Winter breaks

21st February 2003 at 00:00
Jane Doonan finds picture-book heroines brought to life

QUEEN MUNCH AND QUEEN NIBBLE. By Carol Ann DuffyIllustrated by Lydia Monks. Macmillan Children's Books pound;12.99

BRIGHT PENNY. By Geraldine McCaughrean Illustrated by Paul Howard. Viking pound;10.99

MIRANDA THE EXPLORER. By James Mayhew. Orion Children's Books pound;9.99

Through the Tempests Dark and Wild: a story of Mary Shelley By Sharon Darrow. Illustrated by Angela Barrett. Walker Books pound;12.99

RUBY'S WISH. By Shirin Yim Bridges. Illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Chronicle BooksRagged Bears pound;10.99

Escape the winter blues and explore imaginary and real places in the company of heart-warming heroines. Queen Munch and Queen Nibble, written by the poet Carol Ann Duffy, is all wit and wisdom, a deeply moral tale with no finger-wagging.

Some writers for children tell them what to think, but Duffy lets them think for themselves by reading between the lines about friendship and difference. Rumbustious Queen Munch not only enjoys fine food, she resembles it too, and lives in a wedding cake of a castle. Ethereal Queen Nibble, thin as a stick of celery, has no appetite, and nothing pleases her more than making jewellery from rain drops.

When they first meet, the sight of Munch causes Nibble to look like "a ghost on a diet". Happily, the generosity of the former and the courtesy of the latter enable them to reconcile their differences and become best friends. Lydia Monks creates the Queendoms with paint in yummy hues of blancmange pink, grape green, banana yellow, pickled-onion pearl-grey, and collage snipped from lace, tweed and tapestry.

Bright Penny by Geraldine McCaughrean is another humdinger of a text for children, and with illustrations by Paul Howard is sure to put a smile on their faces. This picture-book has a puzzle to solve before the last pages turn.

Bill, Bob, and Penny take on a wager with Pa to fill the barn for one penny. Bill, in his entrepreneurial deal with a turkey farmer, stuffs the barn with feathers. Fine until the door opens, thenI Shucks! Bob, taking a creative approach with candles, attempts but fails to fill the barn with light. That leaves Penny. I mustn't give the plot away but she sure lives up to her name.

Howard's genuinely humorous illustrations have robust characters, colours warm as high-noon sunshine, and surfaces as tactile as denim and homespun linen. Concept and delivery are just the bees' knees.

James Mayhew's graphic style is a partnership of fine nervous line and lively brushwork. Its very lightness of touch means it's well-suited to record the airy journey of Miranda the Explorer. Intrepid Miranda, who wins a ride in a hot-air balloon in a competition, finds herself sailing away alone when the anchoring rope breaks. Around the world she goes, taking in great sights, and making friends everywhere.

There are five sources of information - the main text, speech balloons with hand-written words in many languages, captions, pictures on panels, and large and small-scale maps. The abundance of the visual narrative ensures rewarding re-readings and could spark interesting projects in the classroom.

Sharon Darrow's text about Mary Shelley, Through the Tempests Dark and Wild, is assembled from many parts: biographical facts, a fictionalised account of a period in Shelley's mid-teens spent in Scotland, and stories within this story. The psychological spark needed to bring the words to life is generated by Angela Barrett, an outstanding collaborative illustrator, whose interpretation is in the spirit of the early German Romantic artists. The cover painting, set in a raging electric storm on mountain peaks, shows Mary reaching out to her Monster with a tender gesture. Significant indeed. Interior settings are introspective, brooding; elsewhere, landscapes featuring water are witness to Mary's solitary contemplative figure. Key scenes from Frankenstein run in a miniature continuous border below Darrow's historical Afterword.

Shirin Yim Bridges has based Ruby's Wish on her grandmother's childhood in old China, when few girls were taught to read and write. Nevertheless, Ruby had the determination to realise her ambition to go to university. The illustration in gouache is by Sophie Blackall, who adapts the pictorial conventions of Far Eastern graphic art for her serene compositions with their unfamiliar perspectives and decorative play on shape. Outlines drawn in red pen provide a harmonious and continuous link through the pictorial sequence, much as rhyme functions in verse.

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