Sins and tonics

18th April 1997 at 01:00
Myths, legends, fairies and princesses abound at this year's Bologna Book Fair. Geraldine Brennan suffers from a sense of deja vu

Sloth seems the most attractive and elusive of the seven deadly sins in super-busy Bologna. Gluttony is popular but repentance is swift, and lust is a dead loss. The prostitutes take their holidays in Book Fair week. Avarice, pride, anger and jealousy are given free rein on the foreign rights market, but sloth is at a premium.

Sloth's Shoes, coming soon from Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross (Andersen), is a tonic (or should that be a sedative?). The Sloth does very little to great effect in Willis's jaunty rhyming text. The message is that a long lie-in on a comfortable branch does no harm - at worst, you will miss your birthday or grow out of your new shoes.

Meanwhile, Vivian French's witty fables of the Big Fat Hen for Levinson, illustrated by Jan Lewis, warn against compulsive over-activity without forethought. Ted Dewan does a similar job in a rowdy and wildly eccentric The Sorcerer's Apprentice (doubleday), a clear frontrunner among the legions of "retellings" lined up for this year and next.

Alongside it is Angela Barrett's studiedly elegant treatment of The Emperor's New Clothes, retold by Naomi Lewis (Walker). This Emperor and his court are poised languidly in the 1920s, maintained by an army of servants.

The story's entertainment value - seeing pride come before a fall as one pompous ass after another is duped by a couple of crooks - takes on a P G Wodehouse flavour.

Moving on from non-existent clothes to imaginary voices, Angela Barrett has produced very different illustrations for Jose-phine Poole's Joan of Arc, coming next year from Jonathan Cape. Joan is concerned with the interior where the Emperor was concerned with the exterior: there are tranquil, reflective spreads and startling shifts of perspective as the world intrudes. Definitely one of the more interesting and versatile artists on show this year, although she is not being used as widely as some.

If the Sloth could be bothered, its message to publishers might be: "less effort is sometimes more", or perhaps "don't work your big names too hard". With co-editions in mind, the major UK firms have concentrated heavily on lavishly produced treasuries, collections and retellings. Well-known artists and writers are a must, their names chanted constantly in a Bologna litany. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that next year's output will be Ten Tales of Whatever from Around the World, retold by Geraldine McCaughrean and illustrated by Michael Foreman, Jane Ray or Emma Chichester Clark.

Some of these collections have an assured future. The Orchard Book of Greek Gods and Goddesses, from the McCaughrean Chichester Clark combo, refreshes and re-frames material that will not be over-familiar to most children. Hermes, the cheeky messenger of the gods, lulls Argus to sleep with his tales of domestic upheaval in the Cloudy Citadel and rumblings in the corridors of Hades: "But Pythagoras, what exactly is a hypotoneuse?" Orchard will fill another gap on the shelf with its Book of Tales from the Opera. Less well-trodden boards than ballet stories, these come with historical introductions and costume notes. Ad le Geras's text is illustrated by Orchard regulars: hence Jane Ray's Magic Flute, Emma Chichester Clark's Carmen, Louise Brierly's Aida and so on.

Barefoot, the forerunner in producing themed collections of multicultural tales, also has an opera collection to come. Meanwhile, The Barefoot Book of Musical Tales, collected by Naomi Adler and illustrated by Greta Cencetti, will adapt well to performance. Accessible pipes, drums and fiddles are represented along-side magical balalaikas and didgeridoos.

Orion presses on with Geraldine McCaughrean's mega-collection of Myths and Legends of the World. volume Three, following the Golden Hoard and The Silver Treasure, is The Bronze Cauldron. Still to come is the Crystal Pool (not, thankfully, the Tin Bath or the Plastic Pedal Bin). The title story of volume three is about the source of all knowledge. If the series, illustrated by Bee Willey, lives up to the first two volumes, it will be the source of a large chunk of worldy wisdom in 100 tales. Could that mean a rest from myths and legends? Probably not.

Further along the crowded collection shelf, Hutchinson has an attractive Roald Dahl Treasury with illustrations from the unexpected. Babette Cole has tackled Dahl's version of "The Owl and The Pussycat" ("At a nearby inn, they had some ginAnd a pound of caviar"). Dahl has made it into Oxford's "famous lives" series, What's Their Story?, but Enid Blyton hasn't.

