PICTURE BOOKS FOR CHILDREN; With the school holidays coming up, books can prove useful and educational as well as fun. On the next four pages, we suggest some favourites for all ages
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The Independent Culture
June 29, 1999 by David Wiesner, David Bennet pounds 8.99. In a small town in New Jersey, after months of planning, young scientist Holly Evans launches trays of vegetable seedlings, held up by weather balloons, into the clouds. About six weeks later, the skies of America are suddenly filled with giant vegetables. David Weisner's dazzling stylised illustrations will give as much pleasure to adults as to kids, as will his deadpan commentary - "Cucumbers circle Kalamazoo", "Artichokes advance on Anchorage", "The Big Apple is renamed the Big Rutabaga". Perhaps the best joke is a picture of Reagan, Carter and Nixon carved, Mount-Rushmore-style, from giant spuds, puckishly captioned: "Potatoland is wisely abandoned." The text is brief, with crazy names that kids will enjoy alongside the surreal pictures. For a book of few words, it's rather sophisticated fare. 6+

Rooster's Off To See The World by Eric Carle, Hamish Hamilton pounds 9.99. A jolly counting game ensues when Rooster sets off on a journey, meeting more and more animals who want to accompany him: two cats, three frogs, four tortoises stalk, hop and creep in his wake. Carle's colourful, splashy, collagey animal portraits are accompanied by counting boxes so that very young children can keep track of the comings and goings. 4+

The Witch's Birthday Present by Carolyn Dinan, Hamish Hamilton pounds 5.99. Ada Witch wants a birthday cat, but sister Winnie's flying catbasket turns out to contain a spaniel instead. What use are long walks and companionship when what you really want is a traditional spooky familiar? Ada's magical attempts to transform the unwanted pet into something more convenient only end in mishap. Dinan's own drawings are scratchy but bright and fun. A Cartwheel book, for children who are just starting to read for themselves.

Zoom by Istvan Banyai, Viking pounds 9.99. No words at all, but a sophisticated visual game as pages are flipped back and forth to zoom in or out on the brightly coloured, almost headachey, scenes. The girl playing with a toy farm turns out to be on the cover of a book read by a boy on board a cruise- liner, who in turn becomes a speck on a poster on the side of a bus, which is itself only an image on a TV screen, which then turns out to be... The final image is of the world, a speck vanishing into space. Mind-boggling cleverness which might just help book-hating kids get into the habit of turning pages.

Charlie and the Big Chill by Lenny Henry, illus Chris Burke, Gollancz pounds 6.99. The first book Lenny Henry remembers taking out of the Dudley children's library was Little Black Sambo, and 30 years on there's been little progress, at least when it comes to children of mixed race. So for his own daughter he created Charlie, a tearaway tot with wild corkscrew hair, battered trainers and a Minnie the Minx jumper. She's got quite an imagination, too. In Big Chill a simple trip to the supermarket with mum turns into an arctic romp with cartoon characters from ice-cream labels, and an encounter with a fearsome snow giant. There's probably a fair bit of mileage in this cheeky heroine, but while this is no Budgie the Helicopter star indulgence, the story is not particularly exciting or well-written ("Bam palam - smack dab into Mum!") while the Scarfe-esque drawings, though vivid, might be too fussy to appeal to children.

Ghost School by Heather Maisner, illus Tony Kenyon, Heinemann pounds 3.99. For such a modest little book, this is surprisingly satisfying with the impact of a story twice its length. Something is fishy when Daniel and Tessa Ross arrive at their new school in a big, old house. The schoolmistresses are so stern in their funny long dresses, and Tessa is promptly banished to the kitchens to knead dough and scrub potatoes, while Daniel is taken to an old-fashioned nursery, dressed in a frilly shirt and knee britches, and introduced to nasty snob Richard and gentle Charlotte. And then there's the mysterious girl in a blue cloak who keeps whispering: "Leave by three or you'll never leave." Delicate illustrations add to the pleasurably creepy atmosphere. In the Banana Book series, for reasonably confident readers.

