey which, despite many contemporary features, also has echoes of the dream that inspired Carroll and Tenniel. However odd some of the children's travelling companions and however disorienting the landscapes glimpsed through the compartment windows, the line dividing dream and nightmare is never crossed.
The circular format of the tale achieves appropriate resolution, with the children safely back in their own beds on the final page.