Where beasties collide

22nd September 2006 at 01:00
Jane Doonan selects illustrated tales about creatures great and small to engage young readers

Moby-Dick By Herman Melville. Presented by Jan Needle; Illustrated by Patrick Benson; Walker Books pound;16.99

The Hound of the Baskervilles By Arthur Conan Doyle. Illustrated by Pam Smy; Walker Books pound;9.99

Questionable Creatures: A Bestiary By Pauline Baynes. Frances Lincoln Pounds 10.99

The Lamb Who Came for Dinner By Steve Smallman. Illustrated by Joelle Dreidemy; Little Tiger Press pound;10.99

Russell and the Lost Treasure By Rob Scotton. Harper Collins pound;5.99

Henry and the Fox By Christopher Wormell. Jonathan Cape pound;10.99

The Fantastic Mr Wani By Kanako Usui. Little Tiger Press pound;5.99

Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is a novel of enormous length, with complex themes and unfamiliar subject matter. In the latest edition for young readers, author Jan Needle and artist Patrick Benson achieve the seemingly impossible in making the gargantuan tale accessible for most secondary pupils.

Needle has edited Melville's novel to a tenth of its original length. He alternates passages of the original text with his own summary and commentary, which supplies background information, reveals developing themes, and introduces suspense. Benson's illustrations move between intense introspective drawings, and expansive frames, in line and luminous colour. A "Gloss", a map showing the voyage of the Pequod, and a detailed drawing of a whaling ship further illuminate the text.

For most primary children, however, I find that the best version of Melville's tale is the retelling by Geraldine McCaughrean, perfectly illustrated by Victor G Ambrus (in paperback from Oxford University Press).

Together these editions enable the epic masterpiece to reach students from eight to 18.

Keen readers aged 10 and above might enjoy Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles in a handsome new edition illustrated by Pam Smy. Smy's small vigorous copper-hued line drawings depict matters of fact. In contrasting style, loosely painted watercolour sketches evoke the atmosphere of the moor - a place of mist and mystery, legend and antiquity - which permeates the novel.

How about turning the key stage 2 classroom into a Scriptorium? Cut the quills, and let the children make a class bestiary about the special habits and qualities of real animals or their own imaginary beasties.

Pauline Baynes' Questionable Creatures, which draws upon various medieval bestiaries, provides the perfect model for a fantastic project. Twenty creatures are limned in meticulous line and strong colour, and accompanied by a text recording the incredible, absurd, and wondrous beliefs which were associated with them. For example, wolf dung cured cataracts, and a hyena could change its sex every year.

The Lamb Who Came for Dinner is perfect entertainment for key stage 1. A little lamb, lost in a snowstorm, knocks on a big bad wolf's door and is welcomed in. All the wolf has for supper is vegetable soup, but now lamb hotpot could be on the menu. After several close calls - will he, won't he? - wolf discovers a heart of gold under his hairy pelt. Both animals sit down to share the vegetarian option. Joelle Dreidemy creates mouthwatering effects from grainy outlines and flowing water paints.

Rob Scotton's Russell and the Lost Treasure has quirky graphics, a totally appealing hero, and a worthwhile theme - treasure is all around us, just waiting to be recognised as such. Russell, an acrobatic sheep, acquires a treasure map from a passing crow. He unearths a chest containing an old camera. Not quite what he hoped for, but he begins to take photos and before he knows what's happening, he's made treasure for himself in the form of a photo album. Smile please.

Henry, the cowardly cockerel in Christopher Wormell's farmyard tale, won't say boo to a goose, or any other creature. Buffy, a little bantam and his only friend, is being given the run-around by the hens, so she concocts a plan to make Henry appear brave for both their sakes. Predictably the plan misfires, but in the moment of deadly danger Henry finds his voice.

Christopher Wormell delivers Henry and the Fox in a traditional style with a nice old-fashioned look and feel.

Kanako Usui's The Fantastic Mr Wani guarantees oral participation in Reception class. Mr Wani, a crocodile in a hurry, is late for a party. Four mice, Mrs Crow, three penguins, a line of hedgehogs and an elephant are going to the party too. The result is a collision course (Bang!I Smash!I Yikes!I Screech!) and the chaos is cartooned in bold shapes and elegant muted colour.

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