Geese, gorillas, grandads... and growing up: The world of children's books

To begin a three-part series on children’s books for Christmas, Nicholas Tucker picks the season’s best picture books

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The Independent Culture

Board books are increasingly inventive these days, with Petr Horacek’s Animal Opposites (Walker, £10.99) one brilliant example. Each page has an attractive pop-up animal accessible by lifting a flap. With words at a minimum – “Quiet rabbit – Loud lion” this book is crammed with the best sort of surprises. So too is When I grow up … (PatrickGeorge, £8.99). Strong transparent pages, once turned, do wonders with what comes before and after. Career choices at this stage include superhero and pirate along with scientist and astronaut. Combining two treats at once, David Melling’s Hugless Douglas Finds a Hug! (Hodder, £10.99) has a real soft toy peering out at its centre. Once detached, it can be party to a nice little story told on tough laminated boards. But for knock-about humour go to Mo Willems’s witty and brightly illustrated That is Not a Good Idea! (Walker, £11.99). Will Mrs Goose really go off with smooth Mr Fox, despite repeated and fun-to-join-in-with warnings from her alarmed goslings? Or is there a last twist as delightful as it is unexpected? Read and enjoy. 

Very topical, Rebecca Patterson’s The Christmas Show (Macmillan, £10.99) is a wonderfully comic account of a school nativity play. You would have to be clinically depressed not to laugh at this affectionate hatchet job. Michael Rosen too is on good form in Send for a Superhero! (Walker, £11.99). This starts with Dad telling a bedtime story about the Terrible Two monsters plotting to rule the world and who nearly win, brushing aside all conventional heroes as they go. They finally retreat, unable to bear any more of the tedium when they are confronted by Extremely Boring Man and his mercilessly detailed account of a typical day. Katharine McEwan’s anarchic, comic-strip illustrations are a perfect match for this thoroughly enjoyable and subversive text.

More sober, Laurence Anholt’s Two Nests (Frances Lincoln, £6.99 paperback) describes what happens when a brood of birds finds the family home too small and starts falling apart. The solution: two nests, within which each baby bird will be loved equally. Illustrated by Jim Coplestone, drawing on experience of how best to break news of a divorce to his own small children, this still manages to come over as an optimistic account of a difficult situation.

Alison Murray’s Princess Penelope and the Runaway Kitten (Nosy Crow, £9.99) shows a naughty pet dashing through palace and garden while fast unravelling a ball of wool with which he has become entangled. Told in half rhyme and coolly illustrated, each page has a raised glitter trail representing the wool’s progress, ideal for small fingers to trace for themselves. Michelle Robinson’s Ding Dong Gorilla! (Orchard, £6.99 paperback) features another troublesome animal, yet even the smallest reader may gradually begin to suspect that the big ape who seems to have caused such mayhem may in fact be taking the blame for mischief nearer home. Leonie Lord’s accompanying pastel illustrations are perfect. Another shaggy anti-hero crops up in Rachel Bright’s Love Monster & the Perfect Present (Harper Collins, £6.99 paperback). Square-shaped and amiably unterrifying, Love Monster wants to give the best present ever to his beloved monster friend. But after an unsuccessful shopping trip he ends by making a gift which costs nothing but is still much appreciated. Penniless infants reading this good natured story, take note.

Axel Scheffler, of Gruffalo fame, strikes out on his own in Pip and Posy: The Bedtime Frog (Nosy Crow, £7.99). A baby rabbit and mouse play happily all day but their ensuing sleepover is shattered when Posy, the mouse, realises she has left her comfort toy frog behind. Manfully, Pip presents her with his own special toy instead, and peace is resumed. Glowing colours, a toughened cover, and a comparatively low price make this a bargain. Francesca Simon also comes up with the goods in Do You Speak English, Moon? (Orion, £9.99). A pleasant story of a child’s night-time ruminations is made memorable by Ben Cort’s full colour illustrations, filling each page with wonder.

Angie Morgan’s Enormouse (Frances Lincoln, £11.99) is another highly original picture book, featuring a mouse so large that he thinks he may actually be a rat and should therefore leave his cosy community for good. Making use of pastels, watercolours, collage and scanned textures, each page is alive with interest as our hero finally returns from his wanderings to a rapturous welcome. Ayano Imai’s magical While He is Sleeping (Minedition, £11.99) is also about an animal temporarily out of sorts. Mr Bear often feels lonely, but things improve when birds make their nests in his hat. Gradually this object grows bigger and bigger to accommodate his many new friends, all shown in hauntingly beautiful pictures that touch on the surreal as the famous hat finally turns into a tree.

Jean Reagan’s How to Babysit a Grandad (Hodder, £6.99 paperback) is a cunning study in role reversal, with Lee Wildish’s over-the-top illustrations well in keeping with a jaunty text where a small child calls all the shots from first to last. Perhaps grandad will be allowed to get his own back in the next book. But what might he make of Emily Gravett’s extraordinary Little Mouse’s Big Book of Beasts (Macmillan, £11.99)? Torn pages containing random holes, a wide use of collage, stick-on flaps with two of them amounting to mini-books on their own, this book is completely unpredictable from an artist who gets wilder every time, yet still gets away with it through the force of her talent. For a quieter life, turn to Gita Wolf’s Gobble You Up! (Tara Books, £24.99). This limited edition is illustrated by Sunita, a village artist from the Meena tribe in Rajasthan who works in a traditional finger-painting style called Mandna. Transferred to a silkscreen and then hand printed on specially made kraft paper, a folk tale about a greedy jackal is made unforgettable by the addition of dreamy black and white pictures like nothing most of us have ever seen before.