The best of the season's picture books

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The Independent Culture

Children's picture books don't entertain unhappy endings. Life, sadly, doesn't follow suit: 2007 began on a very bad note for those of us who love to hang out, looking woefully oversized, in the smallies' section of the bookshop. January saw the early death of one of the finest author/illustrators ever to put ink-pen and colourwash to paper, Harry Horse. By way of a small consolation, Puffin has just published his last book, Little Rabbit's Christmas (hardback 12.99; paperback 5.99). This, the fifth in the series, is every inch as tender and as lovely as all the others. Little Rabbit wants a red sledge to call his own. With the help of his friends, he averts catastrophe and learns to share. It's just what every stocking needs (do please try not to sob too hard).

Two worthy fillers of the large gap left by Horse's departure are relative newcomers David Lucas and Oliver Jeffers. Lucas's The Robot and the Bluebird (Andersen Press 10.99) tears at the heartstrings too, with its story of a robot with a broken heart who gets thrown on the scrapheap. A bluebird nests in his empty chest and sings and flutters there, just like a real heart. Readers of Lucas's previous titles, Whale and Halibut Jackson, will find his style as distinctive and his words as warming as ever. The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins 11.99) features familiar characters, too, from his earlier hits, Lost and Found and How to Catch a Star. A boy befriends a Martian up in space, temporarily abandons him in favour of something good on the telly, but returns to rescue him at last. Obviously, they're destined to be parted but they can communicate by walkie-talkie so there's no need to worry about unhappy endings.

"Issues"-based books are the ones I tend to cast to the bottom of the pile, but if you do want to offer some help with the everyday traumas of the under-fives, then these are the pick of the bunch. For those with nursery anxieties, try old hand Shirley Hughes's Alfie and the Big Boys (Bodley Head 10.99). For finicky eaters, I prescribe Eddie's Kitchen by the equally experienced Sarah Garland (Frances Lincoln 11.99). For those coping with familial conflict, quondam queen of children's television, Floella Benjamin, has produced My Two Grannies (illus Margaret Chamberlain; Frances Lincoln 11.99). Granny Rose (representing Barnsley) and Granny Vero (representing Trinidad) war over how best to look after granddaughter Alvina. Harmony is restored by steak-and-kidney pud and the story of Spider Anansi. Emily Gravett's Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears (Macmillan 10.99) is as literate and exquisite as everything else she's produced and covers them all from Arachnophobia to Sciaphobia (that's shadows, by the way) in a very unthreatening fashion. Finally, Emily Brown and the Thing (Cressida Cowell & Neal Layton, Orchard 10.99) outs the scary monster under the bed once more. I'll say this again: if you're the gift giver, be very sure the intended recipient already has the fear, or the book may induce it.

If you want to give your children a taste of your own childhood, there are plenty of nostalgic treats on offer. How about Noddy: A classic treasury (HarperCollins 14.99) the first five Noddy stories with their original illustrations, and not a Golly in sight. (No skittles are harmed in this selection either.) Or some lovely hardback reproductions of John Ryan's Pugwash stories from Frances Lincoln: Pugwash Aloft which is just about to notch up its 50th anniversary and Pugwash and the Ghost Ship (11.99 each). My personal favourite has to be The Big Book of Bagpuss (Oliver Postgate & Peter Firmin, HarperCollins 14.99): the small soft Hamish, the house of Uncle Feedle, and all the words to the Mouse-Flying Song if you have any idea what I'm talking about, you'll love it.

It's not often that a title in the picture books category is also produced in an adult's version, but that's the case with Angela and the Baby Jesus by Frank McCourt (illus Ral Coló*; HarperCollins 12.99). Personally, I like to keep the baby Jesus out of Christmas, but I accept that I'm rather missing the point. Six-year-old Angela worries that Jesus is cold in the church crib so brings him home and gets into all sorts of bother. If you must get seasonal, I'd vote for Olivia Helps with Christmas (Ian Falconer; Simon and Schuster 12.99) in which an obstreperous small pig decapitates the tree, is disappointed by a sweater and presents her parents with a self-portrait to hang over the fireplace.

Design honours this year must go to the largest of large-format books, Jean-Luc Fromental and Joëlle Jolivet's 365 Penguins (Abrams and a relative bargain at 9.95), the attractively retro and entirely surreal tale of a family who get penguins by post every day of the year. Should they be stored in boxes of a dozen, like eggs, or piled into pyramids? First runner-up must be Winter in White by legendary paper engineer Robert Sabuda. A mini pop-up treat at 7.99 (Simon and Schuster), this features a pirouetting skater and two doves who tie a bow keep the littlest hands away.

I'd like to award the storyteller's crown to one of the new kids, but Gruffalo creators Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler have snatched the title again. Tiddler (Alison Green Books 10.99) is picture-book perfection. Tiddler is late for Miss Skate's calling of the register at under-sea school each day, for a variety of unconvincing reasons. Only little Johnny Dory believes them. One day, Tiddler really does find himself in an adventure: lost at sea, his only way back is to follow the route of one of his tall tales, all the way home to Old Granny Dory. It's got laughs, drama and great rhymes. Beat that for a happy ending.

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