Whales, ducks and some big fish

7th April 2006 at 01:00
Geraldine Brennan admires a bumper catch in Bologna

The Bologna book fair is like speed-dating with books - thousands of them over three days. With picture books, one guarantee that this might be the real thing is that the images hold their own the morning after, and you can still remember the titles on the flight home.

David Lucas had already finished Whale, his new picture book to be published this summer by Andersen Press, when a bottle-nosed whale briefly swam up the Thames in January. His story puts the creature firmly in charge. There is a flavour of post-tsunami trauma when Lucas's big blue whale flattens the town where Joe and his grandma live. The stoical community, gathered on the whale's back, cannot find a solution but the creature itself works out how to help them survive, and leaves a beautiful legacy while enjoying a happier ending than its Thames-dwelling relative.

Whale is the third book from the creator of Halibut Jackson and Nutmeg, and an expression of confidence by the publisher in a picture book market where new titles are mostly being commissioned from guaranteed bestselling names.

Newcomers have to quickly establish themselves as something special.

Emily Gravett, whose first book, Wolves, has won an English Association 4-11 Award, has achieved just this, and is also about to publish her own third book, Meerkat Mail (coming from Macmillan this summer). The text is a collection of postcards home from Sunny, a young meerkat who is taking a gap year break from his sprawling, crowded, noisy community of meerkats. A world tour visiting relatives, in whose homes everything is fascinating but not quite right, teaches him that travel broadens the mind but home is not so bad. Gravett's meerkats share her wolves' ability to draw the reader back for repeat encounters.

The next two books from well established names do something memorable with familiar material. Helen Cooper revisits the award-winning Pumpkin Soup territory in Delicious!, to be published by Doubleday in the autumn. The pumpkin patch is empty but Duck, a faddy eater, will touch nothing but pumpkin soup. The electric hues of A Pipkin of Pepper, the previous book about Duck, Cat and Squirrel, are softened with a natural pigment palette which glows with jewelled intensity as the heat rises in the creatures'

cabin and the rejected beetroot soup hits the walls. Meanwhile the insects who had walk-on parts in the earlier books have their own storyline centred on their basement recycling plant, invisible to the souped-up inhabitants.

The Lost Happy Endings by Carol Ann Duffy and Jane Ray (Bloomsbury, autumn) is a powerful picture book for older readers (who might need adult mediation) about another kind of hunger. It deals with the importance of storytelling, the fragility of happiness and the need to guard against threats to the imagination. Happy endings are collected from the storybook woods every night and delivered in time for bedtime stories, until an old woman steals the sack of endings from Jub the collector. Children despair as Hansel is left locked in the oven and Snow White dies of the poisoned apple. While Jub saves the endings with a golden pen that writes on the night sky, the story thief meets a gruesome end worthy of Grimm.

Non-fiction which combines imaginative treatment with a long shelf-life can survive where picture books struggle. Two pop-up titles are strong and striking enough to bear investigation in the classroom: Martin Jenkins and David Hawcock's Titanic from Walker Books in October 2007 (a 32-page book with text by TES Information book award winner Jenkins, and a ship that folds out to a length of 1.5 metres; just don't try floating it) and, this autumn from Hodder, Neal Layton's The Story of Everything, the history of the world since the Big Bang in 12 spreads. These are pop-ups with a purpose in which each paper engineering function extends the text.

The other star non-fiction title of the autumn is Uneversaurus, by Aidan Potts (creator of Look What You've Said in TES Teacher), from David Fickling Books. While Potts tells us how we know what we know about dinosaurs, the late Jan Mark tells us what we have done with what we know about everything. Before her death in January, she had just finished working on Museums, an investigation of humans' drive to collect for posterity, which will be published by Walker in spring 2007, illustrated by Richard Holland. And another tribute to the author can be found in another whale book. Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is a great read but an intimidating tome for children. The new Walker edition, coming in the autumn, has not only been illustrated by Patrick Benson (the project took him four years), but "filleted" by Jan Needle, and is dedicated to Jan Mark.

Finally, Winged Chariot, the publisher devoted to bringing European picture books to a UK readership, is celebrating its first year in business by signing up at least one gem from France during the book fair for publication later this year or early 2007. Attends... (Wait) is a first book by mother-and-daughter team Suzy Chic (writer) and Monique Tonvay (illustrator), a deceptively simple, engaging story about the responsibilities of caring for nature as seen through the relationship between a child and a tree.

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