Picture books worth a thousand words

Christmas books of the year: Our reviewers conclude their three-week survey of the best books of the year, and Inbali Iserles leads off with children's stories

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The Independent Culture

Alongside infusions of vim and wit, this year's selection includes challenging themes that take the reader from the sorrow of losing a friend to the ghastly realities of the battlefield.

Can We Save the Tiger? (Walker, £11.99) is the urgent question posed by Martin Jenkins in one of the most striking picture books of the year. Bold in its treatment of "important" issues, informative but never patronising, the book is brought to life by Vicky White's exquisitely lifelike illustrations, and is guaranteed to instil in young readers a sense of the beauty and fragility of nature.

Verse has struggled in a marketplace where the need to secure translation rights renders it problematic. Perhaps as a consequence, some of the rhyming books that have swum against the current were penned by our most famous (and bankable) children's writers. Take The Highway Rat (Scholastic, £10.99) written by the unassailable Julia Donaldson, Children's Laureate and author of The Gruffalo, and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. It tells of a scurrilous rat who preys on his woodland neighbours, snatching their food and growing fat from immoral gains. Yet greed proves his undoing when a cunning duck tricks him into a cave with the promise of chocolate, luring him out of the wood to an altogether different life.

The lessons of avarice continue but fowl may also be foolish, as is clear in The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories (HarperCollins, £10.99) by the master of comic rhyme, Dr Seuss. On discovering a rare and magical Bippolo seed, a flutter-brained duck learns that whatever he wishes for will sprout from a Bipolo tree. Inspired by a passing cat to ask for riches from toothpaste to keyholes, the duck abandons himself to an orgy of gluttony and in so doing loses the precious seed. The unhappy duo end up with nothing and are unlikely to chance upon a Bippolo seed again. "But if they should find one, the cat and that duck, Won't wish for so much. And they'll have better luck." The book is comprised of tales only previously published in magazines in the 1950s; a boon to lovers of Seuss's rhyming rollicks.

A third rhyming picture books is Emily Gravett's Again! (Macmillan, £10.99). A young dragon addles its exhausted parent to read the tale of Cedric, a dragon who won't go to sleep. "Again!" and "Again!" pesters the baby dragon, in a whinge that will resonate with parents across the land. But unlike human offspring, dragon young don't just grouse, they breathe fire too!

The honour for most original picture book goes to The Bear and the Wildcat (Gecko Press, £9.99), written by the Japanese author Kazumi Yumoto and illustrated by Komako Sakai. Bereavement is a difficult theme for young readers, but as death occurs in the world it should be addressed, sensitively, on the page. The story opens with a tearful bear, whose friend the bird has died. While most of the animals in the forest tell him to forget the bird, a travelling wildcat encourages the bear to grieve. "This little bird must have been a very special friend of yours," he tells the bear. Touching and otherworldly, brave in its treatment of loss, The Bear and the Wildcat is a hauntingly beautiful book.

Another poignant picture book in translation is A Bird in Winter (Prestel, £9.99) by Hélène Kérillis and Stéphane Girel, inspired by Pieter Bruegel's painting The Hunters in the Snow. While occasionally awkward in its translation, the story of a restless young girl who cares for an injured bird is both engaging and moving. Girel's illustrations capture the blue skies and snow drifts of winter in all its lonely magic.

Moving into early chapter books, we have two animal classics, reissued this year. First is Anne Fine's The Diary of a Killer Cat (Puffin, £5.99), illustrated by Steve Cox. Bullish, beastly and unapologetic, Tuffy the tomcat is a fantastically roguish hero. His predatory antics would certainly give Olga da Polga, the guinea pig star of The Tales of Olga da Polga (Oxford, £9.99), something to think about. The invention of Michael Bond, and also claiming Peruvian ancestry like Bond's more famous creation, Paddington Bear, Olga regales her animal friends with guinea pig tales, some dating back to BD (Before Dandelions), a "very, very long time ago". A heart-warming story from a legendary writer, with charming illustrations by Catherine Rayner.

Magic Beans: (David Fickling, £9.99), a collection fairy tale re-tellings by some of our finest writers including Adèle Geras, Jacqueline Wilson, Philip Pullman and Michael Morpurgo, that was also included in last week's round-up of books for seven to 12-year-olds, brims with elegant prose, enchantment, comedy and mischief. Malorie Blackman's re-telling of Aesop's Fables is particularly delicious, rich in humour and irony. So begins the tale of the fox and grapes: "Foxy was walking along the dusty road one day, minding his own business and thinking foxy thoughts ...." It's the perfect gift but also a book to squirrel away for yourself and enjoy on a rainy afternoon.

Never ones to flinch in the face of gore, Terry Deary and Martin Brown's Terrible Trenches (Scholastic, £9.99), in the hit Horrible Histories series, confronts the reality of the First World War in all its grizzly detail. In alternate chapters from the British and German perspectives with titles such as "Wicked Weapons", "Terrible Toilets" and "Rotten Rats", the book manages to impart with astonishing clarity the miseries of trench warfare. While readers with a military bent will thrill in the grotesqueness of it all, the prevailing message is clear. "War has no real winners," Deary observes. "Ninety years after the First World War ended some people still haven't learned."

Inbali Iserles is the author of The Tygrine Cat and The Tygrine Cat: On the Run (both Walker, £5.99)

The Diary of a Killer Cat, By Anne Fine (Illustrated by Steve Cox) Puffin £5.99

'Okay, okay. So hang me. I killed the bird. For pity's sake, I'm a cat. It's practically my job to go creeping round the garden after sweet little eensy-weensy birdy-pies that can hardly fly from one hedge to another. So what am I supposed to do when one of the poor feathery little flutterballs just about throws itself into my mouth?'