Tales of the unexpected

24th June 2005 at 01:00
ALBERT2. By Lani Yamamoto. Frances Lincoln pound;9.99

BLUE. By Philippe Dupasquier. Andersen Press pound;5.99

NIGHT-TIME TALE. By Ruth Brown. Andersen Press pound;10.99

HARVEY THE CARPENTER. By Lars Klinting. Kingfisher pound;4.99

THE DRAGON MACHINE. By Helen Ward. Illustrated by Wayne Anderson. Templar pound;5.99

PIRATE GIRL. By Cornelia Funke. Translated by Chantal Wright. Illustrated by Kerstin Meyer. The Chicken House pound;10.99

Jane Doonan selects some refreshingly offbeat picture books for young readers

If you are looking for picture books which are just off the beaten track, in theme, subject matter or form, then read on. Lani Yamamoto's Albert2, is the second in her brilliant philosophical series for five-year-olds.

Yamamoto's work bears out the notion that you can introduce children to just about any concept if you can find the appropriate form. In the first book, entitled Albert, the boy's imaginative leaps of thought take him from here to infinity. In Albert2 Yamamoto introduces the concept of flux.

Albert's routine experience is that of being hauled from one activity to another - playtime, supper time, bath time - with no time to enjoy each one fully. Why can't things just stay as they are? But even as he looks for comfort at the stars, which seem outside time, one shoots across the sky and vanishes, and night gives way to dawn. In the morning Albert speculates that perhaps everything is always changing. Yamamoto's illustrations in fine line and selective areas of colour have a certain purity and elegance about them, as well as quiet humour.

Philippe Dupasquier's Blue is a dazzling demonstration of various styles of picture-making (collage, cartooning and frames filled by abstract patterning in blue paint). It is also a brief treatise on the value of discovering a new way of seeing and an implied salute to art and artists.

In the story, four boys find that games soon pall, whether they involve computers, football or Scalextric. Sabrina, an artist's daughter, who shares her father's creativity, invites the boys to play "the colour game".

They all lie on their backs on the roof of her house and gaze at the blue sky. That's it. However, they discover that the more they look the more they see, until gradually each boy is lost in his own thoughts and feelings. The book, with its contemplative theme, could act as a springboard for poetry and art in Years 2 to 4.

Ruth Brown offers a fresh perspective on an old genre in her Night-time Tale, which is constructed on a case of mistaken identity. The first-person narrator, a mere toddler in a sleeping suit, awakens from a bad dream and goes to tell his Mama all about it. He recalls being in a dark forest, finding a gingerbread cottage complete with scary witch, meeting a girl in a red cloak with an alarming looking Gran, then bumping into a beanstalk, and so on. The surprise for the viewer comes when he clambers into bed to join none other than Mama Bear.

Brown pulls the fur over her audience's eyes by impressive graphic ingenuity, withholding a direct view of Baby Bear's face until the right moment.

Many adults enjoy reading cookery books without necessarily doing any cooking, and Harvey the Carpenter, by Lars Klinting, could have a similar appeal for seven-year-olds, especially emergent readers. It's a DIY manual shaped by simple narrative. Harvey, a busy beaver, makes himself a toolbox and the viewer follows the whole process, with the illustrations in a supple line and wash, making every stage crystal clear. Henry's plans are included. Building the toolbox would necessitate adult supervision, but checking out the names of tools and seeing how a systematic approach and hard work can bring satisfying rewards are sound reasons for having this book on the shelf.

St George is famous for dragon-slaying, but George, the hero of Helen Ward's The Dragon Machine, becomes celebrated for rescuing them. There was a time when gentle young George was easily ignored and overlooked.

Everything changes after the mischievous little dragons, which he sees all around him, come under threat and he builds a truly magnificent flying machine to pilot them to a far-away safe place. George's fantasy materialises in a text of muted grey typeface, accompanied by Wayne Anderson's accomplished low key, dusky-hued, grainy textured pictures.

Cornelia Funke and Kerstin Meyer hoist signals about gender and jobs in Pirate Girl. When piratical Captain Firebeard and his fearsome gang capture a small boat carrying Molly, who is off on holiday to see her grandmother, they get much more that they bargained for. The approaching ship carries Barbarous Bertha (also known as Molly's mum) and her ferocious crew of women. They are on a rescue mission, alerted by a message in a bottle from Molly. Clear the decks for lively discussions with mid-primary pupils.

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