Best children's books for Christmas

Composing new nursery rhymes that actually work is no easy matter, but Faustin Charles has done so in The Selfish Crocodile Book of Nursery Rhymes (Bloomsbury, £6.99). With a CD included, the book has characters that range from Little Jack Zebra to Twinkle Twinkle Butterfly, all riotously illustrated by Michael Terry. Joanna Skipwith's I Choose You! (Silver Jungle, £5.99) also comes off well. Illustrated by Lisa Jones, each of its creatures has its own rhyme. Order it directly from www.silverjungle.com and £1 will go to help preserve monkeys in the rainforests, away from the pet trade.

Six favourite nursery stories are re-told in Lucy Cousins's Yummy (Walker, £14.99), each memorably illustrated with her trademark smudgy black lines surrounding bright colours. For a darker version of one of these tales, try Louise Rowe's Red Riding Hood: a Pop-Up Book (Tango, £14.99). Sepia-toned collage and a snarling wolf leaping from the page give this work from a new illustrator an atmosphere all its own. But fun and games still rule in Giles Andreae's ABC Animal Jamboree (Orchard, £10.99). Few other alphabet books have as many laugh-aloud moments, with David Wojtowycz's in-your-face illustrations balancing the author's rhymes.

Miriam Moss's Matty in a Mess! (Andersen, £10.99) is a story of two bears, one obsessionally tidy and the other chronically disorganised. Attractively illustrated by Jane Simmons, it packs a lot in before ending with both bears dancing around in a beautiful double-page spread. Michael Recycle, green-caped hero of Ellie Bethel's Litterbug Doug (Meadowside, £5.99), has a different problem. Up against the polluting Doug, Michael eventually leads him to better attitudes with the help of Alexandra Colombo's highly amusing illustrations of various forms of rubbish. For older infants, Emily Gravett's The Rabbit Problem (Macmillan, £12.99) is extraordinary. Written as if on the monthly pages of a wall diary, its witty story of a swiftly-growing rabbit population includes facsimiles of ration books and local newspapers. It finishes with an explosive pop-up picture showing hundreds of rabbits finally rushing away to find a new habitat with more room.

Adrian Mitchell's Shapeshifters (Frances Lincoln, £14.99) is sub-titled Tales from Ovid's Metamorphoses. But the late poet was no dry-as-dust antiquary, and this collection remains super-accessible throughout. Sometimes in prose, elsewhere in poetry, it retells famous myths from King Midas to Orpheus in the Underworld. Sumptuously illustrated by Alan Lee, it is a book for ever as well as for all ages. Make room too for Jeremy Strong's Christmas Chaos for the Hundred-Mile-An-Hour Dog (Puffin, £7.99). This comic writer has come up trumps again, helped by Rowan Clifford's jolly line illustrations.

Martin Howard's The Wickedest Witch (Pavilion, £7.99) is also seriously funny. It describes how Sheila Sniff sets out to be voted in as the Most Superior and High and Wicked Witch. Colin Stimpson's grotesque illustrations add to the fun. For readers who enjoy graphic novels, Garen Ewing's The Rainbow Orchid, Volume One (Egmont £6.99) is a brave stab at creating something like a British Tintin. Readers in search of a fast-paced detective story set in the 1920s will be well entertained. John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh's Salem Brownstone (Walker, £15) pushes the genre as far as it can go in a constantly inventive story of a young man's dark legacy, lit up by his friendship with a glamorous circus contortionist

Not much seasonal cheer in the latest teenage novels. Nicky Singer's Night Crew (CB Editions, £7.99) is a fine but bleak updating of the King Arthur legend, now represented by knife-fighting British gangs. Cleverly worked out and compassionate, it is being adapted for Glyndebourne's Youth Opera next year. Equally forceful, Rosemary Hayes's Payback (Frances Lincoln, £6.99) tells the story of a first-generation immigrant from Pakistan doing well at university but faced by an arranged marriage to a man she abhors. Her narrow escape, and the help she gets from the government's Forced Marriage Unit, is vividly told. Based on a true account, this is contemporary novel-writing at its most relevant.

John Smelcer's gripping The Great Death (Andersen, £5.99) is also based on truth, in this case the early lives of his grandmother and her sister. Natives of Alaska, they were the last two left living in their village in 1920 after everyone else had died from measles and smallpox introduced by white explorers. This book describes the girls' epic journey to safety.

Back in Britain, Linda Newbery's The Sandfather (Orion, £6.99) proves once again that family mysteries are the most gripping of all as young Hal seeks out his missing father during a last-chance suspension from school. For a different type of tension, Daniel Finn's The Good Thieves (Macmillan, £9.99) is a superb story set in a South American favela where stealing is a way of life. Baz and Demi, the junior thieves, are expert pick-pockets. But when they take on their superiors in crime, things get very rough indeed. Impossible to put down, this is an excellent novel.

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