12 APRIL 1975, Page 19

For the very young?

Gillian Freeman

Heracles Penelope Farmer and Graham McCallum (Collins £2.95) All About Arthur Eric Carle (Dent £2.00) John Can Help lion Wikland (Dent 50p) Bird Adalbert Susi Bohdal (Macdonald £1.50) Allurnette Tomi Ungerer (Methuen £2.25) "Where Did I Come From?" Peter Mayle (Michael Joseph £2.25) Herself and Janet Reach far Jane Duncan (Macmillan £1.75) Private Zoo Georgess McHargue and Michael Foreman (Collins £1.95)

The Breadhorse Alan Garber and Albin Trowski (Collins £2.75)

It's all there, the factual and the fictitious, birth, death (or almost death) and the finer flights of fancy in approximately eighteen pounds' worth of children's literature. What isn't there, with a couple of exceptions, is value for money. Take Heracles for example, a Collins 'Myths and Legends Book,' just over a thousand words for just under three quid. Of course it depends on where you set your values, and there are lavish, well-drawn romantic illustrations to accompany the text, but the text is portentous ("Zeus threw a thunderbolt between them before the slaying was done") and, a commonplace with this collection, I could not decide on the age group under aim. If a child is able to read and understand "immortal" and "eternity," does he still want a picture book? And if he is actually learning his alphabet, would the trendy All About Arthur ("In Glasgow he got to meet a graceful gazelle, Gladys. Gladys was glad to go with a groovy group.") meet his needs, either graphically or grammatically? The lettering is as way-out as the style; it's the Pow! Wham! Sock-it-to-you save-them-from-illiteracy, Sesame Street school which is fine for the spiritually-impoverished, under-privileged American, but not a likely choice , for a British Mummy who wants to help her offspring to master the ABC.

Teaching of one kind or another is the motivating force behind most juvenile reading matter, whether it's learning about learning, as in the strictly non-sexist John Can Help ("John can sew. John can clean shoes. John can bake cakes") or lessons in human behaviour, although the prototype do-gooders are not always human themselves. Susi Bohdal's delightfully drawn Bird Adalbert, for example, discovers in very few pages indeed that vanity does not endear him to his fellow feathered friends. He takes advice from the owls, and from then on his life picks up socially:

He listened kindly to each word. He foundmo bird or beast absurd. He never told them 'I know best,' Or strutted or puffed out his chest.

Allumette (no prizes for her derivation) finds in true twentieth century fashion, that it's the material miracles (sanitary equipment and strawberry jelly descending from the sky) which spark off the action. She soon has the guilty rich donating to the crippled poor. In fact, "Contributions flowed in from all over the world and help was sent out in every direction. Wherever famine, fire, flood and war broke out, there were some of Alumette's volunteers doing their best." From the artfully implanted moral lesson we turn to absolutely no art at all in "Where Did I Come From?" and not all the answers either:

These bumps have a lot of names. Some people call them bosoms (which you say like this: boozum). Other people call them tits, or bristols. (Don't ask us why.)

The end papers are illustrated by a school of boggle-eyed sperm, and the pages between by crudely drawn cartoon figures often surrounded by hearts. The figures demonstrate the process from marital conch to natal cot. "How do you explain orgasm to a seven year old?" asks the dust jacket blurb, but I wonder (without advocating coy evasion) if there is any need to attempt it. Shared orgasm is beyond a seven-year-old's experience, and as impossible to comprehend as the taste of caviare when your closest parallel is a fried fish finger. We don't, after all, try to explain the processes involved in the digestive system, the muscular retention of urine or the emission of anal air (you say it ay-nell) which'are within the child's empirical knowledge, so why strive to put into words the remote pleasure of orgasm, and with additional voyeurism to boot?

When the man and the woman have been wriggling so hard you think they're both going to pop, they nearly do just that. All that rubbing up and down that's been going on ends in a tremendous big lovely shiver for both of them.

I gave the book to a couple of children (seven and nine) whose parents had answered all their questions to date, and they looked in amazed disbelief at the drawing of the naked fat man snuggling down on and in the naked fat woman (both ugly) and then they giggled helplessly. They found the idea of the penis ("You say pee-nus") penetrating the vagina ("it rhymes with Carolina") as ludicrous and as likely as if the man had stuck his thumb up the woman's nose and massaged her nasal membranes. (The author does in fact equate orgasm with a sneeze.) This book has not only an author and an illustrator but also a designer, and the sperm-who-made-it, and became "you," wears a top hat like a seminal Jiminy Cricket.

Outside the experience of most readers, but not beyond their comprehension, is Herself and Janet Reachfar, a well told, imaginatively illustrated story about a small Scots girl, her autocratic grandmother and the rescue of a lamb in a snowstorm. Descriptions are evocative, and Jane Duncan is a writer who does not skirt the major crises of life:

The snow piled up around them, while the wind howled and shrieked across the hill. Janet began to feel warm and cosy and sleepy, as if the world and the storm were going further and further away. She did not know that this deceiving warm sleepiness sometimes causes people to snuggle down and be found long afterwards, frozen to death.

The possibility of death, presented without sentimentality or undue harshness, strikes exactly the right balance between reality and fiction. This is an admirable book, the best buy of the bunch, although Private Zoo, intended for younger children, comes a close second, stimulating both observation and imagination. Sadly, neither pocket money nor the average birthday book-token, will buy them. I fear that the elaborately illustrated hardback must now be listed among William Cowper's "perishing pleasures of man" or, in this case, of children. There will have to be a hard reassessment of the market. The Breadhorse, for example, is a beautifully produced but esoteric work based on a Romany game, too mature for the very young who want continual recourse to the same pictures, and far too meagre a read for an older reader, who wants to settle down with a good story. We must look to the paperback publishers for the preservation of literacy, doubly at stake now that the postal costs have turned even the thankyou letter into a telephone call. You can still, even in the inflated days of 1975, buy nine Puffins for one copy of Heracles. Take your choice.

Gillian Freeman's novel, The Marriage Machine, is to be published shortly by Hamish Hamilton. She is at present writing a critical biography of Angela Brazil