Animalia by Graeme Base (Harry N. Abrams: $14.95; 32 pages of illustrations in color)
In "Animalia," Australian illustrator Graeme Base breaks many of the rules of contemporary children's literature to create an elaborate alphabet book--alternately enchanting and scary--that will charm young readers.
Since the early '50s, childrens' book illustrators have stressed bold, simple graphics with heavy outlines and areas of flat, bright color. Adults assume children will like these straightforward, easy-to-grasp pictures, and many children do--the first few times they see the book. But that initial pleasure quickly fades as the pictures become familiar. After a certain number of viewings, a simple illustration offers no more mystery or surprise than a filled-in coloring book.
Base works in an intricate, pseudo-realistic style, usually associated with fantasy calendars and the covers of paperback science fiction novels. Every wart on his Diabolical Dragons (who Daintily Devour Delicious Delicacies) is rendered in careful detail, with shadows and highlights. The pelts of his Great Green Gorillas have an almost tangible hairiness.
As Base recognizes, children are fascinated by intricacy. A child who studies these complex paintings may learn their main elements, but it will take a long time to memorize all the little surprises that lurk in the corners and behind trees, like the tiny periscope that peers from a pool at the Proud Peacocks Preening Perfect Plumage. (A boy in a striped sweater appears on every page, but it's often a real challenge to find him.)
Although he fills each picture with these little odds and ends (whose names naturally begin with the same letter), Base composes his illustrations so that the main element dominates, enabling a child to identify it easily. The reader's attention is immediately drawn to the Lazy Lions (Lounging in the Local Library). Only after staring at them does he become aware of the lemon, lilies, lettuce, et al .
Some of these paintings have an endearing silliness: The Crafty Crimson Cats (who Carefully Catch Crusty Crayfish) sport cameras, charm bracelets and caps, and tally their catch on a pocket calculator. Victor V. Vulture looks so awkward and uncomfortable with his goofy dummy that even small children call tell his ventriloquism act is a flop.
Other pages depict scary creatures--like the grotesque, rusty robots that pull the Red Rickshaws of the Richly Robed Rhinoceroses--reminiscent of the giants and ogres in traditional fairy tales. No child would want to meet the sword-wielding Horrible Hairy Hogs, who gallop Homewards on battle-stained Horses, but viewed from the comfortable vantage point of a parental lap, they provide an agreeable frisson .
"Animalia" would make an excellent gift for a child whose imagination is chafing at the strictures of Saturday morning television and the sanitized visions of more conventional children's books. Parents who read it aloud to their children may find Base's Fat Frogs, Ingenious Iguanas and Nautical Newts stimulating their own dormant sense of fantasy.