Ruby to the Rescue by Maggie Glen, Red Fox pounds 3.99. A winner: rich, soft, unwimpish illustrations, exceptionally expressive teddy bears and a proper story involving that first day at school, a benign gang of dustmen and a cunning sub-text on caring and sharing.
Fergus the Farmyard Dog by Tony Maddox, Piccadilly pounds 3.50. Purist adults may flinch at the tweety-pie illustration, but very young children will fall for bouncy Fergus, relish learning the farmyard noises and probably whoop with pleasure at the joke ending.
Billy's Beetle by Mick Inkpen, Picture Knight pounds 3.99. The boy, the beetle, the elephant and the oompah band. Zany tale from the prize-winning author of The Blue Balloon, featuring the same sure-fire mix of cheekiness and reassurance. Crisply printed pictures and text, plus a fold-out surprise.
Mr Henry and the Sea Serpent by Andy Ellis, Scholastic pounds 3.99. Hints of slithery awfulness ('the serpent came closer and licked his lips with a slippery blue tongue') spike this otherwise cosy adventure also featuring a seal, a puffin, a crab and a merry old tar.
Good Days Bad Days by Catherine Anholt, Orchard pounds 3.50. You're never too young for philosophy. Absorbingly intricate pictorial rendering of life's ups and downs, from holiday highs to the wretchedness of having a temperature or burying your poor dead rabbit.
Benjamin and the Barn Owl by Jane Burton, Macmillan pounds 3.99. Close encounters between a tabby cat and a barn owl, captured in remarkable photographs. One of a photo-story series that also features hedgehogs, badgers and, inevitably, a sweet sad puppy.
When I was a Little Girl by Susie Jenkin-Pearce, Red Fox pounds 3.99. Bucolic, lavender-scented childhood recalled in aptly soft-focus pictures. Meant to be bought by sentimental mums and grans and shared with indulgent young ones.
Five Little Ducks by Ian Beck, Orchard pounds 3.50. Counting books are ten a penny, so seek out those with added value. This one has a proper story (could the ubiquitous fox know where the disappearing ducklings are?), real rhythm and momentum, witty pictures and a hint of thrilling scariness.
The Brave Hare by Dave & Julie Saunders, Frances Lincoln pounds 3.99. Rabbits have had it all their own way for too long. Here the neglected hare (how many children have even seen one?) bites back, twitching and leaping through moody dusk and starry night in a pungently illustrated plain tale with a satisfying punchline.
Horace and Maurice by Dick King- Smith & Sami Sweeten, Picture Corgi pounds 2.99. Jolly cautionary story involving a baby that won't eat, a cat that won't stop and a touch of surreal role reversal. Eloquent, richly amusing pictures, but also enough animation in the clear text (growling, spitting, whining, grizzling) to seduce early readers.
Home Sweet Home by Colin Smithson, Red Fox pounds 3.99. You start by taking pity on one stray lamb and end up playing host to an entire menagerie. Funny, cockle-warming yarn told almost entirely by the vibrantly busy illustrations.
Benjamin and the Bear Twins by Martine Beck & Marie H Henry, trs Jennifer Taylor, Puffin pounds 3.99. A single rival sibling is bad enough, but how do you bear a pair? Lively French tale of mild thrills 'n' spills in an Alpine setting with ursine protagonists looking disconcertingly like mice and monkeys.
PICTURE BOOKS: 5-8s
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka & Lane Smith, Puffin pounds 4.99. Off-the-wall fairy stories - 'Cinderumpelstiltskin or The Girl Who Really Blew It', 'Little Red Running Shorts', 'The Tortoise and the Hair' - made even more anarchic by creatively used typography and lusciously surreal illustrations. (Pictures on this page & page 49)
Fox on Wheels by James Marshall, Red Fox pounds 2.99. One of an excellent series for those just learning to read. Impeccably clear print, lively stories - this one features skateboards on the first page - and colour illustrations that intrigue without stealing the show.
First Class by Rose Impey & Sue Porter, Orchard pounds 3.99. Six engagingly simple, reassuring stories about starting school - strong on fun and plausible dialogue, flecked with facts of life: 'Sometimes experiments end in tears.'
Where's Our Mama? by Diane Goode, Red Fox pounds 3.99. When two little girls mislay their mother at a Paris railway station, it's the gendarmerie to the rescue. Excellent value: an evocative picture book for pre-schoolers, brief accessible text for early readers, the exciting bonus of French subtitles -
and gallic chic oozing from every page.
Captain Ding the Double-decker Pirate by David Cox & Graham Round, Red Fox pounds 3.99. Only dinosaurs outstrip pirates in havoc-wreaking potential. Here, a good balance of exuberantly chaotic illustrations and lively story is ideal for newly independent readers.
