Tight spots

29th October 2004 at 01:00
Jane Doonan chooses picture books that tap into children's emotions

A Pipkin of Pepper

By Helen Cooper

Doubleday pound;10.99

Into the Forest

By Anthony Browne

Walker Books pound;12.99

The Princess and the Castle

By Caroline Binch

Jonathan Cape pound;10.99

Who Will Sing My Puff-a-bye?

By Charlotte Hudson, illustrated by Mary McQuillan

Bodley Head pound;10.99

One Round Moon and a Star for Me

By Ingrid Mennen, illustrated by Niki Daly

Frances Lincoln pound;10.99 (pound;5.99 paperback)

Is it Because?

By Tony Ross, Andersen Press pound;9.99

Little Rabbit Goes to School

By Harry Horse

Puffin pound;10.99

Young children, who know only too well what it's like to be in a disturbing situation, are likely to empathise readily with the characters in these new picture books, in which a nugget of wisdom is embedded in each story. When it comes to being lost, Helen Cooper's irrepressible trio - Cat, Squirrel and Duck - show what not to do in A Pipkin of Pepper, a spectacular sequel to the award-winning Pumpkin Soup. They go to the big city to buy salt for their soup, but the sight of what's on offer gives Duck the idea to buy pepper as well. In the time it takes to daydream he loses sight of his friends. Instead of staying put and waiting for them to find him, he flaps around in a terrible tizzy and needs help on an escalating scale, from a mother hen to the emergency services. As well as big pictures in incandescent colour, there are mosaics of little incidents, with characters (including bugs) contributing commentaries, running wild in vignettes and generally stirring the broth. Share Cooper's recipe for success, close the covers, then hear the cries for more.

There are many paths through Anthony Browne's new fairy tale, Into the Forest, illustrated in resonating surreal style. It may be read as a version of Little Red Riding Hood; as a reworking of traditional genre elements, including a broken promise, a journey into danger, a transformation and a happy ending; as a game of intertextuality with the symbols which lie as thick as leaves on the forest floor, alluding to traditional tales and Browne's own works; or as a psychoanalytical exploration of a young boy's anxiety when his dad mysteriously leaves home.

For older children, the book could sustain many rewarding activities, including discussing the intriguing gaps in the text.

In The Princess and the Castle, by Caroline Binch, Genevieve and Jack's father has been lost at sea. Genevieve won't go near the beach, and her favourite fantasy game keeps him alive. Then one day a red-sailed boat brings a loveable giant of a man into her mother's life. How will he win Genevieve's apprehensive heart?

Binch's illustrations carry the sensory appeal of life, with the body language of the participants conveying a gamut of feelings, and broad sweeps of wash and flickering brush strokes fully exploiting the potential of watercolour. Figures appear caressed by the light that polishes cheekbones and limbs; sunshine crystallises the sand and glitters on the sea.

Charlotte Hudson and Mary McQuillan, in Who Will Sing my Puff-a-bye?, tackle the business of childminding with terrific verve and originality.

Crossfire and Puffing Billy, who are infant dragons, get their first experience of being with successive childminders, Smokescreen and Bonfire, when Mum gets a job as a firelighter for the local volcanoes. Year 1s can try playing "I Fry" and see how many word games, visual jokes and smouldering absurdities they can spot. Mary McQuillan's bold painterly cartoons have a lush surface texture. Down with St George and bring on the lava pancakes!

The narrator of One Round Moon and a Star for Me by Ingrid Mennen, illustrated by Niki Daly, is a young boy in rural South Africa. While a new baby brother delights everyone, the father's intense paternal pride disturbs the first-born's sense of self and place within the family. An embrace and a falling star reassure him. The sparse landscape, velvet night sky, and the realistic representation of figures are conveyed by fluid broken contours, and washes of paint in earthy and celestial hues.

Tony Ross raises an uncomfortable topic for Year 2 discussion in Is it Because? A bullied child puts himself in his aggressor's shoes by posing reflective questions, and even though he gets a black eye he wisely recognises that the bully is a loser in every way save physical clout. The spare rhyming text is partnered by cartoons, which evoke empathy and amusement in equal measure.

Finally, Harry Horse's Little Rabbit Goes to School will give reception class children a satisfying feeling of superiority over the bad bunny who doesn't know how to behave. The lesson Little Rabbit learns on his first day is that being wilful, selfish and unco-operative, and shifting the blame on to his toy horse just won't do. Small-scale pictures, traditionally styled, have an abundance of detail to keep viewers entertained.

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