Have a meal of moonsquirters with the Three Groovy Bears

Smelly (but brave) Caveman Dave; tomato-hating Lola; funky Goldilocks - you meet all sorts in picture-books for very young readers. By Sally Williams
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The Independent Culture

I Can; I Hear; I See; I Touch by Helen Oxenbury (Walker, £2.99 each) When it comes to drawing moon-faced toddlers, no one can quite match Helen Oxenbury. If only the real things were as clean and simple as her line. The formula in these board books is very basic: a toddler looking at flowers, playing in the rain and otherwise busily occupied, but the concepts they introduce aren't. If ever there were perfect first books, these have to be them.

Caveman Dave; Monday Run-Day; Pointy-Hatted Princesses; Smart Aunties; The Green Queen by Nick Sharratt (Walker, £2.99 each) Just what's needed to encourage early readers who want more from a book than words on a page. These lively paperbacks have all the ingredients of a "proper" story: stylish pictures, lively rhymes and engaging heroes. All cleverly thought out, but simply expressed. Check out Caveman Dave: "He doesn't wash and he doesn't shave. He's smelly, but he's very brave."

Penguin Goes To Playschool; Parrot Goes To Playschool by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Mark Birchall (Andersen, £4.99) It's Penguin and Parrot's first day at playschool. Penguin hogs the slide, and Parrot just won't shut up. Both have lessons to learn. What makes these witty, sharp books so superior is the way Willis plays with her animal characters. Crocodile, for example, is both an anthropomorphic tool and a crocodile. And what's a crocodile to do with the selfish Penguin? Eat him! It's wonderful. So are the pictures. There is something very pleasing about seeing the teacher, Ostrich, with her head buried in a box of toys. Two more titles are to be published next year.

The Scarecrow'S Hat by Ken Brown, (Andersen, £9.99) Chicken fancies Scarecrow's hat and so begins a satisfying story of swapping. Scarecrow swaps his hat for a stick; Badger swaps his stick for a ribbon, Jackdaw swaps his ribbon for some wool - and so on. It's a happy book. Country life is bathed in the sort of warm summer sunlight that makes even the flies buzzing above the donkey's head look beautiful.

I Will Not Ever Never Eat A Tomato by Lauren Child (Orchard, £10.99) This story of Charlie's ploy to stop sister Lola from being such a fussy eater, lifts Lauren Child's reputation as a fresh talent ever higher. She's so good, it's exhilarating. Using photographs, expressive typeface and her feisty, funny style, something rich and magical emerges from this domestic theme. Carrots become "orange twiglets", mashed potato, "cloud fluff"; peas, "green drops"; and Lola ends up eating them all, and a tomato, or rather a "moonsquirter".

What Do You Call A Gorilla With A Banana In Each Ear? by Keith Faulkner, illustrated by Nik Spender (Madcap, £6.99) A junior joke book pitched at a younger audience than most joke books, with big pictures giving it extra oomph. There's an animal theme, flaps to flip and lots of groan-inducing jokes. So if you don't know the answer to "What has two humps and can be found at the North Pole?" Your pint-sized comedian will soon tell you - again and again.

Growing Frogs by Vivian French, illustrated by Alison Bartlett, (Walker, £9.99) An absorbing book charting the journey from frogspawn to frog, which explains so much about the development and upkeep of tadpoles. Written and illustrated with huge charm and panache, Vivian French transmits her infectious delight in every leap and twist of the metamorphosis.

Goldilocks And The Three Bears: A Tale Moderne by Steven Guarnaccia, (Abrams, £10.50) "Gee Whillikers!" it's Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and "Buzz Fuzz!", they're hip, they're funky, they're "moderne". Goldilocks eats chilli, not porridge and the house she sneaks into is no cottage in the woods. It's a 1950s split-level home which the groovy bears (Papa Bear has a beret; Mama Bear wears her face Cubist style) have filled with chic objects. Papa Bear sits in a Charles Rennie Mackintosh "Ladderback" chair and Baby Bear sleeps in a Lomazzi "Blow" bed. More than just a jazzed-up fairy tale, this stylish book introduces children to the history of modern design. The comic style, the simply laid out inventory and the spot the "Egg" chair format help the hard facts slip down.

Portable Pets: Octopus; Seahorse (Abrams, £4.50 each) Did you know that a seahorse holds on to seaweed with its tail? Or that it's possible to craft a beautiful and informative book out of its knobbly, bumpy body? These sturdy board books are first and foremost stunning objects. Cut out in the shape of a seahorse and an octopus, they are full of bite-sized bits of information so you come to grips, not with the true feel of these fascinating sea creatures, obviously, but with something of their essence.

Tortuga by Paul Geraghty (Hutchinson, £9.99) A tortoise, caught in a storm is washed up on a remote island. A roller-coaster story unfurls involving predatory gulls, hungry lizards, survival, renewal, and some of the most extraordinarily crisp and powerful illustrations in children's fiction. The craftsmanship is immaculate, the story transporting. If this doesn't win a prize, something is very wrong.

How The Whale Became And Other Stories by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Jackie Morris (Faber & Faber, £17.99) These stories have been published many times. But never before with pictures, which is why this compendium is so glorious. Morris really connects with the words. From the Whale who grows up in God's vegetable patch, crushing His carrots; to the Hare who dashes from hill to hill hoping to win the heart of the moon, the illustrations makes vivid and coherent the form and rhythm of each tale. Here is chemistry that is powerful and compelling.

Magpie Magic illustrated by April Wilson (Templar, £9.99) Magic in the title is what happens when a black and white magpie drawn by a child suddenly comes to life and flies off the page. But it's also the way in which picture books seemingly appear. Miraculously, apparently without trial or error or effort. Which is why this wordless picture book about the process of making a picture book is so absorbing.