Sweet dreams for sleepyheads

31st January 1997 at 00:00
KATIE AND THE DREAM-EATER By Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado Illustrated by Brian Wildsmith Oxford University Press Pounds 9.99. THE BABY WHO WOULDN'T GO TO BED By Helen Cooper Doubleday Pounds 9.99.

THE MIDNIGHT FEAST By Lindsay Camp Illustrated by Tony Ross Andersen Pounds 8.99. Brian Alderson winds down with some bedtime tales.

At a meeting about picture books, an editor claimed that one reason why parents fell for them was because they helped children to "wind down" at the end of the day.

She didn't need to prove that. Ever since picture books showed how to wind up profits by winding down children, we have had a plethora of "sleepytime tales". They tend to follow the formulae of cosy poetics or psycho-dreams, but although the patterns look easy to imitate, the natural congruence which they fashion between words and the turning pages of pictures is hard to achieve.

Katie and the Dream-Eater exemplifies this. The story posits the existence of baku: creatures who live on the other side of our dreams, where they eat up nightmares. In Katie, a young baku gets stuck on this side of dreams and has to be looked after by the family until one night, when Katie has a nightmare, Mummy and Daddy baku take him back to where he belongs.

Brief as it is, that synopsis is hardly unjust to the preposterous stories that we expect from royal authors. Its vindication lies in the hands of Brian Wildsmith, and he sets everything into his painterly language. Washed watercolour backgrounds cover pages with decorative landscapes and dreamscapes.

Much of the pictorial acreage is irrelevant to the story (such as it is), but the baku looks like a multi-coloured Dumbo, and even the nightmares have a spiky charm. But the book has an air of contrivance.

Helen Cooper's baby book also seems a bit forced. A baby insists on driving in his car instead of going to bed. Various things refuse to play with him, since they are all too tired, and eventually he has to be rescued by his mother.

The story has a rhythmic flow to it; the soft-focus paintings are restful; and there is a pictorial suggestion that he has been mooching around among his toys. There is a rift, though, between what the baby is imagining and what the artist would like him to be imagining.

A similar rift is much more successfully bridged by Lindsay Camp and Tony Ross in The Midnight Feast, where a recognition of imaginative play is fitted naturally into a family comedy. Alice is coaxing her younger brother Freddie into a midnight feast. Alice's deep-laid plans for welcoming a princess to their bedroom are carried out against a double pictorial joke.

Freddie is dispatched downstairs to collect lobsters, pomegranates, a cushion and a musical box to entertain the guest, and is shown conducting himself as an explorer, cowboy, and spaceman. Meanwhile, mum is winking at his raids on apples and biscuits. Tony Ross's colour-pencil drawings may be reminiscent of some of Raymond Briggs's in The Snowman, but that in no way detracts from his characterisation of Alice, as presiding genius, of Freddie as willing dogsbody, and of tolerant mum.

The pacing of Lindsay Camp's words and Tony Ross's illustrations is a model exercise, and the story attains a touching tenderness which is as near to perfection in the sleepytime genre as one could ask.

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