Books: Gruffaloes and other animals

Amanda Craig recommends the best of recent picture books for the very young
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The Independent Culture
Being young these days isn't child's play. Nightmares, loneliness, greed, cruelty, pollution and the destruction of the planet preoccupy our tots almost from the cradle, if the current crop of picture books is anything to go by. Never has the gentle, nostalgic world of Little Grey Rabbit's Christmas (Collins pounds 10.99) looked more appealing, with its quaintly dressed moles, rabbits and squirrels. Here is none of Beatrix Potter's savagery - and none of her inspiration, either.

For this you should look at Jan Pienkowski. One of the great names in children's illustration, he frequently changes style, so that in recent years the staggeringly beautiful silhouette pictures he used for Joan Aiken's short stories have given way to masterpieces of paper engineering. Young children will find his lullaby, Good Night (Walker pounds 10.99), entrancing, with an edge of strangeness to the pop-up animals that goes further than pretty fluff. Debi Gliori, having also addressed night terrors in the superb A Lion at Bedtime, now publishes a darker fable about a "grim and grumpy" little fox who asks his mother whether she'll love him, No Matter What (Bloomsbury pounds 10.99). The answer is rendered with tenderness, humour and wisdom. Not every mother will match the serenity, humility and competence of Gliori's Large, but this is an instant childhood classic for anyone over three.

Jez Alborough's jaunty rhymes in Where's My Teddy set most adults' teeth on edge long before its 1,000th re-reading. My Friend Bear (Walker pounds 9.99) is just as syrupy, but also greeted with shrieks of delight as the lonely Eddy tricks the big bear, and become friends. Good for suspicious toddlers, but bolshy ones will enjoy Rosemary Wells instead. In Noisy Nora (Doubleday pounds 7.99), the big sister announces she's leaving - "`And I'm never coming back!' And they didn't hear a sound but a tralala from Jack." Delightfully wry and illustrated with bold comic strokes, this, like the Max and Ruby series, is strangely popular with those who come to blows over Christmas.

Further up the age range, the angst intensifies. Sensitive children may find Jonathan Long's The Wonky Donkey (Bodley Head pounds 9.99), mistreated by a succession of cruel owners, all a bit too much even if he does eventually find love and get a statue erected to him. Korky Paul's wicked illustrations are just right for taking the edge off the pathos.

John Burningham is a children's author whom it has taken me a long time to come round to, given that his own approach to compassion can border on the wishy-washy. The simplicity and dreaminess of his world view can't be approached head-on, but he is a kind of genius whom children instantly understand. He champions the underdogs (sometimes literally in classic stories like Simp and Courtney) and the imaginative with passionate urgency and a graphic inventiveness unmatched by anyone, even Pienkowski. A combination of enlarged photographs, inks, chalk and collages convey the fragility of the child's world, and in Whadayamean (Cape pounds 9.99) we see them all when God appears to two children, commanding them to tell adults to save the world. Children's idealism and purity of heart are set against the corruption and ill temper of adults and the result is funny and poignant. Not so Brian Patten's Blue & Green Ark (Scholastic pounds 12.99). Maddeningly over-complex, both the poem and its ecological message get lost in a welter of different illustrators.

It is because children's picture books can touch the heart so directly that they can also go badly wrong. Paul Fleischman's Weslandia (Walker pounds 9.99) features a lonely, nerdy boy called Wesley who knows he's "an outcast from the civilisation around him". The solution? To found his own self- sufficient civilisation. This is like encouraging a lonely child to disappear completely into a fantasy world. As someone who was just such a child myself, I cannot emphasise enough that it is very bad advice. By all means strengthen a child's imaginative and spiritual resources, but not at the price of making them selfish, superior, introverted - and friendless.

