Picture books for children – reviews

The importance of freedom, accepting imperfection and why buses are great: illustrated books with a message

This spring, the picture books are springing and they are aiming high. Dreams of Freedom in Words and Pictures (Frances Lincoln in association with Amnesty International £12.99) is high-risk because worthiness is not the same as worth. But this is a tremendous and moving book in which a dozen illustrators, including Chris Riddell, Ros Asquith, Roger Mello from Brazil, Jackie Morris and Australian Sally Morgan, accompany marvellously diverse and thought-provoking quotations about freedom.

It is a most inspiring read and what impresses one is the sense the book gives of there being many different versions of freedom – it is not, ever, just another word for nothing left to lose. Jackie Morris has drawn a songbird in a gilded cage with a tigerish cat breathing through its golden bars to illustrate Nadia Anjuman’s cry: “Oh, I will love the day when I break out of this cage, Escape this solitary exile and sing wildly.” (Suitable for all ages and every household.)

“Nobody’s perfect. That’s what everybody says. And I guess they are right.” Sam Zuppardi, from the opening page of Nobody’s Perfect by David Elliott, illustrated by Sam Zuppardi (Walker £11.99), shows that the thinker, mulling this point over, is imperfect himself with a scribble of brown hair, dangling pencilled legs and a face like a rosy spud. Elliott has concocted, with lightness of touch, a story that gently makes the point that imperfection is part of life and may need to be embraced. The combination of simplicity and sophistication is rare, uplifting and (almost) perfect. (3+)

Beautiful Birds by Jean Roussen and Emmanuelle Walker
‘Elegant and unpatronising’: Beautiful Birds by Jean Roussen and Emmanuelle Walker. Photograph: Flying Eye Books

And now that the Easter chicks have flown, there are two marvellous books, including birds of every feather, to detain us. Beautiful Birds by Jean Roussen and Emmanuelle Walker (Flying Eye Books £14.99) is an elegant and unpatronising alphabet of birds. The language is sophisticated – “A is for albatross, the admiral of the skies…” – but children and parents will breeze through the book because the rhymes have momentum and the illustrations have poise and wit and the colours are entrancing. “F is for flamingos” involves a shocking – thrillingly fluorescent – pink so we can see how and why flamingos stick their necks out. (For high-fliers of all ages.)

Alexis Deacon has come up with a bird who would not settle comfortably in any alphabet: I Am Henry Finch, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz (Walker £11.99) is a fabulous story. The body of the bird is an orange thumbprint upon which beak, wings and eyes have been superimposed in thick black ink. The hero finch has never had a thought when it suddenly occurs to him: “I AM HENRY FINCH.” This existential moment comes to grief pages later when he is eaten by a passing blue beast with a snappy jaw. But neither Alexis Deacon nor Henry is defeatist in extremis and the ending is an entertaining and original tribute to the power of thought. (3+.)

I Am Henry Finch by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz.
‘Fabulous’: I Am Henry Finch by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz. Photograph: Walker

One of the many remarkable things about Michael Rosen’s writing is that he knows when to underwrite, when to let a single sentence sing for its supper, when to leave well alone. And in The Bus Is for Us!, illustrated by Gillian Tyler (Walker £11.99), that sentence is “The bus is for us”, which might seem mundane but holds everything together. Other forms of transport are considered (and approved): bike, car, train, horse, boat, ship and an open sleigh. There are many opportunities for Gillian Tyler to transport us in triumphant detail (she even knows the intricacies of how a deer would be harnessed). And I’d love to hitch a lift on her flying polar bear. The book, like the bus, is for everyone. (2+.)

Tell Me a Picture: Adventures in Looking At Art by Quentin Blake (Frances Lincoln £12.99) is the welcome return of a classic. It shows, on its cover, four ragged children with pointy boots and spiky hair, lugging Pietro Longhi’s enigmatic Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice as if they were the jolliest of art thieves. Using Blake’s drawings as playful companion pieces to art is a formula that makes this book, published in cahoots with the National Gallery, a winner. The children’s art criticism is engagingly artless but encourages curiosity. Alongside a reproduction of Paolo Uccello’s St George, a dragon-fancying little girl protests at the dragon’s lot while a sulky boy’s comment about the damsel supposed to be in distress is: “The lady doesn’t look very worried.” (5+.)

Contributor

Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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