The best of 2004: children's books reviewed

Djinn for teens, tonics for tots
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The Independent Culture

Lavender's Blue (OUP, £14.99) first appeared in 1954, exquisitely illustrated in colour and black and white by Harold Jones. Now reissued in a facsimile edition, this remains one of the finest of nursery rhyme anthologies and, as such, an essential part in any infant's book collection. Add to it Through Tenderwood (Walking Oliver, £7.99), a CD plus booklet of nursery rhymes engagingly sung by Paul Kelly and Richard Durrant, for anyone who needs to be reminded of the tunes. In other moods, pop-up books always go down well, for example Nick Denchfield and Ant Parker's Charlie Chick (Campbell, £4.99), small but packed with action. For lift-the-flap books, look no further than Jez Alborough's Duck's Key. Where Can It Be? (HarperCollins, £9.99). How does he get his colours to be quite so bright?

Lavender's Blue (OUP, £14.99) first appeared in 1954, exquisitely illustrated in colour and black and white by Harold Jones. Now reissued in a facsimile edition, this remains one of the finest of nursery rhyme anthologies and, as such, an essential part in any infant's book collection. Add to it Through Tenderwood (Walking Oliver, £7.99), a CD plus booklet of nursery rhymes engagingly sung by Paul Kelly and Richard Durrant, for anyone who needs to be reminded of the tunes. In other moods, pop-up books always go down well, for example Nick Denchfield and Ant Parker's Charlie Chick (Campbell, £4.99), small but packed with action. For lift-the-flap books, look no further than Jez Alborough's Duck's Key. Where Can It Be? (HarperCollins, £9.99). How does he get his colours to be quite so bright?

A jaw-dropping mixture of both techniques is provided by Paul and Henrietta Stickland's extraordinary Dinosaurs Galore (Ragged Bears, £12.99), and worth every penny. Another variant, the pull-the-tab book, is well represented by Polo Finds a Friend (Matthew Price, £3.99), illustrated with all her usual elegance by Emma Chichester Clark.

In the world of picture books, Jan Ormerod's Lizzie Nonsense (Little Hare, £9.99) is a truly beautiful account of a little girl's daily life in the Australian outback a century ago, where everyday reality shares space and time with a child's endless capacity for imagination. Posy Simmonds offers another type of wild fantasy in Baker Cat (Jonathan Cape, £10.99), a witty account of what happens when animals take over from selfish human masters. For something genuinely awe-inspiring, try Lord of the Forest (Frances Lincoln, £10.99). Written by Caroline Pitcher and glowingly illustrated by Jackie Morris, this unforgettable story about a tiger could stop even the stroppiest of infants in their tracks.

One of the strangest children's books of the year must be Tom Karen's oddly charming A Little Look at Bottoms (Happy Cat Books, £5.99). Composed of pictures originally drawn on bathroom tiles, the back-views on display range from those possessed by bumblebees to armadillos. Other former taboos are cheerfully broken in Taro Gomi's Everybody Poos (Frances Lincoln, £4.99), a statement amply born out on every page whether the subjects are elephants, camels or, indeed, human beings.

For slightly older readers, Pam Smallcomb explores another earthy theme in The Last Burp of Mac McGerp (Bloomsbury, £4.99), a mock-epic story of untrapped wind, breezy in every sense of the word. For something more respectable, try Jenny Oldfield's Live the Dream! (A &C Black, £4.99), about a modern little girl who makes her fantasies come true after logging on to the net. I liked Alan Durant's Happy Birthday, Spider McDrew (HarperCollins, £3.99), three stories about an eccentric, loveable small boy. Look out too for Miles Gibson's Little Archie (Macmillan, £4.99): nicely illustrated by Neal Layton, it describes the adventures a child has after reducing in size to only three inches tall.

For readers towards the end of the primary school, Kaye Umansky's The Silver Spoon of Solomon Snow (Puffin, £4.99) has been fairly described as a mixture of Charles Dickens and Just William, as it explores some dark doings in Victorian Britain. Laughs and excitement can also be found in Frank Cottrell Boyce's Millions (Macmillan, £9.99), a compelling story, shortly to be released as a film, about what happens when a group of children stumble across a huge cache of money.

There is also a new novel from Geraldine McCaughrean, an author incapable of writing a dull sentence. Her Not the End of the World (OUP, £10.99) is a no holds barred description of Noah's Ark as it might actually have been like, should all those animals have entered it for real.

Teenagers continue to be well served by fantasy stories. Jonathan Stroud's The Golem's Eye (Doubleday, £12.99) is a vast plum pudding of a novel that improves with each mouthful, as 14-year-old apprentice magician Nathaniel battles vainly to control his obstreperous djinni Bartimaeus. Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls (Simon & Schuster, £12.99) is also excellent, in this case delving into Norse history and folklore and then weaving them together into one imaginative whole. For real-life scandals in today's world, read Terri Paddock's Come Clean (HarperCollins, £5.99). This takes a hard look at the sinister world of those private juvenile correctional institutions at present operating in 17 states in America that take in teenagers "volunteered" by their fed-up parents.

In contrast, Adèle Geras's Other Echoes (David Fickling, £9.99) is an elegiac short novel about memory, history and a child's growing understanding. Lastly, don't miss Beverley Naidoo's Web of Lies (Puffin, £4.99), a timely story about refugee children in London written by a born novelist.

Nicholas Tucker co-wrote the 'Rough Guide to Books for Teenagers'

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