CHILDREN'S BOOKS / Sink into them, smell the baby powder: Arabella Warner assesses the new crop of picture books

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The Independent Culture
CHILDREN these days are expected to learn quickly. Not just about computers and the environment, but it seems that they should be up to speed on divorce, sibling rivalry, bullying, loneliness, and all sorts of other modern social ailments. The old literary dilemmas of finding your way back after you have crossed to another world via the mirror in the parlour, or how to keep it secret that there is something very odd about the back of your wardrobe, seem small beer in comparison.

Dinosaurs Divorce by Laurene Krasny Brown and Marc Brown (Little, Brown, pounds 3.50) is not shy about its theme, there it is in the title. A jovial comic book, it centres on ruptures in a dinosaur family: perhaps not the most appropriate creature to anthropomorphise on this subject because as far as we know disagreements between dinosaurs were more often solved by a fight to the death than trial separation. And, anyway, divorce is far from extinct. The book opens with a treasure hunt for words, and you can just hear the shouts of delight when the child discovers the words are 'family counsellor', 'solicitor' and 'judge'.

Cavils apart, it is a brave attempt to see divorce from a child's perspective, written from the authors' own experience, which captures a child's sense of optimism. So long as the child is a product of a secure, amicable divorce, it concludes, then they will grow into a secure, amicable adult. Which, you might think, is a lesson better served up to feuding parents.

Bully by David Hughes (Walker Books pounds 8.99) offers no such security. In this Lord of the Flies for six-year-olds we are treated to the reality of the playground, a place where a child is on its own and there is no family counsellor to broker peace. Teddy is picked on for no other reason than because he is furry; sides are taken, a battle ensues into which everyone plays bully. The short, sharp dialogue and childlike, aggressive drawings are powerful and not a little disturbing. Worse, there are no solutions. Read this to children at bedtime and you'll need a book on how to counsel for nightmares.

No such problem with Giving (Walker, pounds 6.99) which plunges the child into a very different world. Shirley Hughes can always be relied upon to present the cosy ideal of the white middle class. Here, everyone lives in houses with gardens the size of Regent's Park and life revolves around giving teddies presents and dollies tea parties. In this world, if your baby brother knocks down your castle of bricks, you might be tempted to give him a swipe. But, bless me, you would never dream of actually doing it.

Shy Roland by Marilyn Talbot (Anderson Press, pounds 6.99), the next course of pre-school therapy, is, as the title suggests, about the attempts of a large hippopotamus called Roland to overcome his shyness. If Roland had been a character in Bully he would have stood no chance. But here he is lucky to have a mouse friend by the name of Lester who takes him shopping. Roland's new wardrobe of clothes give him a self-confidence which puts paid to all his past inadequacies. But surely in losing the shy Roland by dressing him up in smart clothes Talbot has created a far greater monster, a vain dandy.

Big Panda Little Panda by Joan Stimpson (Andre Deutsch, pounds 7.99) confronts a more universal predicament, sibling rivalry. This is the charming, gentle story of how the birth of a baby brother changes 'Little Panda' into 'Big Panda' and all the adjustments that this entails. There isn't any more to the storyline than that ('Big Panda' inevitably takes to his little brother) but it is a message that sits well with Meg Rutherford's pictures, which are so soft that you can almost sink into them and smell the baby powder.

In Under the Stairs by Fiona Dunbar (Hutchinson, pounds 8.99) Sophie has the opposite problem to 'Big Panda': she is an only child with no one, sibling or otherwise, to play with on her Sunday afternoon trips to Aunt Sarah's. But an exploration into the cupboard below the stairs reveals a world where shoe brushes and wellies come alive to do battle with the Golflogog and the Hooversaurus. Sophie's world under the stairs may not be as well-realised as Alice's in Wonderland or Lucy's in Narnia, it it is, all the same, a wonderfully inventive picture book which relies on the imagination to solve problems.

Escape, imagination and invention are at the centre of No Problem by Eileen Browne (Walker Books, pounds 8.99). It is a witty jaunt through the attempts of Mouse and his friends to twist and turn, fiddle and twiddle, and shift and shove a huge pile of bits and pieces as they try to construct a machine that will transport them to Rat's house. Each animal sees the task in hand as 'no problem' (a phrase listening children will shout enthusiastically without prompting) and build all kinds of contraptions, none of which quite work. With names like 'Jaloppy-Doppy' and 'Biker-Riker' they are instantly recognisable to the child who spends his days building gadgets out of the Basic Lego Kit. And not a stepmother or divorce settlement in sight.

A lone bear with a ball, from an exquisite collection of photographs of 'everyday things' by Edward Steichen. The First Picture Book was originally published in 1930, and is now re-issued (Cape, pounds 12.99) with an afterword by John Updike in which he writes that Steichen 'gives his little subjects the gravity and power of a child's first impressions.'

(Photograph omitted)