Books: Whiff off the old sock

A grandad with a special lingo, a twit of a brother, a fat, smelly baby warthog - and a lost pet who comes from Mars. Sally Williams meets all sorts in the latest picture-books for young readers
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The Independent Culture
The Great Castle of Marshmangle by Malachy Doyle, illus Paul Hess, (Andersen Press, pounds 9.99). A little boy goes to stay with his Granddaddy - that's the story, but the real subject of this wonderful book is words and the fun that can be had with them. The boy discovers that Granddaddy has a special language. He calls water, "soggadrop", stairs, "the wooden hill", bed, is a "fortywink cockpit", and gradually a treasury of rich and evocative words is revealed. The illustrations are startling, too: dreamy, magical, the perfect compliment to Doyle's inventiveness.

The Element Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Animals in Nature, Myth and Spirit by Fran Pickering (Element, pounds 14.99)

A fine selection of fascinating facts and stories that reflect the extent to which our world has been shaped by our relationship with the animal kingdom. Not only is there much to be learned about real animals (dolphins, for instance, are the only mammals to be born tail first); there are also pages on mermaids, magical horses, sirens and other beasts from myth and legend.

She is obviously not a fan of "the most dominant mammals alive" (humankind is consigned to two derisory pages) but Pickering's love and respect for the rest of the animal kingdom make this a rich and tightly-packed book.

It's Dreamtime by Sara Fanelli (Heinemann, pounds 9.99)

Sharply original and a welcome relief from the cute and furry is this intriguingly surreal story about three friends who have bizarre and puzzling dreams. Someone is trying to tell them something. And that someone turns out to be a lost pet from Mars.

With spiky, restless illustrations, cut-outs and artful use of typeface, this is edgy stuff which perhaps may be a bit daunting to those more used to stories about ducks in pinafores. But persevere. There is so much in here and all of it is good.

Mr Bear's New Baby by Debi Gliori (Orchard, pounds 9.99)

What's special about this story of a family adjusting to the demands of a new-born baby is Gliori's sharp eye for detail in the illustrations: the discarded baby sock; the lidless pot of Sudocreme which is about to disappear under the bed; Mr and Mrs Bear, heavy-eyed and resigned as the quiet night is shattered by "the most awful din".

That Mr Bear is kept awake longer than Mrs Bear is an interesting idea - if only an idea - but sleepy, bedtime illustrations in cosy colours makes this quietly funny account of life after birth nearly accurate.

Wish you Were Here (And I Wasn't): a book of poems and pictures for globe trotters by Colin McNaughton (Walker, pounds 10.99)

The big summer holiday immersion has to be this collection of nearly 50 poems. McNaughton's work always rates high in bounce and romp, but here he tackles a lot more than just his usual well-crafted nonsense. There's the contemplative "The Funny Feeling You Get In Railway Tunnels", the horribly realistic "I Feel Sick" and "Are We Nearly There Yet?", and the whimsical "If I Could Fly like Icarus", and characteristically silly poems about aliens and monsters.

Let's Try; Let's Make a Noise; Let's Play; Let's Do It, by Amy MacDonald, illus Maureen Roffey (Walker, pounds 3.50 each)

Don't be deceived by the graphic simplicity of these sturdy board books. This series introduces some complex ideas to babies: making animal noises, banging a drum, blowing bubbles, and eating toes. Beyond the pictures of chubby toddlers and succinct clear lessons is a sympathetic understanding of the needs of this young audience.

Whiff, or How the Beautiful Big Fat Smelly Baby Found a Friend by Ian Whybrow, illus Russell Ayto (Doubleday, pounds 9.99)

Any child who has over felt forlorn or lonely will understand how Whiff, a big, fat, smelly baby warthog, feels. He is well behaved and has very nice table manners, but every time he gets invited to make new friends, he comes home in disgrace. And then he meets Baby Littlebird, a friend who appreciates him for what he is. Ayto's characteristically high-energy illustrations spice up this very readable, reassuring story.

Clarice Bean, That's Me by Lauren Child (Orchard, pounds 10.99)

A real treat. This is only Lauren Child's second book for children and I'm totally hooked. What's remarkable is her ability to present the child's point of view, without preaching or patronising, but with the sort of acute observation that has you laughing out loud. Here, the feisty Clarice, third child in a family of four, is searching for some peace and quiet. But it's not easy. There's Minal Cricket, an annoying "twit" of a younger brother; an aloof older sister, Marcie, who is always telling her to GO AWAY; and older brother Kurt who's lost in the "dark tunnel of adolescence" and a pile of stinking socks. With scratchy illustrations, expressive use of type, photo- graphs and pages of busy detail, all age groups will pore over this again and again.

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