Scruffy Scroggles and the Monster Party by A Rocard, M Degano & F Ruyer, Picture Knight pounds 3.50. Third technicolour adventure for the six-eyed hairy monster with a heart of gold who inhabits a land where alliterative names (Nasty Nelly, Gruesome Gresham) are de rigueur.
Snow White by Josephine Poole & Angela Barrett, Red Fox pounds 3.99. Bookshop shelves groan with reissues of classics and fairy tales, but few match this one. Stripped of its sugar coating, told in spare but graceful prose with big, moody, beautiful illustrations, Snow White reclaims its intended mystery and dark magic.
Henrietta's Bubble Trouble by Stan Cullimore, Young Corgi pounds 2.50. Big type, ample illustrations and four daft and busy tales featuring an agreeably accident-prone hippo. (Up to 8)
Stinky Stories ed Barbara Ireson, Red Fox pounds 2.99. Pungent collection that revels in all things noisome: Kippernose, the giant with the personal freshness problem; the unique fragrance of a long-dead sheep; the pongiest chewing gum in the world. (8-10s)
Septimouse, Supermouse by Ann Jungman, Young Puffin pounds 2.99. Amusing, fast-paced exploits of the mouse who, as the seventh son of a seventh son (not so rare in the rodent world, surely?), has magical powers. (Up to 8)
Sophie's Cat by Billi Rosen, Faber pounds 3.50. Shamelessly tender-hearted rural adventure. When the heroine's kitten disappears, she rallies support to confront big bad Farmer Stone, but all is not as it seems . . . Vivid prose and a satisfying stream of surprises. (8-10s)
William in Love by Jean Ure, Puffin pounds 2.99. William has always thought romantic love 'dead grue', but then Charlotte walks back into his life. Funny, pin-point accurate depiction of that awkward transitional phase, with fast and sparky dialogue. (9-12s)
Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children by Duncan Williamson, Canongate Silkies pounds 3.50. Draw the curtains, dim the lights and enter the world of a not quite lost oral tradition, in Scottish travellers' stories strong on animals, ghosties and hard-won wisdom. (9-12s)
Run to the Ark by Tom McCaughren, Puffin pounds 3.50. Hugely enjoyable Irish contribution to the Tarka tradition: an unsoppy wildlife novel about beleaguered foxes and their heroic search for a safe haven. (9-12s)
The High House by Honor Arundel, Canongate pounds 2.99. Narrator Emma, sent to stay with her Scottish aunt when her parents are killed in a car crash, is awash with misery until new friends reawaken her to the possibility of happiness. Touching, honest and a vivid evocation of Edinburgh. (9-12s)
Sour Land by William H Armstrong, Puffin pounds 2.99. Atmospheric novel set in the American South in the 1930s, about the friendship between three white children and a black school teacher: grief, bigotry and human courage grippingly explored. (Up to 12s)
The Dark Behind the Curtain by Gillian Cross, Scholastic pounds 2.99. Skilfully scary thriller set in the strange territory between fiction and reality, when characters in a school production of Sweeney Todd start menacingly to invade the young actors' lives. (9-12s)
Hacker by Malorie Blackman, Corgi pounds 2.99. It had to happen: the modem adventure. Techno-whiz Vicky sets out to save her father, accused of stealing a cool million, by computer-tracking the real villains. Young readers will identify; parents will feel very very old. (9-12s)
Paper Faces by Rachel Anderson, Lions pounds 3.50. Dot's cosy life is turned upside-down when the father she can barely remember returns from the war. An outstanding novel about the pain and rewards of change, piquant with historical (ie post-1945) detail. Guardian Award-winner. (10-12s)
Muggie Maggie by Beverly Cleary, Young Puffin pounds 2.99. We all have to meet our Waterloo - and rebellious Maggie's is joined-up writing. A plausible comedy about being out of step with the world, and about learning to back down gracefully. (8-10s)
Florizella and the Giant by Philippa Gregory, Walker pounds 2.99. Third outing for the plucky princess who confounds girlish stereotypes. Admirably clear type, a few illustrations and a fast-
moving plot, all designed to build confidence, and not just in reading. (8-10s)
The Future-Telling Lady by James Berry, Puffin pounds 3.50. Collection of stories rich in Caribbean landscape and history and varying in tone from the elegiac to the rap-rhythm sharp. (9-12s)
Poor Jack by Una Power, Orchard pounds 2.99. 'What can a little toad like Jack want with . . . oil wells, sailing ships, houses all over the world?' Cheeky illustrated fantasy about a poor little rich boy's fight to fend off his wicked aunt and others intent on stealing his mind-boggling inheritance. (8-11s)
Land of No Death by Stanley Robertson, Balnain Books pounds 7.95. By day the author is a fish-filleter in Aberdeen, by night, a master storyteller of ancient Scottish Travellers' lore. In this epic traditional tale, written down for the first time, Jack the Lad embarks on a quest through worlds beyond to find the land of no death. (11s and over)