The True Adventure of Daniel Hall by Diane Stanley, Orion pounds 9.99. In 1855, at the age of 14, Daniel Hall of New Bedford, Massachusetts, went to sea in the whaling ship the Condor. His youthful enthusiasm for shipboard life was soon tempered by the brutality of the Captain, Samuel Whiteside, and a savage beating with a wooden club made Daniel determined to run away as soon as they hit dry land. So he stole away with another boy when the ship docked in Siberia. His adventures there, with medicine men, wolves, bears, and the kindly Yakut people, are all adapted from Daniel's true- life memoirs, Arctic Rovings, published in 1861. A stirring story, beautifully illustrated in smoky pastel. 8+

Creepe Hall by Alan Durant, illustrated by Hunt Emerson, Walker pounds 6.99. Oliver's parents have gone off to the Himalayas and left him to the care of some boring rellies he's never met. When he finds that the Creepes of Creepe Hall don't even have a telly, he's totally fed up. But with the seven-foot-high butler known as Mummy, vampire cousins Con and Can, Uncle Vladimir whose eyes gleam dull red, Uncle Franklyn in the basement doing his electrical experiments, and the werebadger (boy by day and badger by night), there's quite enough action going on to entertain a selfish little city-dwelling couch potato. Oliver soon learns there's more to life, and undeath, than a 12-inch screen could ever show you. An amusing, gently prodding tale in the Addams Family tradition. 8+

A Secret in the Storm by Ruth Silvestre, illus Peter Bailey, Scholastic pounds 2.99. A series whose logo - Young Hippo Adventure - almost entirely dwarfs book-title and author's name. Sam and his out-of-work mum leave their cramped flat in London and visit Grandad's house in the country, for the first time after his death. Apple Tree Cottage, though quaint, is in disrepair and to Sam's dismay, Mum wants to sell it to a rich developer. The only solution is to find Grandad's hidden nest-egg. Plus best friend Charlie Baxter is running round with rough village kids and ignoring Sam. Though slightly dark in tone, the book has Sam winning through with his optimism and bravery, and shows a child responding to adult worries. Attractive line drawings, but they aren't the main event. 8+

The Sweetest Fig by Chris Van Allsburg, Anderson pounds 8.99. Mean, pernickety dentist Monsieur Bibot lives with his humble little dog in Paris ("Except on Bastille Day, the poor animal was not even allowed to bark"). When an old woman with toothache offers to pay him with two figs which make your dreams come true, Bibot scoffs at her. But the morning after he eats the first fig, very peculiar things start happening to him. The subtle sepia-toned illustrations complement a clever tale giving a neat spin on the old story of the magical wishes which don't turn out the way you expect them to. 6+

The Box That Joanne Found by Anne Lake, illus Michael Reid, Oxford pounds 8.99. Fairly sophisticated reading skills and sense of humour required for this breezy tale of a girl - accompanied by her purple talking dog Gloria - who falls off the edge of the world, pursued by parachuting goblins, and lands in a funny and sinister Wonderland. Hissing geese form picket fences, storms of sprouts and peas lash the countryside, and the ugly old Wise Woman wears trainers and a Kiss-Me-Quick T-shirt. There aren't really enough pictures to do justice to the surreal text - a junior Terry Pratchett. 9+

Stellaluna by Janell Cannon, David Bennet pounds 8.99. Beautiful, austere, this American bestseller is a touching, inevitably anthropomorphic, evocation of bat-life. Tiny fruit-bat Stellaluna loses her mum when they are attacked by an owl, but finds refuge in a bird's nest with three baby birds. Stellaluna tries eating bugs, staying right way up and sleeping at night, but her bat-nature will out. A simple text is complemented by luminously beautiful illustrations and interesting bat-notes are provided at the end. 6+