Thursday, 12 November 2015

2015 Picture Book Challenge: Steve Antony quadruple bill

There's every chance Steve Antony will be the most prolific author & illustrator I'll review in this challenge with an impressive four books published this year. He's also a new kid on the block; find out more at his website. I've saved my post till the publication of Green Lizards vs Red Rectangles, so I can compile thoughts on all four. But, to begin:

Please, Mr Panda

Published by Hodder Children's Books. All Mr Panda wants to do is offer out doughnuts. But will the animals he encounters ask nicely? Steve Antony's books are undoubtedly pitched at the youngest end of the spectrum, but Please Mr Panda is so packed with subtlety as to appeal to just about anyone interested in storytelling. It has a simple construction, but perfectly paced from endpaper to endpaper. The art style is economical but retains full expression, creating lots of memorable characters, not least the desultory eponymous Mr Panda, and the pay-off, expected as it is, is a delight because of this. Well recommended.

Betty Goes Bananas in Her Pyjamas (Oxford University Press) 
Steve Antony's first sequel (to 2014's Betty Goes Bananas) is, like its predecessor and Please Mr Panda, a book about behaviour. Betty's is characteristically bad. Mr Toucan is the proxy parent to grizzly young gorilla called Betty, and Betty doesn't want to go to sleep. I don't think either the art style or layout works as well as in Please Mr Panda. This book is very much visually patterned on Betty Goes Bananas, which works and does to some extent mirror the frantic activity of the main character. There is plenty of humour woven into the story (but it's not wholly subtle) and interestingly it goes not for the cathartic resolution of other behavioural books (I suppose see Where The Wild Things Are for the supreme example), but a circular tale. This is definitely a commentary on the trials of bedtime, but not necessarily an aid to them.

The Queen's Handbag (Hodder Children's Books)

Steve Antony's second sequel (this time to 2014's The Queen's Hat) is a chase story, powerfully motored by the simple device of a series of leading sentences split from double-page spread to double-page spread. It tours UK institutions and geography and involves two, in the form of the monarch and the police force. Antony has chosen a predominantly red and blue colour scheme (with obvious significance), and uses it very skilfully with a few key additions such as black to keep the thief, the Queen and the pursuing mob neatly distinguished in each scene.

He's afraid of neither scale nor detail, which adds immensely to the pleasure of reading what is, essentially, a tourism ad. The mild, characterful comedy is enjoyable and the individual antics of every person on the page is something to take your time to admire... just don't expect it to be about anything other than the very gentlest poking of fun at those institutions, to result once again in the status quo.

Green Lizards vs Red Rectangles (Hodder Children's Books)

Last up, another original tale with a very simple premise: Green Lizards and Red Rectangles are at war. Antony exploits this very well for its graphic potential. Both sides are characterfully depicted (although the lizards naturally more so), and he's clever to choose those particular opposing colours. This means their battles can take place diagrammatically across the white picture plane - a fundamental visual rendering of the ideas - with dramatic force and humour. See the example below.

As an introduction to the concepts of war and peace (and implications thereof), this book is very well realised. It is concise, well-paced and elegant. Again, Steve Antony makes use of the whole book from cover to cover to tell his story. Like The Queen's Handbag, the reader can spend a long time picking out individual character in all the detail included, at the same time as the narrative superstructure strides along. That's a valuable skill to have in this medium. I'd probably put Green Lizards a personal second favourite of Antony's 2015 books, after Please Mr Panda, but in all honesty all of these books are worth checking out.

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