CHILDREN'S BOOKS / Whales and sheer piggism: Arabella Warner on picture books

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The Independent Culture
IT IS hard to pick up a young children's picture book these days which does not have an environmental message writ large. Weariness of the genre, however, should not put you off Christopher Rush's Venus Peter Saves The Whale (Canongate Press pounds 6.95). Unlikely to sell well in Osaka or Oslo (where they tend to save the whale only for the second course), it nevertheless deserves to surface everywhere else.

Set in a small Scottish coastal village so romantic and old-fashioned that the fishermen still snare fish rather than submarines in their nets, it records the attempt of a small boy, Peter, to rescue a beached whale, using only a length of rope and his grandfather's trawler - The Venus.

It takes five pages for Peter to get his grandfather out of bed, and it is a little hurried at the finish (the whale is floated at the first attempt); but the language and illustrations keep you entranced. The screeches of the seagulls, the cold northerly wind and tang of salt soak each page. The pictures are surreal, inventive (squint your eyes and the seagull formation turns into a written message) and well-observed (Peter chooses to remain in his pyjamas throughout). And the musical writing catches the imagination where meaning alone doesn't.

Take Peter's first meeting with the whale: 'Greater and greener than a great big hill, studded with starfish and sea shells like daisies growing on its back.' Rush's prose (in the novel, the film and now the children's book) seems to survive each reincarnation.

Can Piggles Do It? by Frank Rodgers (Puffin pounds 3.50) is also a story with its heart in the right place, but the rest of its physiology is all over the shop. Piggles is a young pig who, in a piece of stereotyping a Hackney librarian might deem Piggist, eats too much junk food and watches too much television. As a result he can't keep up with his friends at games of tag and football (interestingly, there is no Nintendo, a game he'd probably have won trotters down).

Suddenly, halfway through the book, this lumpen pile of pork scratchings discovers swimming. Overnight he turns from a porcine Bernard Manning into Johnny Weissmuller. His friends lie in exhausted puddles, unable to keep up. A happy ending? Not really. Our road-testing panel of under- sevens found it very unlikely: how did Piggles learn to swim so easily without arm-bands? If keeping fit were that simple, we'd all have the bodies of Michelle Pfeiffer (or Linford Christie). And what's the point anyway, if you end up as excluded as when you began?

No-one is excluded from Shimmy Shake Earthquake collected and illustrated by Cynthia Jabar (Little, Brown pounds 8.99). Flip in and out of this colourful collection of poems, celebrating every dance from the polka to the polonaise, and you'll find it hard to sit still. Though inspired teachers might want to put some of the poems to music, it is really a book about the richness of language and rhythm. There are no rules. Some, like Margaret Mahy's 'The Man from the Land of Fandango' are funny, alliterative nonsense poems. In others, such as 'Rackety-Bang' by Thomas Rockwell, where 'loose limbed Cindy / danced the lindy', you find yourself swerving in and out of different beats like an out-of-control bumper-car. Don't be surprised to be woken by the chant 'Good Morning daddy] / Ain't you heard / The boogie-woogie rumble / Of a dream deferred?'

Language is not the principal consideration in Ghost Train by Stephen Wyllie and Brian Lee (Orchard pounds 9.99). The story of three ghosts' search for a place to haunt, it is written in the straightforward narrative of the TV tie-in, with a few corny Jokes like 'we laughed so hard we nearly lived'. But the double-page illustrations leer out from every spread: there are even 3-D holograms of ghosts. The impatient fingers of our judging panel soon smudged the holograms, however, and the book seemed lost without them.

Tired is not the word to describe the children's reaction to Dr Xargle's Book of Earth Weather by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross (Andersen Press pounds 6.99). Confused, more likely. Dr Xargle is a sort of alien Michael Fish, giving a lesson to a class of space creatures about the kind of weather to be found on earth, and the silly things earthlings do to protect themselves from it.

The text and illustrations might amuse a 35-year-old child, but went further over the heads of our road-testers than the space shuttle. Only a lady's dress blown up to reveal her knickers caused a snigger amongst the children, but even this provoked the questions: 'why is she wearing shorts?', 'why are they held up by a belt?', and 'why do they say on the side 'a present from Torquay Zoo?' '

Confusing is not a criticism to be levelled at The Honey Hunters by Francesca Martin (Walker Books pounds 8.99). This is a traditional African tale, in which the little grey honey-guide invites first a boy, then a cock and then a succession of animals to come join him in his search for honey. His lively repetitive call 'Che, che] Cheka, cheka, che]', the ever-increasing procession of animals, and the ending with a message is a stock formula, but it never seems to wear thin. Anyone can appreciate the extraordinary African light captured by Francesca Martin's illustrations. And all at a price considerably lower than a safari for four.