To aid recovery from Blyton's (birth) centenary this year, Quentin Blake (at Pavilion) has an urchin Alice and a predatory Cheshire Cat ready for Lewis Carroll's (death) centenary next year. Before that comes Adrian Mitchell's 65th birthday, celebrated by Orchard with a new poetry collection, Balloon Lagoon. For Shirley Hughes's 70th birthday, Hutchinson will publish the first Alfie book in 11 years.

Of Oxford's own collections, the Young Oxford Book of Nasty Endings by Dennis Pepper and Short: very short stories by Kevin Crossley-Holland, sound interesting enough to earn their shelf space.

Among the collections for younger readers, Orchard's Not-So-Grizzly Bear Stories by Hiawyn Oram, illustrated by Tim Warnes, are fun and engaging. Elsewhere a disturbing number of princesses, fairies and pretty pink jackets are in evidence. Sally Gardner de-sugars the pill in her Book of Princesses for Orion, but it's still alarming to hear from two publishers that: "It's princesses for girls this year, pirates for boys next year."

The latest strategies to attract boys who are past walking the plank include lashings of football. Even Preston the pig v Wolf goes into extra time in Colin McNaughton's Goal! (Andersen). Of the footie fiction for older readers, Alan Gibbons's Total Football series for Orion sounds the most meaty. Orion is also kicking off The Net, a series of virtual reality novels by adult science fiction writers and Macmillan has Dan Greenburg's series The Zack Files - accounts of an 11-year-old's paranormal adventures (typical title: Dr Jekyll - My Dentist).

Younger reluctant readers of both genders may be lured by Arthur, Marc Brown's nerd-in-training, now 20-years-old and soon to be imported from the US by Red Fox and BBC1. Arthur's home life has the appeal of Roseanne and the Simpsons, and he may well succeed.

The children least well served by the latest output are the far-from-reluctant readers who want a challenging novel but are not attracted by mass market packaging or fiction presented as information books. Most major publishers have something for them, but it takes time to find.

Gems for pre-school and younger primary children can be found on the lists of smaller publishers such as Magi (see the adventurous "life lessons" in Look Out For The Big Bad Fish and You Won't Think Of Me At All) who often do not have the option of using well known writers and artists - but still manage to sell their books abroad.

Monsieur Thermidor by Richard and Lindsey Kidd (Frances Lincoln) does not set out to teach anything, except that it is not kind to eat lobsters. It would be hard to look a plate of whitebait in the face after an encounter with the Kidds' pop-eyed dough sculptures. The fun factor of turning food into art and the sheer craziness of the setting - an underwater restaurant where seaweed soup is washed down with Entre-deux-mers - make it a winner.

Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom, who won The TES Junior Information Book Award this year for What's Under The Bed?, now send their intrepid explorers to reach for the sky in What's Up?. They have also contributed to Early Worms, Watts's new early-years non-fiction series.

Walker is continuing its experiments in putting information down-page. In Walk With A Wolf, an accomplished author (Janni Howker) who feels passionately about her subject is paired with Sarah Fox-Davies (Little Caribou) to great effect.

Perhaps the approaching millennium accounts for the trend for fiction and non-fiction to keep an eye on the hourglass and the astrological charts and lean towards myth, magic and time travel. In Angel and the Box of Time (Andersen), Michael Foreman illustrates his own text. The daughter of Angelo the showman traces her ancestors back to 1720 via Klondyke, St Louis and Italy. Pawprints in Time by Philippa Butler and George Smith (Viking) charts a cat's nine lives back to Ancient Egypt.

God is another answer and there are almost as many Bible tellings around as princesses. In God's Story: How God Made Mankind (Walker), Jan Mark retells the Midrash Rabbah from Creation to Babylon. Hodder has a retelling of The Pilgrim's Progress by Geraldine McCaughrean. There is also a fleet of Noah's Arks for escaping millennial floods, notably those built by Lizbeth Zwerger (North-South) and by Lucy Cousins, who has just won the Bologna non-fiction prize for Maisy's House (Walker).

Why not load the surplus Arks with the surplus princesses, the fairies and the Famous Five, send them out to sea, and sit out Apocalypse 2000 in peace? Move up on that branch, sloth.

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