Books for Children / Get the message: Picture books

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CHRISTMAS, apart from loosening parents' grasp on the purse strings, is obviously thought to bring on a sudden rush of moral enthusiasms. Judging by the first five titles here, a crop of 'message' books, this is a time for improving works as well as cuddly bears and Santa Claus.

THE BIG BABY by Anthony Browne (Julia MacRae pounds 7.99) is perhaps the oddest of these rather worthy stories. Browne, who made his name with the mighty Gorilla some years ago, takes a swipe at the fathers who are approaching middle age and frantically scrabbling to keep hip and cool as the wrinkles kick in and the hair falls out. This big baby takes an 'Elixir de Yoof', so keen is he to retain his adolescent charms. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong . . . mildly diverting for a middle-aged wife, at least.

FOR EVERY CHILD A BETTER WORLD, Kermit the Frog's United Nations effort, illustrated by Bruce McNally (Golden pounds 7.99), has its heart in the right place, but this is rather on a par with making a charitable donation: a sense of righteousness, not much fun involved.

TEN TALL OAK TREES by Richard Edwards, illustrated by Caroline Crossland (Julia MacRae pounds 8.99), falls into the same category; it is interesting how the glow of nostalgia eases the destruction of the first oak (' 'Warships]' cried King Henry, then there were nine') but by the time the last tree is felled (' 'Nuisance,' grumped the farmer, then there were none'), Man, the brutal beast, has little to recommend him. Good verses, nicely paced for beginning readers, but let down by rather flat drawings.

FROG AND THE STRANGER by Max Velthuijs (Andersen pounds 7.99) covers species prejudice: the stranger is a rat, but don't let that put you off. Velthuijs's fauna move through a painted landscape that makes few concessions to notions of children's illustration - and they are all the better for that. There is something refreshing and heart-warming in Frog's acceptance of the stranger, and although Pig and Duck suffer from species-ism, they are won over by Rat's qualities - and he tells good stories. Four-year-olds would appreciate Frog's misery at being left behind, but there is comfort in old friends.

KATIE MORAG AND THE NEW PIER by Mairi Hedderwick (Bodley Head pounds 8.99) contains a faint whiff of moralising. Set like its predecessors in the series on the island of Struay, the story has a careful weighting (there are good things and bad things about 'progress') that makes it a little ponderous; the splashy, sky-toned drawings and clever use of the end-papers to show the layout of the village would appeal to pre-readers.

LIFE DOESN'T FRIGHTEN ME by Maya Angelou, illustrations by Jean Michel Basquiat (Stewart, Tabori & Chang pounds 8.99) dismayed me the first time I picked it up: how could the publishers have matched Angelou's humanist, rhythmic robustness to Basquiat's clanging, harsh daubs of empty rhetoric? But I was won over - the poem both envelops and enhances the paintings, and the paintings sing out of the pages. The poetry would appeal to a five or six-year-old, but it would be worth giving this to any child you like.

SPOT'S WALK IN THE WOODS by Eric Hill (Viking, pounds 7.99). Yes, the spotted, four-legged money-maker is still out there, this time with a clever flap-and-find format. This narrative is aimed at a slightly older age-group than Spot's usual audience - those beginning to read alone. The walk takes in ladybirds and bridges, trees and flowers, in very simple shapes and language.

GRANNY'S QUILT by Penny Ives (Hamish Hamilton pounds 8.99). Captivating pastel drawings show the fabric squares: each one holds a piece of Granny's past and she describes each dress - the one she wore as a girl, her nanny's uniform, her wedding dress, and so on. Nostalgic, gentle and comforting. Probably best for girls of six or so to take to bed to read to themselves - or for Granny to read to younger ones.

THE LITTLE NUT TREE by Sally Gardner (Orion, pounds 8.99). A charming reworking of the nursery rhyme, which is given in full at the end. The little girl is sparky and self-possessed and, although she gives in to parental pressure to hand over her tree to the King of Spain's daughter, you can tell that she isn't pleased. The cartoon-strip style and muted water-colours (left, above and below) are enchanting, and there is enough detail to make

re-reading a necessity for fives and upwards.

THE BIG BAD MOLE'S COMING] by Martin Wadell, illustrated by John Brendall-Brumello (Walker, pounds 7.99). A little boy frightens himself and the farmyard animals by threatening the arrival of Big Bad Mole. Simple, repetitive phrases, clear, sepia toned drawings and a jokey twist. This is short and satisfying, perfect for pre-school children and toddlers who like a bit of a tension with their bedtime stories.

NANNY FOX by Georgie Adams, illustrated (right) by Selina Young (Orion, pounds 8.99). 'Arnold Fox loved chickens. Not to eat - just as friends.' This causes consternation in his family, but Mrs Buff Orpington, proud mother of six fluffy yellow chicks, bravely employs him as her nanny. But what happens when Arnold's siblings (who love chickens in a different way) come calling at the hen-house one dark night? A jolly, well-paced read for six-year-olds, but younger ones will be carried along, rooting for the charming Arnold.

