Whenever anyone asks me to recommend a book for their baby, there is one that immediately springs to mind. Ahead of the Bear Hunt, the very Hungry Catterpillar and even Rosie’s Walk comes So Much!
Trish Cooke’s tale of a young mum and her baby’s seemingly ordinary day begins in a pleasingly low key manner: ‘They weren’t doing much, mum and the baby.’ This studied picture of domestic boredom is accompanied by a muted illustration of the pair staring out of the window, waiting for something to happen.
Mum looked at the door,
the baby looked at Mum.
It was …’
The story then fills with various family members turning up and lavishing attention on the boy in their own particular way.
‘I want to squeeze him,
I want to squeeze the baby,
I want to squeeze him
Until finally, the guest of honour, dad arrives and we realise we are at the beginning of a fantastic surprise party.
Cooke peppers her story with Caribbean dialect, enlivening the familiar pre-school repetition and offering white middle class parents countless opportunities to slip into bad imitations Patois without feeling guilty.
The gouache illustrations are by Helen Oxenbury who, over the previous decade, had perfected picture books for the very young. ‘It took a lot of trial and error to develop a way of drawing babies that was simplified but not a caricature, babies to believe in. Simplicity was the key – a single figure on the page, conveying real emotion with the minimum of line.’
Later on when Oxenbury wanted to capture multi cultural families she moved away from her usual soft pencil and watercolour drawings. ‘I judged that this technique would be too pale for the rumbustious multi-cultural board books. So these babies were rendered in strong primary colours in gouache. The shapes were large and flat – the pages could not contain them. Happiness exploded all around.’ In So Much! she combines the two styles to brilliant effect.
Together with the joyful text the illustrations really give the feeling that you are at the centre of this joyous family get together. Helen Oxenbury has said that she never draws from photographs, preferring instead to observe people in the flesh. In So Much! this technique really pays off. The expression, reactions, and movement on display are superbly realised.
I love too the attention paid to clothes, food and home décor, placing us firmly in the early 90s – and with fashions having come back round again it still feels quite contemporary.
What is it that makes So Much! jump ahead of those other brilliant picture books? It could be something to do with the pairing of writer and illustrator, both brilliant communicators with an ability to talk directly to both parent and child and pull us right into their enticing world.
So Much! is the perfect picture book to read out loud, the rhythms and cadences unlike anything else. But once you get the feel for them it is a book you will never tire of picking up and performing.