Picture books reviewed

Monsters and milk-shakes
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The Independent Culture

Children's literature is stuffed with happy books, but it takes a writer such as Michael Rosen to lift the lid on what it feels like to have your world fall apart. Exploring the emotional aftermath from his teenage son's death from meningitis, his Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Walker, £10.99) is not a story with any peaceful conclusion, and that is what makes it so powerful. It is a flawless evocation of grief, with monochrome illustrations underlining the emotional density. You can see sadness coming down like a fog, as Rosen trudges through grey wastelands. Poignant and involving, this is not a book to leaf idly through. You pick it up and flinch.

Children's literature is stuffed with happy books, but it takes a writer such as Michael Rosen to lift the lid on what it feels like to have your world fall apart. Exploring the emotional aftermath from his teenage son's death from meningitis, his Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Walker, £10.99) is not a story with any peaceful conclusion, and that is what makes it so powerful. It is a flawless evocation of grief, with monochrome illustrations underlining the emotional density. You can see sadness coming down like a fog, as Rosen trudges through grey wastelands. Poignant and involving, this is not a book to leaf idly through. You pick it up and flinch.

My Mum by Anthony Browne (Doubleday, £10.99) is a celebration of motherhood guaranteed to flutter any maternal heart. It shows a mother roaring like a lion, singing like an angel, as comfy as an old armchair, and always fragrantly floral. The pictures are a delight (see right), an easy fusion of the ordinary with the surreal, painted with clear-eyed detail. Very witty, very true. Small children will love Mum, and so will parents.

A healthy-eating treatise sneaks into the stomping good story of Rowan Clifford's Rodeo Ron and his Milkshake Cows (Random House, £10.99). Rodeo Ron rides into Cavity town, where folk drink sweet, fizzy sodas and have brown stumps instead of nice white smiles. "Hot diggidy dang!" he cries at all the belching in the soda bar. How Rodeo Ron converts the townsfolk to frothy milk-shakes with the help of jolly, larky illustrations, makes for the well-balanced picture-book diet.

Ten Little Sleepyheads by Elizabeth Provost, and illustrated by Donald Saaf (Bloomsbury, £10.99), may be the first picture book to use a Southern Green Stink Bug and Sweet Potato Weevil in a counting-to-ten venture. The novelty pays off. Ten bugs, made friendly with fine painting, join forces with a lulling text to take children from ten to one and back again. With handy bug references, and bugs to spot on each page, this is the kind of technical exercise children thrive on.

Chris Wormell has already made a splash with George and the Dragon and Two Frogs. His new book, The Sea Monster (Cape, £10.99), a tense tale of a little boy who gets swept out to sea, ripples out to be another winner. Set against shadowed, angular seascapes, Wormell's book cooks up a dramatic storm involving a frantic dog, an aged fisherman and a green-eyed monster.

The hero of Mini Grey's Traction Man is Here (Cape, £10.99) is NEW Traction Man - a toy action figure in battle pants and warfare shirt - but the subject is a child's imagination. A small boy conjures up a delirious world of make-believe, with Traction Man rescuing farm animals in a jet-powered trainer and searching for the Lost Wreck of the Sieve (in the washing-up). But real life keeps intruding with calls of "Breakfast", "Bathtime!" and, horror, a green romper suit with matching bonnet, knitted for Traction Man by Granny. Children will thrill and giggle with recognition at this genuinely funny artist.

From an early Greek settlement to an industrial metropolis; from bath house to bendy bus, Philip Steele's A City Through Time (illustrated by Steve Noon, Dorling Kindersley, £12.99) time-travels through history to show how great cities don't become great overnight. Spanning 2,500 years over 28 pages, this magisterial book is packed with a pitch of knowledge that would exhaust your average cave-dweller. A magnificent launch-pad for discussion about the Starbucks-filled vertical cities of today.

David McKee's Three Monsters (Andersen, £9.99) has fun with the notion of unwelcome alien incomers. The red monster and blue monster greet a yellow stranger arriving at their jungle-edged shore with the distinctly uncharitable chant of "custard-coloured, cringing creep" and "mustard-face". Crisp storytelling and engaging drawings will leave children braced and bolstered to face outsiders with an altogether different welcome than that given by the red monster. "Clear off:, he says. "We don't want any funny foreigner types here."

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