Children's picture books reviewed

From Dinosaur World to the adventures of the Naughty Bus (stopping off en route to shock a muddled chameleon into changing his colours), children's picture books are anything but dull. Nicola Smyth picks the best for the festive season
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The Independent Culture

Anyone who has spent time in the company of picture books will have noticed a certain similarity in their final pages. It's that bedroom scene again. No other genre could get away with it. The reason most stories end in sleep may be obvious, but that doesn't make it any more interesting. This Christmas, one of the titles at the top of many wishlists - The Gruffalo's Child by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler (Macmillan £10.99) - finishes with the sound of snoring. If their formula wasn't so successful, this would be unforgivable. The original tale of the Gruffalo, created in the mouse's imagination to scare other animals and sprung, terrifyingly, to life, is reversed. This time it's the Gruffalo who, in retelling their encounter, makes the tiny rodent into a kind of bogeymouse which his child then sets out to find. The perfection of its read-aloud rhymes means it still deserves a place near the top of the pile, but there are more inventive endings on offer elsewhere. One of them comes from Donald

Anyone who has spent time in the company of picture books will have noticed a certain similarity in their final pages. It's that bedroom scene again. No other genre could get away with it. The reason most stories end in sleep may be obvious, but that doesn't make it any more interesting. This Christmas, one of the titles at the top of many wishlists - The Gruffalo's Child by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler (Macmillan £10.99) - finishes with the sound of snoring. If their formula wasn't so successful, this would be unforgivable. The original tale of the Gruffalo, created in the mouse's imagination to scare other animals and sprung, terrifyingly, to life, is reversed. This time it's the Gruffalo who, in retelling their encounter, makes the tiny rodent into a kind of bogeymouse which his child then sets out to find. The perfection of its read-aloud rhymes means it still deserves a place near the top of the pile, but there are more inventive endings on offer elsewhere. One of them comes from Donaldson herself. Sharing a Shell (illus Lydia Monks, Macmillan £9.99) is a story of domestic strife in a small space as a hermit crab, an anemone and a bristleworm move in together. The verse sparkles as much as the pictures, and the tale's trajectory moves not towards the ubiquitous "good night", but the enjoyably awful "whelkome home".

If you're in search of something seasonal, don't pluck Bless You, Santa by Julia Sykes and Tim Warnes (Little Tiger £10.99) off the shelf. The old-beardie-gets-a-cold-how-will-the-presents-get-delivered schtick just won't do. Much better to get a visit from Niamh Sharkey's Santasaurus (Walker £10.99). Christmas in Dinosaur World has an oddly familiar flavour, as Mumosaurus complains about the bustle of the high street and Santasaurus and his dinodeer are shown streaking though the night sky above a dinosaur-shaped Statue of Liberty. Besides, who could resist a book typeset in a font called "Aunt Mildred"?

The best present for the smallest people you know is definitely Teeth, Tails & Tentacles (Running Press Kids £12.99), Christopher Wormell's exquisite volume of linoleum-block prints. They can make their way from one to 20 by counting the whiskers on a blue catfish or the rings on a lemur's tail, while bigger readers can learn more about the featured species from the guide at the back of the book. If you prefer a storyline to accompany your trek through the animal kingdom, it would be hard to better Chameleon's Crazy Colours by Nicola Grant and Michael Terry (Little Tiger £10.99). Chameleon can't get his colours right and though his friends try to shock him into camouflage by shouting "LION!" at full pitch, he can only create the most conspicuous shades. The illustrator has done his job so well that even the endpapers are funny.

Those with more traditional tastes should browse no further. The 50th-anniversary edition of Oxford's Lavender's Blue is a colour facsimile of their classic nursery rhyme collection and far more sumptuous than its £14.99 price-tag suggests. Harold Jones's illustrations are the sort that stay with you into adulthood, and, just in case you ever need to know the moves to "Dance, Thumbkin, dance", editor Kathleen Lines has included instructions for it and many others. If you're after a more contemporary compilation, Orchard's With Love (ed Wendy Cooling, £12.99) is a one-stop shop. A list of the book world's best have contributed work to its pages. It is billed as a book for the "very young", who will love its contents, but might not leave it intact for long.

David Almond's name alone is enough to make you pick up Kate, The Cat and The Moon (Hodder £10.99), but his first picture book doesn't match up to the titles for older children. Stephen Lambert's pictures are seductive, particularly the foldout fantasy of his sky "full of dreams", but the text feels a little sluggish. Kate turns into a cat and goes out to look at the moon. And then she comes back again. I wanted something a little more substantial in between. You're All My Favourites (Walker £9.99) by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram, the team behind Guess How Much I Love You, probably won't disappoint those who loved the earlier book. The bear family look gorgeous, and the story is sweetly told, but - though it's heartwarming the first time around - I'm not sure I could stomach too many rereadings. (And yes, the bears do go to sleep at the end.) Its message is perfectly tailored for those new to siblinghood, but it doesn't have the irresistible humour of another tale that sets out to reassure, Who Will Sing My Puff-a-bye? by Charlotte Hudson and Mary McQuillan (The Bodley Head £10.99). Small dragons Crossfire and Puffing Billy are appalled that their new au pair can't make lava pancakes and play "I Fry" like Mummy, but she does make a mean fireball and she knows the rules of Down with St George. Don't be put off by the publisher's unwise decision to brand this "for any child adjusting to a new child minder".

Observers of that strange phenomenon which makes small children totally ignore the present in favour of its packaging should buy Jack in a Box (Julia Jarman and Marjolein Pottie, Collins £10.99). As the adults insist on helping Tom play with all his birthday gifts, Jack is left alone with only the cardboard for company. From behind a fort made of the boxes, the boys stage an ambush and recapture Tom's toys from the grown-ups. Invest in this one, and it should convince your child that they don't need anything else.

Except, perhaps, a copy of Naughty Bus by Jan and Jerry Oke (Little Knowall £9.99). Here, even the typography plays tricks, mirroring the bus's actions and finally sinking into the page as the errant toy speeds past a queue of disgruntled plastic passengers, ploughs through its owner's dinner and plunges into the garden pond. Its witty use of photography adds to the story's charms and makes you realise just how unadventurous other picture books can be. It looks momentarily as though the last page may disappoint. Is that a bed hoving into view? But there's a point to this tale's end in darkness. "Sometimes," you see, "I'm a night bus."

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