CHILDREN'S BOOKS / Getting from a molehill to the stars: Amanda Craig discovers the pains and pleasures of children's first books

THIS piece is being written out of rage. In the past eight months I have bought huge numbers of books for my 18-month- old daughter, and my irritation with the attitudes of publisher and bookseller is shared by a huge and growing market - the baby boomers who have now themselves become parents. English-speaking authors have produced some of the best books in the world for small children, yet only one publisher (Scholastic) gives age guidelines, and only one (Walker) helps the bookseller by giving mock-ups and samples of what each new book contains. With some five new 'books for tots' published a month, few booksellers are either informed or enthusiastic when it comes to their children's section. Only a handful of the classics that should be staples of every children's section are carried - the rest have to be specifically ordered. Who has the time for such research? Certainly not the working parent.

After two, of course, a wealth of famous and splendid books, from Beatrix Potter to Babar, await a child: yet before this age there is an equally rich fund which barely existed until recently. Little is done to help us find it. There are organisations which bully mothers about breastfeeding, but scarcely anyone tells you that reading to a very small child is perhaps the greatest pleasure, emotional and intellectual, of early parenthood.

It's no good trying to read a book you find boring out of a sense of duty. Spot the Dog, Postman Pat and Pingu must have done as much to sow the seeds of illiteracy as television; parents come to hate their crude illustrations and idiotic texts. Where the Wild Things Are will, on the other hand, thrill even a tiny child of limited vocabulary because it ripples with an infectious magic.

Bath 'books' and rag books are a waste of time and money. So are publications showing photographs of babies, when most mail-order catalogues are crawling with them. At 10 months, infants respond best to pop-ups; but these, though miracles of paper engineering, are expensive disposable toys unless you reinforce every flap with Sellotape. 'Real' books are better.

A good book for infants is comparable to a great poem. It has to contain enough vitality, wit and sheer style to bear re-reading at least twice a day, irrespective of parental illness, depression and exhaustion. Any flaw, either in text or pictures, rapidly becomes unbearable. Bookish adults are familiar with the feeling of astonished gratitude a major author can produce: Judith Kerr, Quentin Blake, Lucy Micklethwait and the Ahlbergs are people to whom I would at present donate a kidney.

To begin with, your child will not understand one word in 50, but still makes strict demands. Its book must tell a story, scan, preferably rhyme, be about cats, teddies, families, meals and monsters. It must address a child's deepest fears of being lost, hungry and chased by giants - or reassure by showing the pattern and rhythm of its days. Toddlers are not interested in the glum or politically correct. They want entertainment, imagination and joy. Any author who addresses a specific 'problem' is best left to libraries, which tend to be stacked with pristine copies of Dinosaurs Divorce?, I Want my Potty] and Spot's Baby Sister.

Many of the books infants love best have subtexts which can make an adult wince. Nursery rhymes emphasise accidents, cruelty and subversion; many modern classics such a The Tiger Who came to Tea, Cockatoos and Lucy & Tom's Day depict mothers who are housewives, a servant class and toys divided along strictly sexist lines. So a book such as When Grandma Came, which shows an elderly woman as adventurous as she is tender, is doubly delicious.

A toddler's classic must have illustrations in which you can both find new things to enjoy. Children do not respond only to garish colours, or to weak and wandering pastels. Clarity, detail and charm does not have to mean cute: one the most inspired books available is Lucy Micklethwait's A Child's First Book of Art, which groups great paintings to illustrate colours, numbers and concepts. Toddlers are mesmerised by it.

Books remain better value than almost any toy you pack for holidays, for nothing else will provide the blissful satisfaction of being at once entertained and embraced. A loved book will not only be chewed, ripped, whacked on your nose at 6am and covered with blobs of food, but independently studied with the recognition which is one of the purest and most lasting pleasures. My daughter's joy is what we all feel when, in Nabokov's words, the happy reader climbs the mountain where the author stands and both 'spontaneously embrace and are linked forever'. To us, the toddler's mountain is a molehill, but it may one day touch the stars.

Amanda Craig selects her favourite books for young children:

UP TO ONE YEAR:

Animal Rap, Animal Snap, Robert Crowther, Walker pounds 4.99; Little Monsters, Jan Pienkowski, Orchard pounds 3.50; I Spy series (On the Farm etc), Doubleday pounds 3.99; The Real Mother Goose series, Child's Play pounds 5.95; Ten Bears in a Bed, John Richardson, Tango Books pounds 7.99; Worms Wiggle, Pelham / Foreman, Collins pounds 5.99; This Troll, That Troll, Mick Inkpen, Orchard, pounds 3.50; Miffy, Dick Bruna, Methuen pounds 2.50; Where's My Teddy?, Jez Alborough, Walker pounds 3.99; Mr Magnolia, Quentin Blake, Picture Lions pounds 3.99; For Teddy and Me, Prue Theobalds, Blackie pounds 3.50; The Tale of Peter Rabbit, (pop-up) Potter, Warne pounds 7.99

UP TO TWO YEARS:

Peepo], Allan Ahlberg, Puffin pounds 3.99; Each Peach Pear Plum, Allan Ahlberg, Puffin pounds 3.99; When Grandma Came, Jill Paton Walsh, Puffin pounds 4.50; Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, Picture Lions pounds 3.99; A Giraffe on the Moon, Sandy Nightingale, Puffin pounds 3.99; Dear Zoo Rod Campbell, Blackie, pounds 5.50; Lucy & Tom's Day, Shirley Hughes, Puffin pounds 3.99; The Tiger who came to Tea, Judith Kerr, Picture Lion pounds 3.99; The Blue Balloon, Mick Inkpen, Picture Knight pounds 4.99; Mog & the Baby, J Kerr, Picture Lions pounds 3.99; This is the Bear, Hayes/Craig, Walker pounds 3.99; Who Sank the Boat?, Pamela Allen, Puffin, pounds 3.99; Maisy Goes to Bed, Lucy Cousins, Walker pounds 6.99; Cockatoos, Quentin Blake, Red Fox pounds 3.99; In the Night Kitchen, Maurice Sendak, Picture Lions pounds 3.99; Lucy & Tom at the Seaside, Shirley Hughes, Puffin pounds 3.50; Noah & the Animals, Prue Theobalds, Blackie pounds 3.99; A Child's Book of Art, Lucy Micklethwait, Dorling Kindersley pounds 9.99; Why Mrs Monkey Missed the Ark, J Kerr, Lions pounds 3.99; The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle, Puffin pounds 3.99.

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