PICTURE BOOKS:From Epictetus to the Sock Ness Monster, there’s lots to look at and think about in the latest picture books

NOT MANY PICTURE BOOKS employ a quotation from Epictetus as their epigraph; even fewer do so with what might be a suggestion of irony. “No man is free who is not master of himself,” we are reminded in Chris Haughton’s Oh No, George! (Walker, £11.99), but, as we contemplate the book’s final page, we may well wonder how really “free”, and in what sense, its hero, the titular George, has become.

George, it should be noted, is a dog, whose master does his best to prevent him yielding to doggy temptations: how does George react? Moral dilemmas are rarely portrayed in such vibrantly glowing colours as they are here, brilliantly counterpointing the economy of the text.

The opening endpapers of Polly Dunbar’s Arthur’s Dream Boat (Walker, £11.99) – a blend of gentle blue, green and brown watercolours – introduce a tenderly atmospheric narrative in which a little boy’s world moves between reality and fantasy. Arthur yearns for a boat, but the members of his family initially show little interest in his longings. How will they respond, however, when they are eventually swept away in the child’s imaginings? Dunbar’s eye for domestic detail is sharp and humorous, but the real triumph here is in her ability to capture the surreal domain of childhood’s dreamscapes, most notably in a sequence of wordless double-page spreads.

Alexis Deacon’s Croc and Bird (Hutchinson, £10.99) deals, in essence, with themes of acceptance and rejection, isolation and companionship. But seeing it in such abstract terms is, perhaps, to diminish the power and poignancy of a storyline that, in delineating the evolving bond between two apparently disparate creatures, also celebrates the wonder of creation. “They sat together on the sand, looking at the world,” we read, their sense of awe having already been prefigured in an opening two-page spread where, as mere eggs, they are placed under a sky brimming with stars. Never sentimental but always subtle, this is a joyous meeting of prose and picture.

The family of owls who feature in Jeanne Willis’s Fly, Chick, Fly! (Andersen Press, £10.99) are not without their traumas. Chief among these is the reluctance of the youngest owl to assert its independence and to desert the safety of the family tree for the possible hazards of the darker world beyond. The poetic simplicity of the prose, with its built-in repetitions and wordplay – “She flapped. She flipped. She flopped” – is well matched in painterly illustrations by Tony Ross that attractively capture seasonal change in a small rural landscape.

Translated from Swedish by Julia Marshall and illustrated with charm and empathy by Eva Eriksson, Ulf Nilsson’s The Best Singer in the World (Gecko Press, £10.99) treats also the gradual growth of a child’s self-confidence. Here the central character is a little boy who, although highly regarded as a singer by a younger brother, is unable to face the challenge of a school performance. Enter a sympathetic and resourceful teacher with a shrewd solution. The story’s overall tone is successfully replicated in its quirky artwork and layout, not least in Eriksson’s mischievous portrayal of body language and facial expression.

The emphasis in Alex Latimer’s Penguin’s Hidden Talent (Picture Corgi, £5.99) is less on Penguin overcoming his inhibitions about his contribution to a “Big Annual Talent Show” than on convincing himself he has the qualifications to be even considering joining some of his fellow creatures on stage. Given that these include a marlin-swallowing albatross and a bear who juggles household appliances, his uncertainty may seem well founded – but will a “hidden talent” win the day?

This is a cleverly designed book suffused with inventiveness and imagination, creating a credible, self-contained world. One particular wordless spread depicting the creatures on stage is totally intriguing; note the unicorn!

Published in its original version in 1984, Chris Van Allsburg’s The Chronicles of Harris Burdick (Andersen Press, £14.99) is given a second lease of life in the form of a handsomely produced anthology of 14 stories by a selection of such contemporary American authors as Kate DiCamillo, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, Jon Scieszka – and Stephen King. But Van Allsburg’s haunting and evocative monochrome illustrations remain, providing starting points for the appropriately eerie, often macabre narratives that accompany them. These full-page pictures play almost frighteningly with shades of light and dark, black and white, and are especially suggestive of the ease with which rational and irrational worlds can merge. Readers keen to respond to the book’s verbal and visual dimensions should proceed cautiously.

“Sockywockydoodah!” Few readers lucky enough to encounter Nick Sharratt and Elizabeth Lindsay’s Socks (David Fickling Books, £10.99) will be able to resist its glorious exuberance. There are no dark shadows here – even the Sock Ness Monster is on her summer holiday – and we are regaled instead with a feast of rainbow colours and punning playfulness, increasingly crazed in its efforts to move beyond traditional dictionary limits. Sharratt’s cartoon-style illustrations add immeasurably to the book’s wackiness – or, as we might say, its sockiness.

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