Sprightly words and sparky pictures: who’d be without books?

Children’s books

Sat, Mar 8, 2014, 01:00

The lull in children’s publishing that characterises the immediate post-Christmas period is, where 2014 is concerned, already well and truly over: what was in January a trickle of new titles has become a torrent. This year there seems to be particular freshness and variety in some of the books intended primarily for the youngest readers. This is a welcome development, as this is an age group often fobbed off with the second-rate or the meretricious. Accordingly, all the books mentioned here are aimed at readers aged somewhere between four and 10, although many will also have a wider appeal.

At a time when the future of the book is increasingly under threat from the advances of technology, it is wonderful to be confronted by a title as eye-catching in its apparent simplicity as A Book I s a Book (Gecko Press, £8.99). Written by the New Zealand poet Jenny Bornholdt and illustrated by Sarah Wilkins, this beautifully produced small-format hardback simply comprises a series of statements about books, the joys they bring to their readers and their value in promoting curiosity and discovery. The tone throughout is celebratory, the illustrations witty and child-centred. The whole enterprise is delightfully free of preachiness, giving us a book that is, indeed, a book – but much else besides.

The truth of one of Bornholdt’s observations – “Reading a book of pictures is still reading” – will become immediately obvious to the “reader” of Chris Haughton’s picture book Shh! We Have a Plan (Walker Books, £11.99). True, there is a minimalist text of just over 100 words, but it is in the dynamism of the magnificent artwork that Haughton’s creativity is most clearly visible. His combination of collage and silhouette, aided by a judiciously selective use of colour, results in a sequence of images that, in more than one sense, tell their own story. They also manage to reflect the mischief and comedy inherent in a narrative where a group of hapless humans insists on becoming bird-catchers, even if one of them has reservations about their intentions. But some people, as the concluding pages remind us, never learn.

Children’s information books are so often an unhappy union of too much fact and too little fun that it is a pleasure to welcome a book totally successful in attaining an engaging balance between the two. Salvatore Rubbino’s A Walk in Paris (Walker Books, £12.99) follows a young girl and her grandfather as they embark on a trip around Europe’s most beautiful city, encountering some of its principal attractions en route. The simple prose of the narrative, the sophistication of the illustrations and the overall design and layout combine to provide a seductive guide, a perfect travelling companion.

Subtitled What Good Are Kids Anyway? , Colas Gutman’s The Pointless Leopard (Pushkin Children’s Books, £7.99) features a rather curmudgeonly young city boy called Leonard, coerced by his parents into accompanying them to the countryside. Here he encounters and converses with a sheep, cow, hen and wolf. “Tell us what a Leonard is,” they demand, and it is in teasing out his responses to this and further probing inquiries that he himself begins to question his place in the world and, in particular, his relationship with the adults whose opinions seem to dominate it.

Stephanie Seegmuller’s translation from the original French is lively, idiomatic and always entertaining. Delphine Perret’s line drawings, complete with blue highlights, add an appropriately quirky air to what is a decidedly offbeat little book.

Young readers whose appetite for the absurd has been whetted by Gutman will quickly find themselves at home in the weird domain they will enter in Kirsten Reinhardt’s Fennymore and the Brumella (Little Island, €7.99). Its subtitle, How to Salt-Bake a Dachshund , prepares us, to some extent at least, for the absurdities that are unravelled with such glee as the story proceeds. “Fennymore Teabreak,” we read in the opening sentence, “was an unusual boy,” and unusual he certainly proves to be, starting with the revelation that his best friend is “a sky-blue bicycle that thought it was a horse”.

Boy and bike (called, incidentally, “Monbijou”; that is French for “My jewel”, we are usefully reminded) live in a dilapidated old house called the Bronx, Fennymore’s parents having disappeared three years previously. The narrative soon develops into a quest story, with Fennymore and his redoubtable friend Fizzy setting off for “the wide blue yonder” in pursuit of his inventor father and lapsed-mathematician mother.

Exciting as the chase is, its real appeal is in the diversity of humanity met on the way. Eccentricity and zaniness abound, with more than a suggestion of the sinister. And, of course, there is the brumella. Don’t ask. Translated by Siobhán Parkinson from the German into sprightly English, this novel sparkles with wit and inventiveness. David Roberts’s black-and-white line drawings enhance the sense of exaggeration and caricature the story requires.

The newest addition to the world of literary cats makes his debut in Pip Jones’s Squishy McFluff: The Invisible Cat (Faber & Faber, £5.99). On this evidence his mischief-making, in which he has a more than willing ally in the form of Ava, his young owner, should ensure that he will be purring around for some time. Jones’s jaunty verse and Ella Okstad’s spirited illustrations are perfect partners in feline crime.

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