cover image Horses with Wings

Horses with Wings

Dennis Haseley. HarperCollins Publishers, $16 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-06-022885-9

First-time illustrator Curlee's powerful paintings aren't quite enough to lift this historical picture book off the ground. The subject matter is dramatic--Leon Gambetta, in a Paris besieged by the Prussian army, realizes that the only way to escape and assemble a body of French soldiers is to fly over the Prussians in a hot-air balloon. After marveling at the beauty of the skies (particularly ``the shapes of clouds, changing in the wind . . . a wide white sea, horses with wings''), he descends in Amiens and marshals an army to liberate France. Haseley's ( Shadows ) dilutes the story by obscuring its message. At the same time that he celebrates his hero's exploits, he points at their futility: Gambetta ``knew when this war was over, there would be another.'' Curlee, meanwhile, skirts the ambiguities of the text. His paintings use a bold palette of contrasting colors and deliberately still compositions to suggest an epic scale. Carefully chosen images impart a sense of the gravity of the events--a cannon faces out of the picture toward the reader, a horse rears as a shell explodes nearby--while several even grander spreads show Gambetta's balloon aloft. Ages 5-up. (Sept.)