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.

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