Buses for elephants and insects with giant jaws
Michael Glover picks out the best Spring titles and encounters vegetable frocks, blue giants and wartime euphoria
Saturday 08 April 1995
Poetry is a robust art which, at its best, has no difficulty in engaging with themes that are important to children now. Two new collections, Mike Harding's Bus for the Elephants (Viking, £8.99) and Gareth Owen's The Fox on the Roundabout (Collins, £8.99) have robustness and contemporary vigour in abundance. Harding's are most often set in the urban streets of post-war Manchester; Owen's range more widely in theme and age - from Elvis lookalikes to a good spoof on Browning that begins: "And did you once see Georgie Best . . ."
This spring, the novelist Anne Tyler turns her searching eye on family relationships in her first ever picture book for young children, Tumble Tower (Julia MacRae, £8.99), which is ably illustrated by her daughter, Mitra Modarressi. Princess Molly the Messy teaches her ever-organised family a necessary lesson in resourcefulness. The poet Ivor Cutler has also written his first picture book, The New Dress (Bodley Head, £8.99). In this sprightly and unpredictable story, Jelly makes her own new frock and decorates it with vegetables. When the vegetables get eaten by the birds, she opts for feathers. Ted Hughes offers some powerful myths in The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales (Faber, £10.99). And Jessica Souhami re-works an Asante tale from West Africa in The Leopard's Drum (Frances Lincoln, £8.99). The illustrations are outstanding. Adapted from characters created for her own travelling puppet shows, they are brightly- coloured paper cut outs which startle and enchant like shadow puppets in a live performance.
Megabugs: The Natural History Museum Book of Insects (Riverswift, £l2.99) is a pictorially enthralling guide to what over a million species of miniature monsters might be getting up to at any minute of the day or night: "A person visiting certain parts of the Amazon may receive up to 2,000 black- fly bites in a day." Gulp. The book includes hugely magnified photographs bearing such terrifying captions as: "Giant Jaws, Scourge of the Human Race". Another excellent information book this spring is Russell Stannard's One Universe: a Guide to What's Out There (Kingfisher, £9.99). Stannard is the Professor of Physics at the Open University who managed to bring the ideas of Einstein within a child's ken in the best-selling Uncle Albert books. His new one asks - and tries to answer - yet more of life's big questions: about black holes, red dwarfs, blue giants. Cartoons add to the book's user-friendliness. Angel Falls (Kingfisher, £9.99) by Martin and Tanis Jordan is an account of a trip along the Amazon to the wild country of the Venezualan Highlands. This book demonstrates how paintings of a natural habitat can sometimes reach further than the most brilliant snap in the National Geographic. Perspectives can be juggled, and emotional effects heightened.
War is a difficult matter for children of any age to engage with - the most desperate acts of expediency are easily re-written as heroism; the whole bloody business is quickly reducible to an exciting game. How can a proper balance ever be struck? Before his death in 1993, Robert Westall had been hard at work on Blitz (Collins, £8.99), a collection of four stories about the effect of the Second World War on children - the sudden appearance of a Bren gun carrier in the school bike shed; the crazed euphoria of a pilot after a crash. This is war writing for children as it needs to be - sober, fact-based, yet still tense and arresting. An earlier book by Robert Westall on the same theme, Children of the Blitz, Macmillan, £4.99) has just been re-published in paperback. The best book for children about the First World War is Michael Foreman's War Game (Puffin, £3.50). This new paperback edition is a poor, emasculated thing when set beside the original hardback - all the colour has gone; the generous format has become comparatively pinched. For all that, though, it is still a book to be bought if only for the honest way it deals with death in war. Michael Foreman has always been a consistently good writer and illustrator. This book is more that good - it is a classic of its kind.
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