Children's Books Special: The best picture books

Nicola Smyth tests the latest crop of picture books on her giggly four year old

Some children's authors must be almost as sleep-deprived as the small people they cater for. Take Mo Willems, for example. This man has had not one, not two, but seven titles out in the last few months. A former writer and animator on Sesame Street, Willems's most famous creation is a crudely drawn pigeon. Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus sold by the lorry load, became a stage show and spawned a generation of follow-ups. The latest of these is The Pigeon Wants a Puppy! (Walker £5.99), in which the bird engages in one of Willems's trademark speech-bubble conversations with the reader. Don't we know what he really wants? Don't we want him to be happy? Don't puppies have big teeth? If you're sick of being asked to buy your offspring a hairy beastie then this might be the title for you as the pigeon comes to regret his choice.

If you'd rather read about something cuter than a pigeon, there's also Willems's Knuffle Bunny Too (Walker £6.99) – another sequel. The verbose Trixie loves her Knuffle Bunny and insists on taking him to school. Bad news: classmate Sonja has brought her Knuffle Bunny too. At 2:30am the following morning, Trixie makes a distressing discovery – she has brought home the wrong Knuffle Bunny. The full horror of this will only resonate with fellow parents but Willems's innovative style, mixing black-and-white photographic backdrops with cartoonish characters, will win over even the most hard-hearted of readers. If neither of those hits the spot, how about his Edwina: the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct (£5.99)? Or the early reader series of Elephant and Piggie books, applying the speech-bubble style to thorny issues such as My Friend is Sad, or the even more worrying There Is a Bird on Your Head! (£4.99 each). Phew. Time to move along the shelves.

A perennial theme of bedtime stories is fear of the dark. Usually I avoid these titles, preferring not to remind my daughter that night-time is something you might worry about, but Darkness Slipped In by Ella Burfoot (Kingfisher £10.99) is different. It makes the darkness look attractive as it spreads across the pages with a glossy sheen, it has great rhymes, and it treats bedtime as a treat not just for parents but for children as well. Cunning – and lovely to run your fingers along. What more could you ask for?

Possibly something with underpants in it, if the bestseller lists are anything to go by. Aliens Love Underpants featured on Richard and Judy's Children's Book Club last year and now Claire Freedman and Ben Cort give us the follow-up, Dinosaurs Love Underpants (Simon & Schuster £5.99). Want to know why the dinosaurs died out? The answer lies in their underwear. This one really can't fail to elicit a giggle – pants are endlessly funny to the under-fives – but Giles Andreae and Nick Sharrett's original work, the baldly named Pants, is unbeatable in this category.

The No-No Bird (Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters, illus Jim Coplestone; Frances Lincoln £11.99) is a winner if you're stuck in that phase where every question you ask elicits a negative. The No-No Bird changes his catchphrase when he discovers that no one wants to play with him. Oh, and he nearly gets eaten by a snake. The latter fate is unlikely to befall your little one, but the message may hit home. Silly Goose (Marni McGee, illus Alison Edgson; Little Tiger £10.99) is another warning tale, this time about vanity. Fox tells goose that her ears are missing so she runs around trying to borrow a pair from somebody else. Fox then drags up as a peacock and poses as the proprietor of an ear shop to entice poor goose inside. Just when it seems as though she's cooked, her friends come to the rescue.

Positive messages are all very well but there are times when they're a little too much to the fore. Michael Recycle is one such example (Ellie Bethel, illus Alexandra Colombo; Meadowside £5.99). Our hero's proselytising about towers of trash that reach up to the moon is admirable but it didn't quite do it for me. I had similar problems with Armin Greder's The Island (Allen & Unwin £11.99). It looks fantastic – brooding, Munch-style figures against a gloomy palette of greys and blacks – and it makes worthy reading (a man washes up on the shore of an island whose inhabitants treat him with such hostility they eventually drive him back into the sea). Powerful and timely it may be, but it left me rather depressed.

Anxieties on a smaller scale seem better suited for tales to be read at bedtimes. The concerns of Harris the hare, for instance, who fears that his feet are too large (Harris Finds his Feet, Little Tiger Press £10.99). The author and illustrator Catherine Rayner has already garnered a few well-deserved prizes and, if you want a book with pictures deserving of a place in the frames on your walls, then this is it. Equally gorgeous is the work of Anthony Browne, another author and illustrator prolific enough to rank alongside even Mo Willems, having published more than 40 titles over the past 30 years. A fair percentage of them have been about gorillas. His latest, Little Beauty (Walker £10.99), is as wonderful as any he's produced to date. Here, a lonely zoo gorilla is given a kitten called Beauty to look after: "'Don't eat her,' said one of the keepers." They have a harmonious relationship until the gorilla watches King Kong and gets so angry he smashes the television. Happily, the kitten calms him down.

My pick of the year so far, though, and the only title ever to merit a request for six repeat readings on the trot from my four year old, is William Bee's Beware of the Frog (£10.99). Old Mrs Collywobbles has only an amphibian to protect her from greedy goblins who say nickerty-noo and smelly trolls who pong horribly; but with this frog, that's enough. The book's life lessons are of questionable value (don't kiss frogs; avoid giant hungry ogres) but the sing-along numbers ("Welly-welly, Welly-welly/ I'm awfully slimy/ And awfully smelly...") are sublime. We can only hope that Bee has at least another 40 titles up his sleeve.

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible