Children's Books Special: And they didn't necessarily live happily ever after...

Children's picture books usually steer clear of adult emotions, but Nicola Smyth finds some writers and artists who are not afraid to scare the littlies and move their parents
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The Independent Culture

There's something very refreshing about sitting down with a large pile of picture books. Unlike the diet of wizardry and other pseudo-Pottery served up to the over-sevens, picture-books remain largely the preserve of the natural world, not the supernatural. The occasional dragon sneaks in, the odd witch, but the majority of cast members are still nice, cheerful, rotund farmyard animals.

The best specimens of this are to be found down on Faraway Farm (Ian Whybrow & Alex Ayliffe, Orchard £10.99). While Farmer Flat gets on with driving his tractor and feeding the pigs, small people can be kept amused by the bright, detail-filled backdrops. Stools and pails might not be top of their vocabulary lists, but there's a constant supply of kittens in every frame. Another farmyard favourite with my daughter - though I confess it drove me slightly bonkers - is Baby's Shoe by Ros Asquith & Sam Childs (Hutchinson £10.99). The footwear in question gets lost somewhere on the farm, so the baby's elder sibling spends a lot of time vaulting in and out of stables, pigpens and hen coops looking for it. It has a good, solid rhyming structure, with an ever-expanding list of animals who help with the search, but I found it worked better if I only read out every other page. Oh, and baby's shoe is in the pram all the time. Grrrrr.

Top of the many rhyming stories on offer is Chocolate Mousse for Greedy Goose (Macmillan £9.99). Produced by the ubiquitous Julia "Gruffalo" Donaldson and Nick "Pants" Sharratt, the bold illustrations form a long panorama of feasting wildlife, from fussy Duck ("Carrots - yuck!") to angry Rabbit. When all the food is gone, leaving just the washing up, happy Moth finds her own solution ("I'll eat the cloth"). A perfect marriage of words to pictures, it limits itself to a line per page so even the smallest reader can't lose patience. And it comes on special, toddler-proof paper.

Once Upon a Tide (David Fickling £10.99) is told in verse, too. Selina Young's seascapes are gorgeous, but rather delicate so more suited to the sensibilities of the over-threes. Tony Mitton's text, filled with shanties, treasure chests and shingle, has a pleasing narrative arc that takes its hero and heroine into the far-off future, rather than just depositing them back home in time for bed.

Plaudits must go to Barefoot Books, though, for the season's most colourful and consistently high-quality titles. You'll have to wait a couple more weeks for them, but the prolific Stella Blackstone has three goodies on the way. A Dragon on the Doorstep (illus Debbie Harter, £10.99); Alligator Alphabet (£10.99), which takes an unusual approach to the A-Z (X is for Xoona Moth), and is beautifully illustrated by Stephanie Bauer. And lastly, I Wish I Were a Pilot (illus Max Grover, £10.99), which contains every mode of transport that could possibly be of interest to pre-schoolers, and a factfile at the back to occupy their elders. They are also responsible for Myron's Magic Cow (£10.99). It's too text-heavy for any but the oldest consumers in the picture-book market, but the story - by first-timer Marlene Newman - is wonderfully served by illustrator Jago's pictures. It incorporates genies, Jack and the beanstalk, Ali Baba and a golden egg. And all in the course of a trip to the shops for a carton of milk.

Another treat for older children is Sandra Horn and Karen Popham's The Mud Maid (The Clucket Press £9.99). Based on the true story of how the gardens of Heligan were lost, found and restored, Horn's tale follows a garden sprite who waves Will the gardener goodbye, not realising that he is leaving for the war and will not return. The garden decays and the Mud Maid waits alone until regeneration comes. In the wrong hands, it could be mawkish and sentimental but The Mud Maid avoids the pitfalls and delivers something both moving and original. Adult emotions are rarely stirred by picture books, but it's hard not to be touched, too, by Killer Gorilla (Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross, Andersen £10.99). A mouse loses her baby in the rainforest and, as if that wasn't bad enough, a huge gorilla starts pursuing her. She crosses continents, outrunning him through China and Australia, and is finally caught in the Arctic wastes: "She wished she could see her baby once more before she was eaten." Hankies at the ready? But yes, you've guessed it, the gorilla is simply trying to give her baby back. It's always heartening to find an author who isn't afraid to scare the littlies.

More well-known names with new wares on offer are Francesca Simon (The Topsy Turvies, illus Emily Bolam; Orion £9.99) and Emma Chichester Clark (Will and Squill, Andersen £10.99). Simon's story, of an ordinary family who just happen to do everything back-to-front and upside-down, has Addams Family overtones. The Topsy-Turvies all think they're the ones who are behaving normally ("'Mum, why is Mrs Plum wearing clothes OUTSIDE?' said Minx. 'Shh,' said Mrs Topsy-Turvy. 'Everyone's different.'") Her gags are much better than those in Will and Squill. Though it's a cute boy-meets-squirrel idea, it's far too derivative of Chichester Clark's earlier hit, I Love You, Blue Kangaroo. Also in this category, I suppose, is Madonna, but the less said about the utterly charmless Lotsa da Casha (Puffin £12.99), the better.

Finally, a subsection for the best shaggy dog stories. Bored Bill by Liz Pichon (Little Tiger £10.99) features a pup who's suffering from the kind of ennui more commonly associated with teenagers: "I'm so bored I can't even move," Bill sighs. But then a gust of wind sweeps him into space. Unfortunately, the aliens are even less interesting than Bill's owner, Mrs Pickles, and at last, he learns to appreciate the comforts of home. Hannah Giffard and Keith Tutt's foxy tale, Pablo Goes Hunting (Frances Lincoln), earns its place in this category through its pictures. Giffard's distinctive style, combining glorious colour with precise white outlines, is worth £9.99 on its own. Lastly, and stretching the canine family even further - Wolves by Emily Gravett (Macmillan £10.99). When Rabbit goes to the library, he chooses a book about wolves and learns to regret it. Or perhaps he doesn't. (There's an alternative ending for the sensitive reader.) Its collages of drawings, photographs, envelopes and library tickets, add up to the debut of the season. It even comes with its own reviews, courtesy of The Hareold and The Daily Carrot, making my role in all this entirely redundant.

To buy these books, many at a discounted rate, contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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