Picture books reviewed

Songs of super furry animals
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The Independent Culture

In The Night Pirates by Peter Harris, illusrated by Deborah Allwright, (Egmont, £10.99), up go the sails and up goes the flag. Here is a night-time adventure about a mildly heroic little boy, Tom, and a ship of rough, tough little girl pirates. Whether intended as a comment on gender politics, or not, this offers thrills and excitement, and creates the sort of tense anticipation that small children love. Does Tom join the crew? Where are they going? To find something very strange...

Penelope on the Farm by Anne Gutman, illustrated by Georg Hallensleben, (Random House, £6.99) is pricey for a pull-the-tab, lift-the-flap, hide-and-seek-with-baby-animals book. But Penelope the koala bear is so charmingly painted with green wellies, and so full of toddler determination, that it is hard to resist. There is even a little plot. Penelope has been singing so loudly the baby animals have run away. Can you make her stop singing? With its roll-call of fluffy animals hidden in unlikely crannies, stylish art work and sturdy flaps, this is full of the sort of things young children love.

Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins, £10.99) is an uplifting story about a boy and a penguin, and their journey to a firm friendship via the South Pole. The scenario is unlikely, but Jeffers invests it with plausible life, telling the story in pictures of such spare beauty, there is space for the emotion to breathe. Suffused with a dream-like quality, this book will calm even the most overheated of bedtimes.

Aesop's Fables by Savior Pirotta, illustrated by Richard Johnson, (Kingfisher, £9.99) opens up Aesop's life lessons to the very young. Here is the Lion and the Mouse, the Tortoise and the Hare, as well as lesser-known stories such as The Frogs Who Wanted a King, all made sweet on the eye and easy on the ear. There is a preface to each of the fables, too, set in Ancient Greece, in which Aesop talks about his inspiration for what follows. None of which, incidentally, adds anything extra. But with eight stories over 80 pages, this is a cuddly confection filled with such expressive creatures that young children will have an absorbing time being schooled in Aesop's ancient moral code.

In The Princess and the Pea by Lauren Child, photographed by Polly Borland (Puffin, £12.99), the fairy tale of a prince in search of a real princess is given the miniature treatment, in a picture book full of grand originality. Blooming from a childhood enthusiasm for dolls' houses, Lauren Child sets the action in tiny panelled rooms made from card, peopled by paper cut-outs and furnished with objects typically owned by miniature specialists: tiny Barley Twist chairs, oil paintings, glowing log fires and bowls of minute peas fashioned from resin, all hauntingly lit and photographed by Polly Borland. Not only is there is awesome precision and patience in this work, but children will be amazed and thrown off balance by the beautiful strangeness of it all.

Jan Pienkowski's The Fairy Tales (translated by David Walser; Puffin, £14.99) casts a dark shadow over fairyland. Pienkowksi indulges his appetite for silhouette in this atmospheric collection for all to share. Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel and Cinderella are made rich and strange, as princesses and enchanted toads are dipped in darkness, then hauled out on to the light of the page. Cloaked in protective black, Pienkowski ventures further, deeper, than most, being present at the birth of Sleeping Beauty, for example; and revealing the remains of a would-be suitor who "died a wretched death" in the thorn hedge surrounding the sleeping castle. This has the quality of a legend.

Crammed inside the pink, handbag-shaped Handbag Friends by Sally Lloyd-Jones, illustrated by Sue Heap (David Fickling, £9.99), is a mad story about six friends and how they came to live in a handbag. There's a song (sung to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star), a big bad baddy, Clasp ( "all pimply and purpley"), playful illustrations and enough pink to sugar an entire street. Ecstasy, in other words, for girlies.