Children's Book Special: Picture perfect

There's plenty to entertain the children with this summer, from spooky horsemen to rude rhinos, magic belt buckles to Clive Anderson. To help choose the best picture books for your youngest, Nicola Smyth has been swotting up on her runaway dinners and multiplying bunnies
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The Independent Culture

Ever tried to eat a sausage and had it jump off your plate and run down the street? Climbed a ladder and found yourself ascending through the clouds to heaven? Found a long-lost fortune down the back of a chair? No? Well, not to worry if these aren't the hot issues of the moment in your household. This season's picture books also offer advice for elder siblings, moral lessons for cheeky toddlers and long-range meteorological forecasting.

Allan Ahlberg is a name that will be familiar to many parents from their own childhoods, though sadly his partner Janet is no longer around to match her drawings to his words. But illustrator Bruce Ingman rises to the challenge in The Runaway Dinner (Walker £10.99). Ahlberg's tale of a boy named Banjo Cannon, whose dinner absconds, followed by the cutlery, the chair, the table and the next-door neighbour's dog, is a delight to read as a grown-up. His digressive style ("Well, he was a little boy, this boy, lived in a house, slept in a bed, wore all the usual sorts of clothes, socks and scarves and such"), surrealist narrative and daft jokes will have you snorting merrily to yourself. But try reading it out to a small child night after night. This one's more for the six- to seven-year-olds in the family.

If you're after a lengthy bedtime read that will settle older children without taxing you so much, The Ladder (by Halfdan Rasmussen, illustration Pierre Pratt, Candlewick Press £11.99) might be just the thing. Rasmussen, who died in 2002, was one of Denmark's best-loved poets, and Marilyn Nelson's translation serves him perfectly. This is a beautiful fable about a ladder that wanders the countryside, inviting courting couples, marching bands and local farmers to climb up it. When they reach the top, they disappear into heaven, only to descend to earth again when a thunderstorm forms a lightning staircase for them. The verse is warm and wonderful, the book itself imaginatively designed with lots of fold-out colour plates so you can appreciate the ladder at its full length.

While we're on the subject of flaps and fold-outs, I must give a special mention to Maisy's Wonderful Weather Book by Lucy Cousins (Walker £8.99). As parents will know, Maisy is terribly prolific and pops a book out every five minutes, but applause is due to an unsung hero here, David Hawcock, whose paper engineering is awesome. Designing a tab that can pull Maisy into a beach hut, change her outfit, and flip her out the other side again on to the sands is no mean feat. And designing it so well that my two-year-old can do it several hundred times without (yet) breaking it deserves some kind of award.

Michael Foreman is almost as prolific as Maisy, but I have to admit, he doesn't really do it for me. Mia's Story (Walker £10.99) is one of poverty - she lives in a shanty town in the Andes mountains, loses her puppy, Poco, and finds instead some flowers in the snow which she sells at the market to help her father in his dream of building a brick house for the family. I find the tone of Foreman's writing a little too earnest, though the style of this one (it's presented as a sketchbook, with lots of little pen-and-ink and colourwash portraits of Mia and her village) is unusual. Again, it's one for those at the upper end of the age range for picture books.

Walker Books' best title of the year so far is Sleepy Places (by Judy Hindley, illustration Tor Freeman, £9.99). This one is perfection. Told in simple verse, it's instantly memorable so that you can whisper it in little ears after the light's gone out. The pictures are beautiful (heavy-bottomed toddlers crash out nose down on sofas, or head first in boxes), it's sweet without being too sentimental and it does its job so efficiently that I often need to go to bed myself after reading it.

Little Rabbit's New Baby (Puffin £10.99) by the fabulously-named Harry Horse is a close runner-up for best book of the year, though. Again, it has wit, style and a soft heart: it's perfect for pre-schoolers who are facing a new arrival to the family. Or more than one new arrival - Mrs Rabbit has triplets ("Papa had to sit down. The nurse gave him a cup of tea. Three babies!"). Little Rabbit is delighted, until he discovers that small babies like to sleep a lot, don't know how to eat carrots and keep putting their sticky paws on his space rocket. He comes round in the end, though, so no need to worry about reinforcing those negative thoughts.

Andersen Press has produced some corkers this year too. The Really Rude Rhino by the practised team of Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross (£9.99) was one of the early highlights. The small mammal suffers from Ruditis Rhinoceritis - basically, he says "Pthhhhhhhh!" on every page, which is a lot of fun to do - but is cured by an even ruder girl at the local waterhole. Fantastic. Another old hand, Emma Chichester Clark, has come up trumps with Amazing Mr Zooty! (£10.99), the heartwarming tale of a cat who can make dreams into reality. And Tom MacRae - who has recently been scaring smallies witless by writing the cyberman episodes of Doctor Who - provides a suitably spooky story in The Opposite (illustration Elena Odriozola, £10.99). Nate struggles to keep control when an Opposite appears on his ceiling and counters everything he tries to do by doing, yep, you've guessed it, the opposite. Don't be put off by the fact that the publishing malaise of having an enthusiastic quote from Stephen Fry on your cover now appears to have spread from adult titles to kids'.

And finally, while you're reading this round-up, it might be worth sticking a speculative hand under the cushions of your soft furnishings. Father finds the long-lost will of Uncle Bill Down the Back of the Chair (by Margaret Mahy, illustration Polly Dunbar, Frances Lincoln £10.99). Oh, and one of his twins, a taxi, a lion, a pair of elephants, a skunk and a bandicoot. On second thoughts, keep your hands on your newspaper...