Word painting

28th March 1997 at 00:00
Brian Wildsmith's Amazing World of Words By Brian Wildsmith OUP Pounds 9.99.

Building a House with Mr Bumble Dressing Up with Mr Bumble Walker Pounds 4.99 each

I Went to the Zoopermarket By Nick Sharratt Picture HippoScholastic Pounds 5.99

Alphabats By Paul Sellers Transworld Pounds 2.50 each

Crazy Creature Contrasts Crazy Creature Capers By Hannah Reidy Illustrated by Clare Mackie De Agostini Pounds 4.99 each

One serviceable approach to building vocabulary is provided by thematic picture word books such as Usborne's First Thousand Words and Collins's First Word Book, worthy tomes both. But Brian Wildsmith's Amazing World of Words may have changed the genre for good, bringing, as it does, the talents of one of Britain's leading artists to bear on it.

This world of words is portrayed from the vantage point of a space traveller visiting Earth. From the first glorious spread (on space) exploding with colour and detail and bordered with objects and words plucked out, it sustains that thematic link - the gaily dressed visitor is found frolicking in each very distinctly delineated situation. The progression from distant environments - desert, jungle - through to the better-known scenes of town and playground develops satisfactorily from global themes to the familiar (apart from dinosaurs, constantly fascinating to young children, which are squeezed in somewhat laboriously by a visit to the Natural History Museum). A thumb index and alphabetical index cross-referencing words to subject areas extends the book's usefulness.

Early vocabulary is a fertile area in children's books, particularly if a publisher wants to employ a notable illustrating talent. But the two needs - to utilise fresh talent and to build a child's vocabulary - do not always complement each other.

The Mr Bumble books make a bright attempt at meeting these two needs. Simple but expressive animals develop a story, using a limited range of words and fold-out flaps to reveal the answer to each spread's question: "Goose wants to bang in some nails. What will she use?" This is an enjoyable way of learning words.

The same cannot be said of Nick Sharratt's I Went to the Zoopermarket, a flap-book flagged for "2-5 years" and published in a new sturdy boardbook edition. This is great fun but, word-wise, not much help. A "daft dessert" of "Ape-Ricot Yoghurt" (under the flap is an ape) and the "oddest onions" (the "prickled onions" flap discloses a hedgehog) may just about do, but "fabbo fruit" ("kanga-roobarb") won't.

Decidedly less zany is the Alphabats series, recounting alphabetical adventures - Amazing Apple, Big Bubble, Cuckoo Car, up to The Happy Hat Adventure so far. In thorough fashion, each concentrates on a chosen letter, although this can put strain on the storytelling. The illustrations of the letters, with arms and legs, have an oddly old-fashioned air, but are redeemed by engaging vignettes (the rabbits and lambs rolling on the ground laughing in The Amazing Apple Adventure should appeal).

Crazy Creatures Concepts is a series published by De Agostini, in a list which has an overall perspective on children's development. Editor Anna McQuinn has put a lot of thought into early titles with extensive testing of the books, which list thanks to Chalvey Nursery School and Salt Hill Nursery in Slough.

The series' overriding strength is the illustration - the odd but rather beguiling and erratic creatures, zinging with colour and movement, override the occasional difficulties in choice of concepts. The desire for alliteration in titles does not always enhance understanding: the two earlier ones, Counting and Colour are self-explanatory; Contrasts, dealing with opposites, passes muster as a title, but Capers, on prepositions, doesn't. There are occasional oddities in the text: some opposites in Contrasts don't work as well as others. "Spotless", for example, has another connotation apart from the absence of spots. But the dizzy representation of "at", as in "at the crazy party", deserves full marks for imagination, and the pace and charm of the creatures overcomes all.

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