Picture Books: Here be giants. And zaks, and bears...

Our critics choose the best new stories for children to lose themselves in this summer. Nicholas Tucker begins, with picture books

Charles Fuge's Astonishing Animal ABC (Gullane, £10.99) progresses from an arty aardvark to the hitherto unknown-to-zoology zak, so allowing zebras a welcome relief from their normal position at the end of any animal alphabet.

Lavishly illustrated and linked together by bouncy rhyme, this is early learning at its best. So too is Alison Murray's One Two. That's My Shoe! (Orchard, £10.99). Here, a child chases a naughty pet up the number chain from one to 10, where everyone is friends again. It is also told in rhyme and illustrated with huge pictures, and the numbers flash by as part of the fun.

Marla Frazee's The Boss Baby (Simon and Schuster, £5.99) takes a wry look at what really goes on after a new arrival. Dressed in a sharp black suit, a small, bald and scowling baby is shown taking over his new home. Prone to tantrums, demanding meetings at any time in the day or night, and expecting instant attention from his staff of two, he only looks pleased when he finally starts to talk. Parents will surely want to lend this book to other sufferers; babies may wonder whether they have finally been rumbled.

Meanwhile, in the less pointed world of picture book animals, Catherine Rayner's Solomon Crocodile (Macmillan, £10.99) brings glowing jungle colours to a story about an animal which just can't help being a nuisance to everyone else on the river bank. Temporarily put in his place by an enormous hippo, he ends by meeting another of his kind who is just as mischievous. Double trouble, indeed, and very entertaining.

Watch out, too, for Rhinos Don't Eat Pancakes (Simon and Schuster, £5.99). Written by Anna Kemp and illustrated by Sara Ogilvie, it offers a good-humoured warning to parents who don't listen. Despite mounting evidence, no one believes Daisy when she insists that there is a big purple rhinoceros in the house. Finally convinced, Mum and Dad then have another surprise on the final page. The massive, full-colour pictures make this a delicious book.

Also good, Ross Collins's Doodleday (Gullane, £10.99) shows what can happen when children fail to heed advice. Warned by his mother never to draw anything on Doodleday, young Harvey still goes ahead and does so. Initially sketching a fly that becomes real, he quickly creates a spider, a bird and finally a giant squid in a vain attempt to get each one to demolish the one that came before. Just in time, Mum arrives and orders every new creature back to the drawing pad. Splendidly illustrated, this is a book to pore over.

For older infants, Niki Daly's No More Kisses for Bernard! (Francis Lincoln, £11.99) is a welcome antidote to those sentimental love-in picture books featuring permanently beaming human or animal children and their parents. Bernard is a determined little boy who declares a unilateral prohibition on over-enthusiastic embraces. Wittily illustrated, this is a story for everyone.

And for those about to start their education, David Mackintosh's Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School (HarperCollins, £10.99) features a wonderfully eccentric title character. Utterly unpredictable from one page to the next, this is a seriously funny book. So too is Andy Stanton's extraordinary Here Comes the Poo Bus! (Puffin, £10.99). Illustrated in full, foetid detail by Noëlle Davies-Brock, this anarchic picture book about insects lured into a doomed trip to the seaside has to be seen – but thankfully not smelled – to be believed.

Alex T Smith's Claude in the City (Hodder, £4.99) is a book with pictures rather than a picture book. Engagingly written and with plenty of odd asides, it tells the story of a small plump dog named Claude and his best friend, who happens to be a sock. Together they explore the town, ending up as local heroes after foiling a robbery. The author is a comparative newcomer to children's books; on this evidence, he should go far.

Steve Voake, on the other hand, has been around for ages. He is on top form in Hooey Higgins and the Big Boat Race (Walker, £4.99), a tale about three boys building a bouncing boat. Emma Dodson's explosive illustrations add to the fun.

Nicola Davies's Welcome to Silver Street Farm (Walker, £3.99) has three children devising and then opening their own city farm. Written in short, easy to read chapters and pleasantly illustrated by Katharine McEwen, this is effective wish-fulfilment stuff, in a multicultural urban setting. There are three more titles in the series for children who like it, as many surely will.

Tamsyn Murray's Rabbit Racer (Simon and Schuster, £4.99) is part of a series too – the Stunt Bunny series. Full of incident, and illustrated to semi-surreal effect by Lee Wildish, these jolly stories come off extremely well.

Janet Foxley's Muncle Trogg (Chicken House, £5.99), the deserved winner of The Times' 2010 Children's Fiction Competition, is also recommended. Its story of an under-sized giant has a lot going for it, including ingenious black-and-white illustrations by Steve Wells.

Babette Cole is a wickedly witty illustrator, whose picture books touch on tricky topics with such alarming frankness that even broad-minded parents sometimes find them difficult to swallow. She has turned to fiction in her Fetlocks Hall Series, and The Enchanted Pony and The Curse of the Pony Vampires (Bloomsbury, £5.99 each) are the latest to appear. A self-confessed pony freak herself, she mixes magic with practical tips in a headlong rush of over the top plotting that somehow works even when it shouldn't.

More restful, René Goscinny's Nicholas (Phaidon, £6.95) is the first paperback edition of a collection of stories originally written in 1960, but which are just as fresh today. Illustrated by the celebrated cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé, these mini-adventures describe a determinedly contented French schoolboy who is forever getting into mild trouble. They may lack the vigorous humour of the same author's Asterix series, but certainly make up for that in charm and gentle nostalgia. Translated by Anthea Bell, than whom there is no one better, this unfailingly delightful book is one to treasure.

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