Far, far better is Michael Morpurgo's Wombat Goes Walkabout (Collins pounds 10.99). He has the awkward, lonely Wombat save the other bush animals by doing what it is best at - digging - as a forest fire rages. Morpurgo, as always, is marvellous at depicting a lonely child's world, and this is a sure-fire best seller even if Christian Birmingham's illustration are a bit too warm and fuzzy. We all preferred Bob Graham's quirky cartoons for Buffy (Walker pounds 9.99). A performing dog with huge talents, he makes the mistake of outshining his employer, gets kicked out and travels the world. But nobody wants a dancing sheep dog or a juggling kitchen dog - until he stops trying to fit in with the world and uses his own gifts to find true love in an Irish family. Deliciously tongue-in-cheek, this rollicking tale moves with a swing. So, too, does The Gruffalo (Macmillan pounds 9.99), one of the best trickster tales to have been published for many years. It tells (in rhyme) how a mouse escapes the clutches of a fox, an owl and a snake by lying that it's off to meet the imaginary Gruffalo - only to find itself face-to-face with the real thing. There's more than a touch of Sendak to this comic masterpiece, written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, which is recommended to both the timid and the bold.

Josephine Poole and Angela Barrett produce a very different kind of classic. Snow White and Joan of Arc (both Hutchinson pounds 9.99) are two books that every child should have. Everything here is perfect - tone, composition, imagination and mood. Barrett's Snow White knocks the Disney version for six with a really beautiful heroine set in richly coloured, shadowy Gothic pictures. Equally, her Joan of Arc is given a medieval feeling that conveys the idealism and painful youth of its heroine.

Another saint's tale, The Life of St Francis (Hodder pounds 10.99) retold by Rachel Billington, would have been even better with illustrations by Barrett. As it is, James Mayhew's charming, cod-medieval pictures enliven this absorbing tale of self- sacrifice. Impressively detailed and recounted with clarity, verve and considerable historical research, this book has provoked marked symptoms of anti-materialism in my six-year-old. Younger children will love Margaret Mayo's lucid version of the same story, Brother Sun, Sister Moon (Orion pounds 9.99) and its luscious illustrations by Peter Malone.

The Midas Touch (Walker pounds 10.99), Jan Mark's plangent retelling of the myth of King Midas, presents an interesting contrast. The photorealist illustrations by Juan Wijngaard are quite ghastly. Jan Mark's prose deserves better; she also omits what to most children is the climax of the tale - the King turning his beloved daughter to gold. Yet the tale of a greedy king coming to his senses is a timely one.

A delightful book which touches on the same theme is Adrian Mitchell's Nobody Rides The Unicorn (Doubleday pounds 9.99). A grasping, greedy king wants a unicorn's horn and tricks the innocent, lonely Zoe into luring the creature into a cage to kill it. What saves both is her gentle good nature. Once again, this ends with the suggestion that the solution to feelings of isolation is to retreat into fantasy - yet here, because the heroine does something for somebody else, the message, like Stephen Lambert's dreamy, luminous illustrations, charms rather than jars.

Roald Dahl's story of The Mildenhall Treasure (Cape pounds 14.99), a true-life tale of innocent trust and greedy mendacity, is itself a treasure-trove. Alas, it's illustrated by Ralph Steadman. This man should be kept away from children's books, to which his savage line is drastically unsuited. Chris Riddell, another top-notch cartoonist who has been drawn to the same market, is much happier with Castle Diary (Walker pounds 14.99). This quirky and inventive way of teaching children of seven and up about life in a medieval castle is a must for budding historians and is packed with naughty details on loos, hunts and feasts.

All of which would be strongly disapproved of by John Bunyan. A Pilgrim's Progress is admirably retold by Geraldine McCaughrean (Hodder pounds 14.99) and would be ideal for children of over 10. Pilgrim's encounters with the Giant Despair, Apollyon, Vanity Fair and Doubting Castle are stirring stuff, and Jason Cockroft's polychrome, almost pointillist style enhances the vigour and excitement.

The young trail clouds of glory for all too short a span. If you want to forewarn them of what lies ahead once puberty strikes, Babette Cole's Hair in Funny Places (Cape pounds 9.99) is just the thing. A small girl asks her teddy how she came to be made, and he tells her how Mr and Mrs Hormone, and their dog mix up magical potions that made her mum and dad sprout hair, behave oddly and ultimately go crazy for each other. The wild humour, unflinching frankness and surrealist story had both my children giggling even as their mother blubbed quietly at the thought of all the horrors to come. Worrying about unpopularity and saving the planet looks like small beer in comparison. Enjoy it while it lasts.