cover image Whaddayamean


John Burningham. Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, $18.95 (48pp) ISBN 978-0-517-80066-9

Even the genius of Burningham's (Cloudland; Hey! Get Off Our Train) mixed-media illustrations can't redeem this muddy eco-parable. It starts with Creation: God spends millions of years making Earth; then, pleased but tired, goes to sleep ""for a very long time."" When he wakes up, he decides to look at his handiwork, but, ""not wanting to be seen, God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the people."" Somehow two children escape this sleep, and God takes them along on his tour. Furious at the pollution of the sea and air, the ravaging of the forests and the melting of the polar ice, he charges the children to ""go and tell the grownups to change the way they are living."" So the children approach businessmen (""the men with the money""), religious leaders, military honchos, the passive masses. ""Whaddayamean?"" the adults respond, until the children explain that God has sent them. ""Oh, if it is God who said we must change our ways, then we must change our ways at once,"" each group responds, so blithely that readers may think the tone sarcastic. But invoking God is all it takes to end pollution, war, poverty, etc. The message to young readers is murky at best, and the audience might be better off simply admiring the art. Inventively multilayered, it attractively blends collages, rudimentary sketches and pastoral paintings as it reflects the story's movement from darkness to light. Here, in abundance, is the childlike innocence and wonder so conspicuously missing from the text. Ages 5-8. (Aug.)