WHY COUNT SHEEP? by Karen Wallace, illustrated by Patrice Aggs (ABC pounds 6.95). Good at bedtime for pre-readers, this is a deftly organised picture book with minimal text and wittily drawn beds to match the occupants - the greengrocer's is made from carrots, the conductor's is framed by piano keys. Pretty colours and perfect for winding down for sleep.

SANJI AND THE BAKER by Robin Tzannes and Korky Paul (Oxford pounds 6.99). Delightful, wacky story of a boy who wakes each morning to the delicious wafts from the baker's down below . . . mmm, those cinnamon buns . . . but the baker is not amused by Sanji stealing his smells and takes him to court. The judge, obviously schooled in the wisdom of Solomon, awards the baker the sound of five silver coins clinking his bowl and honour is restored. Subtle, earthy colours and a rather Scarfian style carry this along, with text suitable for six-year-olds and above reading alone.

TOM AND THE ISLAND OF DINOSAURS (left) by Ian Beck (Doubleday pounds 8.99). Beautifully drawn adventure story, for that moment in every child's life when dinomania strikes: there's a boy, a girl, a grandpa and a hot-air balloon, as well as the daring rescue - but it's not from the dinosaurs, it's of them. Beck's visual flair and construction of plot carry this off with aplomb. Good for five- and six-year-olds, and for solo reading.

AMAZING ANTHONY ANT by Lorna & Graham Philpot (Orion pounds 8.99). Anthony makes his way from the front to the back cover through a fantastic and detailed maze. The words (sung to the tune of 'The Runaway Train') follow the action and there are flaps to lift for alternative versions. This is ingeniously put together and would enthrall children of six or seven, who could work their way along the underground tunnels (through Aphid Alley and Woodlouse Lane) and pick up snippets about ant life on the way.

THERE'S A BEAR IN THE BATH by Nanette Newman, illustrated by Michael Foreman (Pavilion pounds 7.99). This is the celebrity offering, but don't worry, it's a long way from Budgie the Helicopter. Jam, the bear, pays Liza a visit and puts her straight on a few details - he likes coffee, chocolate biscuits and dancing the tango, so forget about bowls of porridge and ruffled bedclothes. The mother (offstage throughout, but shouting up the stairs as mothers do) is oblivious to what's going on, and the bear romps away with the best lines. Pretty, golden illustrations and clear text make this an attractive prospect for five-year- olds, or for younger ones to listen to.

LULLABYHULLABALLOO by Mick Inkpen (Hodder pounds 8.99). A little princess who can't sleep, dragons roaring, trolls and gobblins eating hamburgers and Mick Inkpen's soft, dreamy drawings: what more could any small child want before bed? A winner.

THE ADVENTURES OF PUSSCAT WIZZY WILLUMS by Lizzy Pearl, illustrated by Fran Thatcher (Blackie pounds 7.99). Apart from the loopy name, this is a good one for cat-lovers, as the hero searches of a suitable place to rest his paws. Exquisitely detailed drawings, with more than enough flaps to lift, and a simple, undemanding text for under-fives.

SOMETHING NEW FOR A BEAR TO DO by Shirley Isherwood, illustrated by Reg Cartwright (Hutchinson pounds 8.99). 'Why do bears do the things they do? Why don't they do other things?' With these subversive questions in mind, Mr Manders sets off with Edward James to do what bears usually don't: singing in a tree like a bird, splashing like a frog etc. An entertaining parable of self- knowledge which side-steps any heavy moral undertow, with the masterly Reg Cartwright's crisp, expressive, tender pictures. Every page a cracker.

THE LOST DOLL by Mike Dodd and Jean Richardson (Hamish Hamilton pounds 8.99). It is 1923 and Harriet rushes into her father's study (although she knows she shouldn't) to tell him that Lottie, her doll, is lost. Her father has a visitor 'whose name was Mr Kafka', and who takes up Lottie's cause in a series of letters from far-flung places. The slightly saccharine period-piece crayon illustrations make this a book to suit a sweet tooth, but it is entertaining and original nonetheless.

THE RESCUE PARTY by Nick Butterworth (Collins pounds 8.99). Another outing for Butterworth's perennial favourite, Percy the Park Keeper - this time enjoying a well-earned rest, until . . . As usual, it's the details that captivate. This outstanding series has the sort of useful double life that justifies hardback picture-book prices: it's good for reading aloud to under-fives, and later the six- pluses will still want to read it themselves.

WE ARE ALL IN THE DUMPS by Maurice Sendak (HarperCollins pounds 9.99). How could the man who gave us Chicken Soup With Rice and Alligators All Around have produced this dismal farrago? Here, ugly drawings in drab colours try to grasp at a link between two Mother Goose rhymes with dreary Dickensian overtones, all in a hefty format no little child can hold comfortably.

MONA THE CHAMPION by Sonia Holleyman (Orchard pounds 7.99). Pop-eyed Mona (below) takes her humanoid cat, Fang, for a swimming lesson. There is a bit of predictable but jolly mayhem before Fang's tail comes untucked from his swimming costume and Dad has a sense-of-humour failure. A nutty, colloquial, undemanding story.

(Photographs omitted)