CHILDREN'S SUMMER SPECIAL / Takeaway strays: Picture books

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The Independent Culture
WHAT DO romantic novels, abstract paintings and children's picture books have in common? When Mr and Mrs Howdarethey are faced with any one of them, they will exclaim loudly: 'I could do that'. Then, at even greater volume: 'Our Nigel (aged 7) could do better than that . . .' Well, sometimes you can see their point. In a pile of a dozen picture books there may be three that appeal to parents, three that appeal to children and six that nobody bothers with.

What Mr and Mrs Howdarethey want for their children is a book like Miss McTaffety's Cats by Liz Underhill (Cape pounds 8.99): tasteful, olde worlde and with a strong sense of moral certitude. The illustrations are intricate patchworks with muted colours and cut-out panels to lead the eye from one crowded interior to another. The story is simple: an old woman's life is enhanced when she takes in a band of stray cats who follow her home from a lonely meal in a restaurant, her uneaten poached salmon in a doggie-bag. For all its delicacy and restraint, it seems made for the gift market; 7-year-olds would be able to tackle it on their own, younger children would probably like to shove their fists through the 'windows'.

Blooming Cats by David R Morgan & David Parkins, Scholastic pounds 7.99. Essentially the same story, but this time it is an old man's life that is transformed by the attentions of a gang of feline friends. In contrast to Underhill's gentler, more up-market affair, the fish in this story is likely to be of the chip-shop variety, but there is a zestful bite to the scatty drawings.

Don't Climb Out of the Window Tonight by Richard McGilvray & Alan Snow, Methuen pounds 8.99. Inky blues and purples, heavily cross-hatched drawing with wacky beasts lurking in the flower beds, and a simple repetitive text encompass all those terrors that must be dealt with before a 4-year-old will sleep. Written by a boy of 7, who was inspired by an author's visit to his school.

The Bee's Sneeze by Ellis Nadler, David Bennett pounds 5.95. Bound to be loved by under-5s and disliked by parents for its crude bumpity- bump rhymes ('The bear clutched his tum . . . the tiger went numb . . . the croc did a flip . . . the whale bit his lip . . .') and flat cartoon illustrations. This is a story along the same lines as 'There was an old lady who swallowed a fly . . .' with appearances from a reasonable cross-section of the animal kingdom.

The Box by Kevin O'Malley, Stewart, Tabori & Chang pounds 4.99. Wordless illustrations of a boy and his teddy bear, off on a journey in a cardboard box. Useful for under-3s, learning to appreciate the thrill of turning a page to see what will happen next, and with enough detail (the strange aliens, the teddy caught in a cage) for them to comment on what they see.

Oscar's Spots by Janet Robertson, Blackie pounds 8.99. He's a leopard and, guess what, he wants to change his spots but, as any fool knows, that's not the way to change a life. His obsession is nicely offset by the indifference of his family (his sister is busy making eyes at a spivvy lion). Good story with a clear thread to follow and good build-up of anticipation, but let down by the rather crude drawing.

My Best Friend by Pat Hutchins, Julia MacRae pounds 7.99. How brilliant this best friend is - she can do everything, even paint without making a mess - but just as one is beginning to get sick of the little brat, she turns out to be frightened of a curtain fluttering in the dark and needing help from her best friend.

Whale is Stuck by Charles Fuge & Karen Hayles, BBC pounds 7.99. Lovely icy-cool illustrations and a heartening theme: everyone must pull together in order to save the whale, who in his joyful breaching has landed on top of an ice floe and cannot squirm back into the water. Is this an encoded message from the publishing arm of the corporation to its employees? It is a good text for reading beginners, but how realistic is it for whales, narwhals, cormorants, puffins, seals, dolphins and polar bears to be sharing the same ice floe?

Garth Pig Steals the Show by Mary Rayner, Macmillan pounds 7.99. The delightful porcine family decide to form a band, but need help with the 'oompah oopmahs' for a charity performance. A sinister figure with a sousaphone is drafted in at a moment's notice and, before you can say 'piccolo', Garth has disappeared up the tuba. Entertaining drawings illustrate a snappy, well-constructed story for over 4-year-olds, with a satisfying conclusion: a cover feature in the Porkshire Echo.

Marti and the Mango by Daniel Moreton, Stewart, Tabori & Chang pounds 5.99. Here is a little gem which can claim to be both educational and entertaining. Bright, sassy illustrations and a tropical profusion in the fruity mystery: Marti the mouse has to find a mango to take to a party - but he doesn't know what a mango is. He sets out on his alliterative search and finds a sombre gorilla guzzling guavas, a frog with figs and so on. By a process of deduction he comes close to his goal, but is helped out at the last by a friend. Perfect for reading aloud to pre-readers, who would love the repetitious listing of things.

The Sheep Gave a Leap by Hilda Offen, Hutchinson pounds 7.99. A second 'say and do' book from Hilda Offen, following last year's A Fox Got My Socks. Cleverly laid out (on the left, in vivid sherbet colours, animals act out the fantasy and on the right a little cherub imitates the movements) and good for up to 5s and 6s on wet afternoons - there is some rolling around on the floor and crashing about which may not be encouraged at bedtime.

Betty's Not Well Today by Gus Clarke, Andersen Press pounds 7.99. One of those special occasion books which also works for those in rude health. Poor Betty: 'On a day like today she'd be out and about, giving it all that she's got, swinging and sliding and riding her bike. If she was well. But she's not.' What a sad little girl, watching through the window as parents and children go off on rambles or to the seaside; then the doctor comes and . . . next morning, there she is holding up her doll, who, you then realise, has been a constant companion in every scene: 'I'm happy to tell you that I'm feeling fine, and Betty's much better today.'

Cat's Knees & Bee's Whiskers by Sandy Nightingale, Andersen Press pounds 7.99. Being an assistant to Witch Lobelia Gnomeclencher is not an easy task, especially for an impressionable young cat: one of the spells goes badly wrong. Full of witty touches in the pictures (oh for that recipe for an everlasting chocolate bar . . .) this will appeal to ageing hippy parents, who are likely to recognise both Lobelia's clothes and her attitude, and to precocious 5- to 7-year-olds.

We're Not Tired by Selina Young, Heinemann pounds 7.99. Bright, splashy illustrations show Ness and Hamish rampaging around upstairs after saying goodnight to Mum - they are off to the moon, they are explorers, they are digging for treasure (two bumps under the bedclothes). Light-hearted and carefree bedtime fun for under-5s.

The Tusk Fairy by Nicola Smee, Orchard pounds 7.99. Grannies, though often to be found in picture books, are rarely as appealing as this one, who presented Lizzie with a knitted elephant at her birth. It has been through a lot, and finally unravels when Lizzie is about 3 years old: she is inconsolable until Granny (leaping across the meadows with encouraging zest) comforts her by suggesting that sheleave all that remains - the tusks - under her pillow that night. This will strike a chord with anyone who has been faced with tears at bedtime over the lost blanket, the broken doll or the teddy on the sibling-assisted funeral pyre. But this is an upbeat story and Granny's knitting needles go click-click through the night . . .

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