Tea, toast and techno-terror

Sally Williams rounds up attention-grabbing titles for the under- fives
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The Independent Culture
In Molly's Hair by Emma Damon (Tango, pounds 8.99), Molly hates her hair. It frizzes, whirls, curls and is orange. Smooth-haired Arthur and blonde- bobbed Doris chase her around the playground and call her "carrot". She plaits it, combs it and wears big hats, but nothing works. Until her teacher decides that in this year's school play, Molly won't have to be the maggoty old apple tree, again. She will be the angel. On the night, Molly's "butterscotch swirly, tangerine twirly, special, different, orange hair" lights up the sky. Gentle cartoon-like illustrations and touch-and-feel hair make this an uplifting tale - and not just for red-heads.

Hidden on each page of Can You Spot the Spotty Dog? by John Rowe (Hutchinson, pounds 9.99) are animals to spot: a hungry hippo ingeniously camouflaged as a stone; a prickly hedgehog concealed among conker cases; a little white owl, and so on. The illustrations are strong and handsome, the language rhythmical and it's good to see an "interactive" book which doesn't fall back on flaps to flip. The only flaw is the blurb. Dubbing it a "picture puzzle book" leads you to expect, not the sophisticated fare it is, but dot-to dot.

Fishy Things by Rod Campbell (Macmillan, pounds 2.99) is part of a "Scary Touch and Feelies" series (other titles: Flying Things, Creepy Things, Scary Things). This board book has a "grabby" octopus, hungry shark and hairy starfish (are starfish hairy?) to tug and touch, stroke and feel. Bold illustrations and industrial-strength pop-ups will keep the pages turned as well as phobias fuelled.

When it comes to the big issues in a child's life - bottoms, farts and pooh - you can count on Babette Cole to deal them direct. Drop Dead (Cape, pounds 9.99) or "how we grow from one-year-old bald wrinklies into eighty-year- old bald wrinklies" is no exception. With characteristic mischief and irreverence (Gran and Gramps are actually pictured stone-cold flat-out - well, their feet are, anyway), Cole rattles through life, death and even the hereafter (the deceased duo are reincarnated as two scrawny chickens). Children will appreciate Cole's matter-of-factness; grandparents, probably less so.

John Birmingham's Cloudland (Cape, pounds 9.99) is not another book about death despite the fact that little Arthur trips and falls off the side of a mountain. Rather, this imaginative story confirms what you always suspected: that the skies are full of people and they are all having a fantastic time. Along with the Cloud Children who save Arthur by saying some magic words to make him light and floaty, Arthur bounces on cumulus clouds, swims in rain clouds, slides in the slipstream of a jet and has tea with the Man in the Moon. Innovative art work, cut-outs and montage add to this inventive and dreamy tale.

A rural idyll, a know-it-all older sister and the genesis of snowfall form the background to the poetic winter story in The Snow Whale by Caroline Pitcher, with illustrations by Jackie Morris (Frances Lincoln, pounds 9.99). Laurie and Leo wake one November morning to find the hills "hump-backed" with snow. They build a snow whale as "high as a church, round as a cloud, white as an ice-floe" and spend the next day sailing the Seven Seas on its back. The whale melts, Laurie cries, but both she and Leo are comforted by blazing fires, lashings of hot-buttered toast and tea, and by the knowledge that the snow whale has gone "home", back to the sea.

In Mrs Pig Gets Cross by Mary Rayner (Macmillan, pounds 6.99), Mr Pig grumbles "Why can't you make the children clear up after themselves?" after coming home from a hard day at the office to find the house a tip and Mrs Pig on strike, trotters-up, flicking through a copy of Pigue. Mr and Mrs bicker and argue and eventually go to bed in such a bait they forget to lock the front door. A foxy-looking burglar sneaks in, but trips over the clutter and is forced to leave empty-handed. This is an amusing domestic story, despite the last minute rush to ensure the "important message" promised by the blurb is the right one. "In case you are thinking", writes the panic-stricken Rayner, "that this story means you should never put your things away. It does not. lt says be careful not to make your mother and father so cross that they forget to bolt the door." Shame Mr Chauvinist Pig wasn't put straight too.

Christmas Carols for Cats by June and John Hope, illustrated by Sue Helland (Bantam, pounds 5.99) is a small book for a seemingly small audience. If the Christmas market is a niche, this must be the stuff of nooks and crannies. Christmas Carols for Cats is in fact surprisingly amusing. Jolly Aristocat- types illustrate such carol classics as "Collar Bells": "Collar bells, collar bells/Scares the birds away/O, I hate this stupid thing/It's with me night and day".

Edward Lear's Nonsense Songs, illustrated by Bee Wiley (Orion, pounds 9.99), has "The Owl and the Pussycat", yes, but also "The Jumblies"; "The Pobble Who Has no Toes"; "The Quangle Wangle's Hat". The beautifully rich illustrations feature ink-blue skies, crimson cats, golden grouses, blue baboons; there's silky-smooth paper; magic and mystery. Irresistible.

The First Christmas by Georgie Adams with illustrations by Anna C Leplar (Orion, pounds 8.99) has no baubles, fold-out grottos, baco-foil stars or jingles. This story of the Nativity gets back to basics: donkey; Joseph bearded with nightshirt and open-toed sandles; Mary chubby and smiling sweetly; wise men; stars. Simple words, simple pictures and a refreshingly gimmick- free approach. How will tinies cope?

If I Didn't Have Elbows by Sandi Toksvig, illustrated by David Melling (DeAgostini Books, pounds 6.99), is subtitled the "alternative body book" and not just because of its stand on body hair ("some people are funny about hair - they say hairy legs are OK for men but think women should shave theirs"). This get-to-know-your-body book aims to explain how the body works by explaining what would happen if it didn't. "If I didn't have skin....I'd have to wear plasters all over"; "If I didn't have a tummy button...I'd have been hatched out of an egg". The idea is inspired, the book packed with facts and Toksvig's humour quirky and engaging. Which is more than can be said for the illustrations: Melling's fondness for biscuit brown and bilious green bring to mind Health Education Authority leaflets and similar off-colour publications. This is a shame, because Toksvig deserves better.

Enchantment in the Garden by Shirley Hughes (Bodley Head, pounds 9.99) is set in Italy, where Valerie, only child of rich parents, has everything she could possibly ever need, except someone to play with. She befriends a marble statue boy, whispers in his ear and he comes to life. The two are inseparable, until one day Cherubino disappears. Inspired as much by Hughes' recent painting holidays as by her talents as a storyteller, this has huge illustrations of piazzas, balconies, and hot, still gardens that sweep across each page. There's nothing wrong with these; or with this enigmatic tale - except that it's not about Hughes' best-known creations: the loveable twosome Alfie and Annie Rose. A hard act to get away from, even in the hills of Italy.

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