A successful picture book needs a good spoonful of charm skilfully dropped into the cooking pot. Not enough, and the book will make for bland reading; too much, and it becomes too sweet and gooey. Measuring the charm ingredient is a delicate procedure and the following three titles get it just right.
The most bewitching of the pack is The Hollyhock Wall (Walker pound;9.99) with text by Martin Waddell, and featuring Salley Mavor's amazing mixture of diorama, embroidery, and - believe it or not - gardening.
At first glance, The Hollyhock Wall might look like a collection of very pretty pictures and a fairy tale of a faintly familiar sort. A bored child builds a toy garden in an old cooking pot., and then, "...somehow, some strange how, something strange happened..." Waddell shifts between the "real" world and that of the imaginary garden and back again. The changes are signalled by italic, which works a treat to make the text suddenly more magical.
After a while I became aware of a more sophisticated theme, much of which arose from Mavor's illustrations. Reality and the imaginary world are represented by an ironic use of stitchwork scenes representing the real world, while scenes taking place in the imaginary model garden are all set within what appears to be a living bonsai-style garden. This is an ingenious flip-flopping of reality and the imagination which provides much food for thought for those who are swept up in the current preoccupation with visual literacy.
Mavor herself must be obsessed to have heaped such a monstrous amount of love and labour into this book. Her embroidery tableaux are exquisitely crafted and photographed to highlight their three-dimensional qualities; they're bound to inspire loads of kids to whip out scissors and glue - if not sewing needles and fertiliser.
It's not often we see books by French authorillustrators translated into English, so I was delighted to see Walker bringing over Christine Davenier's Frankie and Albertine (Walker pound;9.99) originally published by Kaleidoscope. This simple tale of a pig's unrequited love for a hen is an effective lesson in the importance of being loved for what you are, not what you think you should be.
Davenier's style is quite special; her stylish watercolours have an invigorating spontaneity. Eschewing painstaking craft in favour of scribbly economy is a daring decision for a picture book illustrator to take ; an uninformed hand can produce careless scrawlings that let down young readers who demand mastery from those who would inspire their imaginations.
I know many illustrators who fearfully avoid taking on commissions for multicultural books. Illustrators of all races can find themselves struggling to please an army of interested parties. Working under the influence of the political correctness agenda, however well-meaning, makes the job extremely difficult. In many cases, such a book can end up more DOA than PC. However, Niki Daly's Jamela's Dress (Frances Lincoln pound;9.99) is bursting with life and charm. His characterisations are fresh and lively in a way that cautious photo-realism never achieves.
Daly's depiction of South African town life is akin to the best kinds of travel illustration; it make you want to walk right down the streets. The story is a small-town tale in which not a lot goes on, but the bouncy characterisations inspire curiosity about the people involved. The theme of dressing up and weddings might not get the lads stoked up, but all children will be able to relate to Jamela's remorse and self-recrimination when she is punished for ruining her mother's hard-earned dress material. Daly's free line and composition speak volumes.