Children's book picks: Monsters, daredevil sheep, and wartime adventures

In the first of our Easter children’s books specials, Nicholas Tucker picks the best stories for readers aged three to 12

As in all the best picture books, it’s the illustrations that tell the story in Emily Gravett’s Bear and Hare Go Fishing (Macmillan, £10.95). With just 35 words of text, infants are left free to work out all the visual clues as Bear almost gives up on an expedition that is going nowhere. Still the brightest illustrator of the bunch, Gravett delights as always.

Chris Haughton’s Shh! We Have a Plan (Walker, £11.99, below) is also sparing of words but packed with atmosphere. His four black-cowled hunting friends, reminiscent of Tomi Ungerer’s classic The Three Robbers, are repeatedly foiled  as they steal through a forest in search of a red bird shining in the darkness. All ends well after a journey which no reader is likely to forget.

Assorted monsters continue to crop up in picture books, almost always male yet I would guess unlikely as such to give rise to another newspaper campaign for eliminating gender stereotypes. Paul Beavis’s Mrs. Mo’s Monster (Gecko, £10.99) is a funny and clever account of how to tame an aggressive small monster who is very like a spoiled child. First published in New Zealand, this explosively illustrated fable is a real find. Rachel Bright’s equally amusing Love Monster & the Last Chocolate (HarperCollins, £6.99 paperback) describes the mental torment facing her owl-headed beast unwilling to share his gift of chocolates with friends in case he is left with none for himself. This dilemma, not unknown in post-birthday family negotiations, is resolved in a flurry of infectiously good-humoured illustrations, drawn in broad outlines and making use of deep colours.

Niki Daly is the South African illustrator of many outstanding multi-ethnic picture books. But Seb and Hamish (Frances Lincoln, £11.99) could be set anywhere. Working from a text by his wife Jude, Daly shows how young Seb, initially frightened by a barking dachshund, gradually overcomes his fears. Incorporating extra canine illustrations in the most unexpected places, there is much entertainment in this charming story. This is true too of Steve Cole’s Go to Sleep or I Let Loose the Leopard (Jonathan Cape, £6.99 paperback). An authentically harassed-looking babysitter (right) finally discovers a threat that really works. Wittily illustrated by Bruce Ingman, a last twist in the tail here should give rise to plenty of startled comment. Peter Bently’s rhyming text for Those Magnificent Sheep in their Flying Machine (Andersen, £11.99) also delivers some surprises. Perfectly complemented by David Roberts’s stylish illustrations, his story of some sheep hijacking an early biplane for a worldwide joy ride is a total pleasure.

For readers aged around age seven, Caryl Hart’s The Cunning Plan (Hachette, £4.99 paperback) is the next instalment of her successful “Foxy Tales” series. Wildly illustrated on every page by Alex Smith, early reading is made highly enjoyable as greedy alligator Alphonso continues to give his unwilling landlady Foxy DuBois her usual bad time. Jonny Duddle’s The Jolley-Rogers and the Ghostly Galleon (Templar, £5.99 paperback) is also generously illustrated, this time by its author. The little town of Dull-on-Sea, plagued by ghostly pirate raids every full moon, looks for help to young Matilda and her friend Jim Lad. Together the two manage to see off wicked Captain Twirlybeard, a giant of a man, fluent in pirate-speak. A glossary of his more outlandish terms appears at the end of this lively story. But currently the best book for this age group has to be William Sutcliffe’s debut children’s story Circus of Thieves and the Raffle of Doom (Simon and Schuster, £6.99 paperback). Full of cynical asides to readers, often conveyed through footnotes, this tale of an evil circus foiled by two brave children is pure delight, with line illustrations by David Tazzyman adding to the fun. The promised sequel can’t come too soon.

Moving up to age nine and beyond, Emma Sherah’s Dream On, Amber (Chicken House, £6.99 paperback) is a beautifully written story of Amber Miyamoto, a shy, diminutive half-Japanese, half-Italian girl coping with her first days at Spit Hill school and also with the disappearance of her father. Amber illustrates each page of her account with drawings and doodles, supplied in this case by Helen Crawford-White. Her new teacher of “Inward Reach”, a class designed to help pupils with personal problems, is too much of a caricature but this is the only flaw in a sensitive story, in which Amber overcomes her demons to arrive at a richly deserved happy ending. No such luck for Paul Hansen, the 16-year-old hero of Robert Rigby’s  achingly tense The Eagle Trail (Walker, £6.99 paperback). Living in German-occupied Antwerp during the last war, Paul sees his resistance fighter father shot and his mother arrested before fleeing to England via France and Spain. But will a hidden traitor do for him first? Read on if you dare!

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