Tales of the unexpected

28th January 2005 at 00:00
Tom Deveson looks at picture books that challenge young readers' responses

Ruby Sings the Blues

By Niki Daly

Frances Lincoln pound;10.99

Hot Jazz Special

By Jonny Hannah

Walker Books pound;12.99

Shoes News

By Jacqui Grantford

Lothian Books pound;8.99

Sometimes we come across children's books where the marriage of words and pictures is animated and unpredictable, full of dangerous conflict and generous reconciliation; with strange idiosyncrasies tolerated on either side, and onlookers never quite knowing whether their next response will be one of amusement, wonder, exasperation, anxiety or bewilderment. Such books have faults and don't achieve all they set out to do, but at least they're not boring. All three of these books are like that, and Ruby Sings the Blues is the most consistently successful.

It's a story about a little girl with a voice so loud that it offends parents, neighbours, teachers and friends. Forced into respectable silence, she has the blues until some funky local musicians teach her how to sing, and all is well again. Ruby learns to combine the virtues of emotional self-expression and artistic self-control; she creates a community of listeners by developing her own individuality. The moral fable is charmingly rooted in a recognisable urban mythscape, and its sentimental flavours are mostly balanced by humour and gentle irony. There is plenty to please and intrigue the young reader's eye.

Ruby's resounding words and her musician friends' improvised notes swirl in thick black curves across the page, battering the walls of buildings and pressing people into bent postures of submission. Her parents' apartment is neatly portrayed with minimalist furnishings, abstract sculptures and nearly-trendy bespectacled 40-something owners. The street settings look like a bygone New York, but are happily anonymous.

When Ruby sings out, the windows fill up with appreciative listeners, families of many races come out on to the steep steps and even the local cats and dogs start dancing.

The celebration of city music continues in Hot Jazz Special (pictured right). This is the first children's book from Jonny Hannah, a young illustrator and typographer who has also worked in animation and advertising. He creates a nine-member fantasy band to play at the Body Soul Cafe, introducing the performers to Henry, the boy who sweeps the floor, in a series of syncopated scat-style rhymes. Among them are Jelly Roll Morton on piano, Louis Armstrong on trumpet, Charlie Parker on alto sax, Billie Holiday on vocals, with Duke Ellington taking overall control.

A brief appendix adds short biographical paragraphs and recommends recordings such as Strange Fruit and Ornithology. The most attractive visual feature is the book's dust jacket, which unfolds into a poster of the entire band, urging us to pick up our dancing shoes, take the "A" train and join in the jumping and jiving.

Inside, the effects are striking, but repetitive. Hannah's graphics owe something to the work of artist Ben Shahn, while the lettering comes from album sleeves, posters or the illuminated signs of Times Square in New York. The pages are explosively packed with images and words, but they all tend to look similar. It doesn't seem musically fitting for Django Reinhardt's page to resemble Benny Goodman's. Children will get some buzz, but not much information.

Shoes News is based on the running joke that all human history derives from our complex and shifting relationship with our footwear. Printing is invented so that Fu Man Shoe's great book can be published; Newton formulates the law of gravity when a shoe falls on his head; even the future will involve shoes communicating with aliens via their tongues.

Excruciating puns and very silly jokes abound; ancient Egyptians stand on one foot to halve the need for sandals, while Napoleon wears "ze high heels" at Waterloo.

There are many nice visual pastiches: the modesty of naked and statuesque Greek athletes is barely preserved by the fortuitous arrangement of concealing objects; the horrors of the Dark Ages are contrasted with the glowing colours of illuminated letters; Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile is explained by the appearance of something Italian and elegant on her left foot. However, the author-illustrator's inventiveness isn't sustained. The Mona Lisa joke is duplicated with Queen Elizabeth and a pair of fluffy slippers, and too many of the later "historical" events are merely numbingly redundant variants on the word "shoe". The true marriage of words and pictures needs to last to the very end of a book.

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