Skip to main content

We're off to see the wizard

Geraldine Brennan previews a galaxy of worlds within worlds and heavens above at the latest international children's book jamboree, where publishers display their wares for the forthcoming year.

Venus in the shower, Whistler's mother watching Michelangelo on telly and a disgruntled Mona Lisa heading for the wine cellar. Another typical day in Botticelli's Bed and Breakfast, the fruit of five years' labour from Jan Pie+nkowski.

Pie+nkowski's mega-pop-up crams the history of Western art into the shell of a house, from the cave paintings in the basement to the Mondrian bathroom towels. It can be "explored" from above and below as well as from four sides.

Elsewhere in the narrative jungle of the Bologna Children's Book Fair, there's a rather more humble residence where Goldilocks, leaving a trail of yellow peril, slithers upstairs after tangling with chairs and cereal bowls.

The simpler edifice of the Three Bears' cottage has been presented by New Zealand artist Pacquita Maher as a six-foot strip, with a similar treatment of Little Red Riding Hood on the reverse.

These dramatically different constructions have only two things in common. First, they both fold away into something that looks like a book. Second, there are no words in either of them, although there is plenty to read. The Pie+nkowski, star of Kingfisher's autumn list, leaves scope for dozens of stories in its presentation of the Renaissance greats as a branch of the Addams Family. It will be appreciated into adulthood by children old enough to handle complicated pop-ups, with endless new connections and discoveries lurking in its nooks and crannies.

Maher's fairy tales, coming soon from Bloomsbury, are told in symbols that have to be decoded. A simpler version of a heavily encrypted Snow White published in Switzerland, they are intended to lure reluctant readers who may be familiar with computer icons but unattracted by books. Maher requires them to make imaginative leaps to grasp the tale, but they do not have to grapple with text until their appetite for stories has been whetted.

The extended strip would make a good classroom frieze and a useful resource for teaching narrative structure, with children inventing codes for their own or others' stories. Both the eminent Pie+nkowski and Maher, a new discovery by Bloomsbury, demonstrate ways in which books are changing shape alongside developments in information technology, responding to readers' increasing prowess at looking at things in different ways.

The next year's UK information books on show at Bologna reveal publishers constantly seeking new tools for carving up the body of knowledge. Orion's two approaches to the passage of time are among the more interesting titles on offer. Metropolis is a history of cities one for each century, from Jerusalem in 1000 to New York approaching the millennium. There are bird's-eye drawings, timelines and analysis of the relevant century's importance in the city's development and in the world. In the Next Three Seconds focuses on the minutiae of the physical and social world, chopped into the time it takes for things to happen from three seconds to three centuries.

Elsewhere, the ancient civilisations are about to hit the newstands as Walker ventures into non-fiction. Greek News and Roman News snappy, intriguing, accessible retellings of history in newspaper format are due out this summer and Inca News, Aztec News and Egyptian News will follow shortly. Walker's forthcoming Bright Sparks series looks likely to take a similarly irreverent approach if its opening title on insects, Wings, Stings and Wriggly Things (incorporating "Wriggly Diggers" and "Hard Cases"), is typical. Design and illustration are funky but low-key, the opposite of the Dorling Kindersley virtual-reality-on-the page approach. DK's next information book range, Inside Guides, will strip "Amazing Bugs", "Animal Homes" and "Super Structures" down to essentials with around 20 titles to follow.

Stephen Biesty's new title, Incredible Explosions, due out in August, packs Metropolis on to a page in one drawing, "Big Bang", which slices through stages in a city's evolution. DK is also issuing all Biesty's Cross-Sections books in one volume in October.

Ruler of the multimedia galaxy at Bologna is DK's Stardome feature in its Eyewitness Encyclopedia of Space and the Universe on CD-Rom. This takes in all the stars visible over 10,000 years, showing the night sky from any longitude and latitude position. DK is also working on hybrid CD-Roms which come with instant passage to relevant World Wide Web sites. Its longer-term response to virtual reality technology a joint project with the French publishers Gallimard to produce paperback fiction for Internet-literate competent readers is more unexpected. No titles have been commissioned yet but futuristic layouts and Face-style typography can be expected editorial director Sue Unstead wants a "dynamic visual style" for novels which "assume eight-year-olds know all about the Internet and the technology of the future".

Meanwhile, Macmillan is about to launch an Internet Detectives series by Michael Coleman, and Helen Dunmore's Fatal Error, set in a virtual reality theme park, is on the Corgi Yearling autumn list.

From novels with a virtual-reality feel to faction that reads and looks like a picture story. Tessa Potter's wildlife stories for Andersen, all set in the same Ken Lilly landscape but in different seasons, put the un-twee characters of Greyfur the mole, Digger the rabbit and others in an accurate setting and real-life predicaments, with room for the imagination to play. Sally Grindley and illustrator John Butler achieve a similar fusion in Little Elephant Thunderfoot, from Orchard in association with the wildlife charity Elefriends.

Picture books about children from different cultures strongly represented this year also play with the balance between fact and fiction and between photographic and painterly representation. Muhammad's Desert Night, a story of a young Tuareg goatherd by Cristina Kessler is a forthcoming title from Gollancz with a poetic text and sublime desert landscapes. Prodeepta Das's I is for India, a photographic journey around Orissa from Frances Lincoln, takes the contrasting approach used successfully in Ifeoma Onefulu's A is for Africa.

Meanwhile Barnabas and Anabel Kindersley, who won a TES junior information book award for Children Just Like Me, are about to embark on their next nuts-and-bolts project for DK a guide to children's festivals around the world.

Next season's picture books for younger readers will continue to explore the familiar themes of friendship, self-esteem and learning from each other, as in Max Velthuis's Frog is Frog by Sally Grindley and Susan Varley's Why is the Sky Blue? (both from Andersen). Childhood fears are kept mostly at bay this year: even Little Bear and Big Bear steer clear of hazards in You and Me, Little Bear, Martin Waddell and Barbara Firth's latest title for Walker.

The exceptional forthcoming picture books for young children or those starting to read alone are those which show children escaping their immediate environment. Mark Haddon and Christian Birmingham's The Sea of Tranquillity (Collins) and Tony Ross's Midnight Feast (Andersen) are outstanding examples.

Stories which require reading without benefit of paper engineering or codes are not completely out of fashion in fact the re-tellings and collections shelf will be crowded this Christmas. Make room for The Silver Treasure, the second of Geraldine McCaughrean's four volumes of Myths and Legends of the World, illustrated by Bee Willey (Orion) and for The Barefoot Book of Stories from the Sea, tales from around the world collected by James Riordan and illustrated by Amanda Hall. Jane Ray's Twelve Dancing Princesses (Orchard) and Michael Morpurgo's subversive Robin of Sherwood with Michael Foreman's illustrations (Pavilion) must be squeezed in too.

The outstanding books of the fair are those that cannot be put down even at 6pm on the third day. Swamp Angel by Anne Isaacs, illustrated by Paul O Kelinsky, is a strapping tale of a Tennessee giantess and her hilarious battle with Old Tarnation, a varmint of a bear (Viking). Starry Messenger, Peter S!s's touching chronicle of Galileo's life (Barefoot), echoes the quality of his Three Golden Crowns.

Finally, Lisbeth Zwerger's unsettling illustrations for the North South edition of The Wizard of Oz will give the next generation of readers a radically different perception of the Wonderful Wizard and even those of us who grew up with Judy Garland will accept her version as definitive.

You don't need a code-breaker to relish this book but you do need emerald-tinted spectacles (provided).

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you