Children's Books for Christmas: Stories that paint a vivid picture

From aliens to underwear, our selection of books for children will capture their imaginations - and appeal to adults too
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The Independent Culture

With so much pressure on the young to read, it's just as well that the best of this year's children's books are so good. And although few books can survive clumsy attempts to thrust them on children when they are not in the mood, the titles that follow are the sort that young readers could find themselves turning to in their own time and of their own initiative. Parents may also find themselves reading them, not just as duty but for sheer enjoyment.

With so much pressure on the young to read, it's just as well that the best of this year's children's books are so good. And although few books can survive clumsy attempts to thrust them on children when they are not in the mood, the titles that follow are the sort that young readers could find themselves turning to in their own time and of their own initiative. Parents may also find themselves reading them, not just as duty but for sheer enjoyment.

PICTURE BOOKS

Allan Ahlberg is a constantly lively writer incapable of a duff sentence; Raymond Briggs is an illustrator of genius. So when they get together in A Bit More Bert (Viking, £9.99), something special results. Six short chapters describe the gentle mini-adventures of ginger-haired Bert and his dog. Everything that happens – from haircuts to the experience of losing and finding – will be recognisable to small readers from their own lives. Briggs's pictures are set in an urban landscape peopled by adults all as unfailingly friendly as Bert himself. The last page, featuring our hero gladly going to bed, could be particularly useful for encouraging infants to do the same thing themselves.

No topic is forbidden in children's books today, which is why there can now be a jolly picture book called Pants (David Fickling Books, £10. 99). This covers every variation found in these sensible but normally uncelebrated garments from "rich pants, poor pants to swinging on the door pants". The author Giles Andreae writes with all his usual swing, and Nick Sharratt provides full-colour illustrations that combine simplified line drawings with brilliant special effects. Only an exceptionally stuffy grandparent could object to such a good-humoured book.

The same could be said about The Smartest Giant in Town (Pan Macmillan, £9.99), by Julia Donaldson (author) and Axel Scheffler (illustrator) – the same team who produced The Gruffalo. This story is equally good, concerning the usual friendly giant – all the grumpy ones now being hard to find – who dresses up smartly but gives away his new clothes to those in greater need. Written as a cumulative story, its illustrations are full of the big-little contrasts that can fascinate infants. Plenty of witty detail is included too, making this a picture book to return to over and over again.

Captain Duck (Pciture Lions, £9.99) is the third adventure featuring this breezy character and his ancient, red sports car. Written by author-illustrator Jez Alborough in the sort of bouncy verse that used to appear under Rupert Bear strips, it is packed with energy, colour and just a taste of danger before arriving at an uproarious ending. Its accident-prone hero is in the great tradition of boastful, irresponsible characters always popular with young readers.

Author-illustrator Mike Bostock is another talented one-man band. Although his Louie & Bloop and the Swapped Shopping (Egmont, £3.99) is set on Andromeda 9 on the far side of the Alpha Galaxy, his weird-looking characters still go to ordinary supermarkets. Once there, Louie realises he has lost his favourite toy Bloop. After a long search with the help of other amiable bug-eyed creatures, Bloop is discovered behind a perilously unstable stack of tinned tomatoes. Skilfully mixing the strange with the familiar, this story will especially appeal to small fans of space travel.

Debi Gliori is a superb artist as well as a practised writer, and her Penguin Post (Doubleday, £10.99) glows with rich, warm colours. Even the rope-like borders to her witty text about a young postman-penguin become part of the fun, sometimes springing directly from the main illustration itself. Mother Penguin has just laid an egg, and her son Milo helps to hatch it himself – food for thought for any child expecting their own new brother and sister at home. With plenty of detail to linger over – including Father Penguin trying to read an old penguin book – this is another title for children to grow up with as well as enjoy now.

Ruth Brown is another amazing illustrator, producing pictures so alive that the paint almost drips off the page. Helpful Henry (Andersen, £9.99), describes the well-meaning destructiveness of a four-year-old's attempts to be useful around the house. But when Henry finally starts school he turns out to be genuinely helpful after all. Parents used to being told how good their otherwise uncontrollable children are once away from home may find themselves grinding their teeth at this particular image, but no one could stay angry with this splashy, messy but always affectionate story for long.

BOOKS FOR THE PRE-TEENS

Little Wolf, Pack Leader (Collins, £3.99) once again features Ian Whybrow's loveable hero, who never quite gets why his parents remain so disappointed with him. But while they want someone as grasping, wild and dangerous as themselves, Little Wolf just can't help behaving well. Composed of ill-spelled letters written by him from where he is staying with his spoilt younger brother, this very funny story offers a continual invitation to small readers to read between the lines. Illustrated by Tony Ross, it is a lovely little book.

Krazy Kow Saves the World – Well, Almost (Puffin, £3.99), by Jeremy Strong, is another highly effective comic story. Illustrated once again by the excellent Nick Sharratt, it is about 10-year-old Jamie Fink and his plan to make his own film featuring a cow with an udder capable of flame-throwing, rocket-launching and acting as a vacuum cleaner. Written in the form of a continuous monologue from Jamie himself, this seriously funny book should certainly convert any reader unacquainted with the author's many other successful titles.

He's back! Facing the Demon Headmaster (OUP £4.99) is the latest in the series of blood-curdling stories written by Gillian Cross about what happens when an education system ends up in the control of a power-obsessed authoritarian. The venue for his hypnotic powers this time is Purple – a new club extremely popular with local children. But why does the DJ always wear an electronic mask? Fortunately the six pupil members of Splat – the Society for the Protection of our Lives Against Them – once again foil the wicked headmaster in his attempt to become a universal dictator, but not before some exceedingly close calls.

If some of this sounds uncomfortably close to reality, there is always Philip Ardagh and his whimsical fantasies. Terrible Times (Faber, £7.99) is the third in his Eddie Dickens trilogy, but can easily be read out of sequence. Discussing the style in which he is writing as he goes along, throwing in odd bits of general knowledge, heading off into digressions on every other page while still telling a good story, there really is no one else like him. Post-modernism and a sense of humour rarely go together, but this book, like Ardagh's many other titles, is the exception – elegantly written, completely unpredictable and constantly amusing.

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