Picture books: Friday is for finding frogs!

The festive season features all sorts of surprises for children, from streetwise dogs to vampires, Elizabethan mysteries to Alan Garner. Nicola Smyth has been learning more about a daft bat and an elusive moose for her round-up of the best picture books for your youngest
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

What's it like around the Christmas dinner table in your household? An array of happy children, cheerfully ingesting the pick of your organic veg box? Or the traditional festive bout of screaming, sulking and flat refusals to eat anything that hasn't come from Mr Cadbury? Thought so. Well, this year, you can diffuse those food fights with a copy of Helen Cooper's Delicious! (Doubleday £10.99). Cat, Squirrel and Duck, as Cooper fans will know, love pumpkin soup, but they've run out of pumpkins. Duck says yuck to fish, mushroom and beetroot, but Cat eventually cons him into eating an orange-coloured vegetable concoction and he sees the error of his faddish ways. I found the illustrative style a little icky, but its gentle rhyming cadences (and the recipe for pink soup) hit the spot.

Snacks of a different sort are the subject of The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins £10.99). Fans of Jeffers will already know that his titles are scrumptious-looking (his debut, How to Catch a Star, is particularly lovely). Henry, the hero of the latest, has taken his appreciation too far and chows down on entire libraries. The illustrations are a mixture of type, pastels, pencil and old pages from Latin primers. You have to see them for yourself. This one really can't fail.

Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross won't let you down either. Daft Bat (Andersen Press £10.99) is bonkers, according to his friends. He thinks the grass is above him and that trees have leaves at the bottom. Wise Owl encourages the other animals to see things from bat's point of view. Tony Ross makes sure you do, too, by turning the illustrations upside down. More nonsensical offerings come from sometime political cartoonist Chris Riddell, whose Emperor of Absurdia (Macmillan £10.99) is a good one for small boys about to graduate to more grown-up works of fantasy. This surreal tale of wardrobe monsters and snuggly scarves is given a sharper edge by Riddell's spiky, Seussian drawings.

If you've got a smaller recipient in mind, though, you could try The Lost Ears by Phillida Gili (Boxer £10.99). First published 25 years ago, it tells the story of a hearing-impaired teddy bear (ears lost in the wash) and is, apparently, based on a true story. The illustrations make it look real, too, by showing the boy hero reading a copy of, among others, an Edward Ardizzone title in bed. Chimp and Zee's First Words and Pictures (Catherine & Laurence Anholt, Frances Lincoln £9.99) is another good place to start. As well as teaching your toddler the usual food and animal vocabulary, you get to know what the chimp twins do on different days of the week. Apparently, Friday is spent finding frogs with friends - so there's an idea to fill those long post-prandial afternoons. The Journey Home from Grandpa's by Jemima Lumley (illus Sophie Fatus, Barefoot £10.99) is in the same mould - jolly, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin titles for the littlest people. The all-American sing-along CD was a little grating, though, and possibly best stuffed down the back of the sofa.

Some discs that I didn't want to dispense with were the animated DVDs accompanying six classic stories from Walker Books, which proved strangely addictive. A word of warning, though. Watch Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? (reader Kevin Whately, £7.99) too often and you may find the Geordie inflection pattern seeps into your reading forever afterwards ("Ah've braaawwt yooo the mooooooon, little bea-uh"). Walker has also produced a celebratory pop-up edition of one of these classics, Michael Rosen's We're Going On A Bear Hunt, which will take some beating. Keith Finch's paper engineering is gasp-inducing and, although it's £14.99, it's so beautiful you should fork out for one if you can.

If it's a real classic you're after, The Hare and the Tortoise (illustrated by Giselle Potter, Barefoot £12.99) is the most erudite edition in this year's line-up. Ranjit Bolt has translated the 17th-century fables of La Fontaine into an English that's both entertaining and elegant. Some of the stories will be familiar, but many of the morals will soar gently over the top of tiny readers' heads. The Miser who lost his Treasure follows a man whose buried gold has been stolen. As he was only interested in hoarding, the gardener points out that he has lost nothing and might as well have buried a stone. So if your littlies need a nice, anti-capitalist antidote to the commercialism of the season, this could be the one for you. Another mind-expanding story is Lani Yamamoto's Albert (Frances Lincoln £9.99), which promises to explain relativity to pre-schoolers. Yes, it's a big ask. Personally, I thought it was just a nice story about an older brother who gets fed up of being told how big he is now, and sets out to find exactly how big he is compared to ants, flowers and the sky.

The prize for best picture in 2006 goes to Kevin Hawkes for Library Lion (words: Michelle Knudsen, Walker £10.99). You'll pick it up convinced it's some forgotten 1950s classic, but it turns out to have been penned this year. It's really too long to be a picture book, but it looks sublime. Another graphic triumph is Emily Gravett's Meerkat Mail (Macmillan £10.99). I liked it less than her earlier Wolves (also Macmillan) but I learnt a lot about the banded mongoose. However, grandparents reading this one will need to be issued with magnifying glasses, otherwise they'll miss all the facts squeezed on to the flap-up postcards that Sunny sends home from his round-the-world voyage. An honourable mention in this category must go to David Lucas's Whale (Andersen Press £10.99). He's already produced one aquatically-named winner (Halibut Jackson) and this is equally charming. A whale is stranded in a small town and the townsfolk try singing the "Rain Song" to wash the whale back out to sea. Gorgeous.

Clare Beaton is another perennial favourite of mine. For the uninitiated, she provides beautifully stitched felt and bric-a-brac illustrations for a range of Barefoot titles. The latest is Elusive Moose by Joan Ganij (£10.99). The text is a little uninspired. However, like Meerkat Mail, it does pack in a lot of information about the animal kingdom and even has a stitched guide to their tracks (not sure how accurate the sequins are). If you want something wintry but with a little more of the Divine in it, try Through the Animals' Eyes: a story of the first Christmas by another regular in these round-ups, woodcut guru Christopher Wormell (Running Press Kids £10.99). Running Press also has Tickets to Ride (by Mark Rogalski, £9.99), an extraordinary looking alphabetic trip through a fairground. The bold graphics were a little too 21st-century for me - I think I'm a pen and ink kind of girl - but if you've overdosed on fluffy farmyard animal titles, it might appeal.

Finally, a couple more in the self-help mode:Silly Billy, by the much-loved Anthony Browne (Walker £10.99), contains a cure for sleepless young worriers everywhere and stunning Magritte-style illustrations to boot. The Prince's Bedtime by Joanne Oppenheim (illustrated by Miriam Latimer, Barefoot £10.99) is a rhyming tale of under-age insomnia: the adults try everything from hot milk to magicians, but the small prince stays resolutely awake. Until, that is, an old woman appears with a storybook and lulls him into dreamland. Her secret? The book has no pictures, so he has to close his eyes to imagine them. Darn it. Maybe I've been recommending the wrong things for your stockings all along...

Comments