The arty party animals of Planet Zoo

From painterly primates to a very urban piglet, Sally Williams finds plenty of creature comforts in picture books for the youngest readers
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The Independent Culture

Olivia by Ian Falconer (Simon and Schuster, £9.99) Meet Olivia: she's a metropolitan little pig who likes to change her clothes 17 times, wants to sing like Maria Callas, paints abstract compositions on the walls, and wears everyone out. With minimal text and a beautifully restrained style - hardly any colour and so spare Falconer isn't even credited - this humorous vignette will make Olivia a star.

Olivia by Ian Falconer (Simon and Schuster, £9.99) Meet Olivia: she's a metropolitan little pig who likes to change her clothes 17 times, wants to sing like Maria Callas, paints abstract compositions on the walls, and wears everyone out. With minimal text and a beautifully restrained style - hardly any colour and so spare Falconer isn't even credited - this humorous vignette will make Olivia a star.

Peter Pan: a classic illustrated edition by Sir J M Barrie, compiled by Cooper Edens (Chronicle Books/ Ragged Bears, £13.99) A must for those fed up with the Disneyfication of children's books. This original Peter Pan (1911 spelling and all) is most illuminating. Hook's distinctive hunched bearing, it turns out, is not the posture of menace, but a slouch picked up from the louche boarding school he attended. Wonderful! So are the illustrations, which are the pick of the best from several early editions, with Mabel Lucie Attwell, Flora White, Arthur Rackham and Peter Pan's original illustrator, Frances D Bedford.

Can You Keep a Secret? by Pamela Allen (Viking, £4.99) A lovely, funny book that takes the chore out of learning colours. Don't be deceived by its small format and naive style; this is sophisticated stuff. Allen grabs the attention of her young audience with a conspiratorial game of hunt the King's crown and keeps them hooked with her wickedly funny illustrations. Good tough pages, too.

Madlenka by Peter Sis (Allen & Unwin, £9.99) On the surface, a local theme: a little girl, Madlenka, has a wobbly tooth and wants to tell her neighbours. But her trip around the block turns into journey around the world. As she rushes from Mr Eduardo the Latin American greengrocer to Mrs Khan and her Asian store, Madlenka learns about tapirs, rainforests, Chinese dragons, yak hats and more. The atmospheric pictures swoop and pan like a camera and Madlenka's perspective becomes global. Imaginative and inventive, this is a book of extraordinary magic.

The Dorling Kindersley Book of Nursery Rhymes by Debi Gliori (Dorling Kindersley, £9.99) Fret no more about Little Tommy Tucker only getting bread and butter. This, apparently, was a real treat at the time of writing. Snippets of juicy information about the origin of Little Miss Muffett, Jack and Jill and all the old favourites make this something special. Debi Gliori's illustrations are as cosy as flannelette sheet, and each rhyme is warmed through with her glowing, mostly domestic scenes.

Barbie: a visual guide to the ultimate fashion doll (Dorling Kindersley, £12.99) Little girls - and it will mostly be little girls - will probably use this slab of a book as a catalogue and pore covetously over Yo-Yo Skipper and Barbie's Deluxe Dream house. Grown ups, meanwhile, will get lost in memories of playing with Twist'n'Turn Barbie back in '72. From her début at the New York Toy Fair in 1959 to her statues as a global superstar, Barbie's many incarnations, friends, kitchens and shoes are pictured in high-production colour, adding up to a grand tour and a surprisingly good read.

The Animal Boogie by Debbie Harter (Barefoot, £9.99) Even very young children will love swinging with these creatures of the Indian jungle as they shake, swing, flap and slither to the sound of the Animal Boogie (music score included). "It's an elephant! She goes stomp, stomp, boogie, woogie, oogie!" The pictures are exactly right, too: beautifully boisterous with loud colours and simple shapes.

Do Little Mermaids Wet their Beds? by Jeanne Willis, Illus Penelope Jossen (Andersen, £9.99) Off course they do - mermaids' beds are always wet. Which is why Cecillia "only four but as clever as clever" should stop feeling bad about doing it herself. With calm gentle pictures and huge insight, this sensitive book takes the bother out of a bothersome issue and, in so doing, resolves it.

The Faber Book of Bedtime Stories chosen by Wendy Cope, (Faber, £20) You can tell this glorious compendium is compiled by someone who loves language and has an ear for the spoken word. The rhythms of each story, from the iron pot crying "I skip, I skip" to Penelope Lively's talking dog, are perfect for reading aloud. Like a recipe book, this collection also has approximate reading times. Which is an inspired idea, especially at bedtime. It's beautifully produced, too, with beguiling illustrations by big names including Posy Simmonds and James Mayhew.

Willy's Pictures by Anthony Browne (Walker Books. £10.99) Who else but Anthony Browne could get children to pore over Michaelangelo's Creation of Adam or Botticelli's Birth of Venus? Here, in a portfolio of Willy's paintings, the chimp has added himself and his friends to famous paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci, Ingres and many more. Each painterly pastiche is an absorbing showcase of surreal twists and awesome skill. Can you find the original in the back of the book? An inspired and unique way of introducing children to the history of art.

Planet Zoo: one hundred animals we can't afford to lose by Simon Barnes, illus Alan Markss (Orion, £20) Ever come across a pink fairy armadillo? Or a no-eyed, big-eyed wolf spider? Unless something is done, you probably never will. Both are threatened with extinction. So, surprisingly, are polar bears and cheetahs. What rescues this thought- provoking book from turning into a doomy catalogue is Barnes's passion and directness. Short sentences and direct questions keep children gripped. He profiles the animals, details the effect of disappearance on the food chain, and is resolute about Not Giving Up.

The Last Polar Bears by Harry Hum (Viking, £9.99) Something magical emerges from this story of a sad looking polar bear in a zoo, a dog called Roo, and a grandfather who finally fulfils his dream. A whimsical twist is then given to the tale when, rather than taking a husky and sledge on his expedition to the North Pole, Grandfather takes Roo and a golf trolley. The story is a skilful combination of the unusual and approachable, illustrated with a fluid technique and brilliant characterisation. Watch out for the animation on TV at Christmas.

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