Twilight tales

7th April 1995 at 01:00
Good Night, Stella, By Kate McMullan Illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark Walker Pounds 7.99 0 7445 3250 7. Good Night, Sleep Tight, By Penelope Lively. Illustrated by Adriano Gon Walker Pounds 7.99. 0 7445 3231 0. Owen, By Kevin Henkes, Julia Macrae Pounds 8.99 1 85681 540 4. Night Becomes Day, By Richard McGuire, Viking Pounds 9.99 0 670 86057 3.

What with the pickiness of children and the low boredom-threshold of adults, those who write and illustrate picture books have a hard task, constantly trying to satisfy two sets of very different criteria. Good Night, Stella seems to have got the balance exactly right. The text is a joy, and the illustrations, even to the most fastidious adult eye, are enchanting. Emma Chichester Clark was presented with a tough design problem by this story, since all the events take place in Stella's bedroom and could have been visually monotonous. As it is, the atmosphere changes from page to page in a most magical way, from shadowed night-light to full yellow-lit up-and-doing, then back through the rosy warmth of sleepiness into dreams.

The story turns on a father's adroit handling of his little girl's refusal to go to sleep. He suggests she should take over the duty of waiting up for Mum to come home from the pictures, as he himself is sleepy. The dialogue is dead pan and dead right.

Bed-time is also the subject of Penelope's Lively's Good Night, Sleep Tight. The girl (she is never named), in bed with her toys, goes to a forest with Lion, where they "made such a racket that the ground shivered and the stars shook". All very enjoyable. But Adriano Gon's illustrations, which work well on a small scale, have a blown-up look when they occupy a full page, rather as if the reader's nose was three inches from a Monet on which someone has scribbled in felt-tip. They are charged with vivacity, but they do not invite closer inspection.

Owen is amateurish in its visual style, with inept design and garish colour and an unfortunate tendency to make a feature of the garden fence. But the book may very well become a favourite with children, because it absolutely establishes its own world. Owen and his family are mice, and the story concerns "Fuzzy", Owen's beloved bit of blanket which goes with him everywhere - until the prospect of school looms up. The dilemma is handled with great humour and sympathy. I was completely won over by the mouse version of The Scream which hangs on the living-room wall. Munch indeed; the painter who lived on cheese-rinds.

Night Becomes Day deals with the idea of one thing becoming another, in what the blurb calls, "the most subtle of associations and unpredictable of transformations". Well, yes. The syntax is pretty unpredictable, too. Buildings may very well lead the eye or the thoughts (or both) to cloud, but they do not "become" cloud - not without a charge of dynamite. The illustrations are very flat, somewhere in the no-man's-land between Wyndham Lewis and the Mr Men. A good book for fanatical recyclers, but pretty off-putting for the rest of us.

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