Children's Books Special: Picture books

Ghouls, bears - and commas
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The Independent Culture

What happens when the ghouls of Hallowe'en take on the Christmas spirit? "Santa Claus's laughter now sounded like groans/ And the jingling bells like chattering bones". The Nightmare Before Christmas by Tim Burton (Disney Press, £10.99) is a charmingly irreverent fantasy from the darkly comic film director. Drawing punch from pictures of etiolated, pallid ghouls, next to nicely decorated trees, this is surprising, amusing and rich - the ideal Christmas treat.

The Jungle Book by Matthew Reinhart (Simon & Schuster, £18.99) is a breath-stopping triumph over gravity. This 3-D re-working of the classic tale of Mowgli the man cub would make a marvellous present of the sort that's too good to play with. Turn the pages, and see the Lost City unfolding fully two feet up, with towers and columns. Go further, and there's an unfurling Bagheera, with plush blue-black fur, an intricate god, and an uncomfortably close encounter with Shere Khan's immense teeth.

In The Getaway by Ed Vere (Puffin, £10.99), Fingers McGraw the cheese thief is in a fix and needs your help. So begins this zinger of a story of a light-fingered mouse trying to elude capture by relying on an unusual device in picture books: audience participation. "Here's the deal," spells out the moped-wheeling scruff, "if you see an elephant [i.e ace lawman detective Jumbo Wayne Jr] just whistle". With Fingers diving down manholes and climbing up drains, this zips along with an atmosphere all of its own: a compound of gangster film, comic strip and pantomime.

With characteristic artistry, Anthony Browne in Silly Billy (Walker, £10.99) doesn't simply brush away childhood worries. In this story of a little boy too troubled to sleep, he heads them off with tenderness and skill. At bedtime, Billy worries about everything: shoes, clouds, rain, giant birds, all brought to life in haunting illustrations. How his grandmother comes up with the ideal solution is intriguing and beautifully controlled: just right as a soothing companion for any child at bedtime.

In Delicious! by Helen Cooper (Doubleday, £10.99), Duck likes pumpkin soup. Not fish soup; or mushroom soup; or pink (beetroot) soup: "YUK!". Just pumpkin. One day, the pumpkins run out. What will Duck do? Get very grumpy, obviously. But by taking radiant colours, adding a sense of apple-cheeked community spirit, and Cat and Squirrel being inventive with tomatoes, carrots and corn, Duck is coaxed out of his faddy habits in a flavoursome brew with food for thought.

First published 17 years ago, We're going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (Walker, £14.99), is back - and this time it's 3-D, with tantalising, vertiginous pop-ups of swishy-swashing through the grass, and splash-sploshing in the river. It's exuberant, easy on the ear, and proves there's nothing more thrilling than a vivid imagination.

Just how big is a pygmy shrew? What about the world's largest tiger? Or an earthworm? And can you picture an eyeball bigger than your head? Sometimes facts and figures don't tell the whole story, which is why the inventive Actual Size by Steve Jenkins (Frances Lincoln, £9.99) is such an intriguing novelty. All the animals here, from pygmy mouse lemur to Goliath frog, are pictured at actual size. The illustrations - a mixture of collage and paint - are as striking as the subjects, as children stare in awe at the face of a Siberian tiger or the teeth of a Great White Shark.

So dumbly ingrained is our idea that small children like soft toys that it is always a pleasure to be reminded just why. In That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown by Cressida Cowell, illus. Neal Layton (Orchard, £10.99), Stanley is not just a "bunnywunny". He's Emily's companion in Outer Space; her pillion passenger through the Sahara; her fellow-diver off the Barrier Reef. But one day Stanley is stolen. How Emily is reunited with her rabbit makes for a picture book about the fullness of a child's emotion that, like Stanley, will be sought and loved.

Now stand back; it's time for something new. It's time, in short, to celebrate the digital age with a "totally random encyclopaedia". "Inspired by the internet, styled like a video game, informed by pop culture," Pick Me Up (created by David Roberts and Jeremy Leslie; Dorling Kindersley, £19.99) aims to duplicate the way in which children absorb knowledge today. It's driven by pictures, not words, with a hyperactive mix of graphic styles, no obvious logic, pages flitting from one topic to the next and accessible "stuff" with headlines such as "Was Freud a nutcase?" Children, without a doubt, will love it.

The Lost Happy Endings by Carol Ann Duffy, illus. Jane Ray (Bloomsbury, £12.99), is a sublime picture book which explores what happens when a wicked witch steals the Happy Endings of fairy tales. Snow White stays dead for ever; Hansel and Gretel are trapped screaming in the Gingerbread House, and The Big Bad Wolf gobbled up Little Red Riding Hood. From the strangeness of the story, to the extravagant visual fantasia, it's hard to recall when children were made to shiver with such aesthetic bliss.

Confused by commas? Baffled by brackets? The pop-up extravaganza of The Perfect Punctuation Book, by Kate Petty and Jennie Maizels (Random House, £9.99), must be the fizziest punctuation book around. Each page is wonderfully cluttered with pictures, tabs and flaps that lift the lid on apostrophes, commas ("remind me of tadpoles...yum!" says a fish), colons et al. There are comma jokes to show they make a difference: "We bought our car from a lady full of petrol."

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