CHILDREN'S BOOKS / Picture books: Before the holidays begin, here are four pages of the season's best children's books to choose from. Below, Prudence Hone makes her selection for the under-7s

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AT THE pre-novel stage, children do not have much sense of brand or name loyalty (the few exceptions being the ubiquitous Spot, Noddy or Mr Men); and why should we expect it of them? Cereal manufacturers don't: they stuff small plastic spacebeings or Scott Thunderbirds into their packets. I don't suggest this as a tactic for publishers, but one or two of the well-known children's authors seem to be resting on their laurels, relying on their names to sell some rather feeble efforts.

Older children who like fantasy and weird imaginings are lucky: they have The Rainbow Goblins by Ul de Rico (Thames and Hudson pounds 9.95) to look forward to; a superbly produced fairy-tale with seven wicked goblins (who get their names - Red Goblin, Yellow Goblin and so on - from lassoing rainbows and gulping down the colours) being trounced by flowers. Yes, I know it sounds like drug-induced reverie - but wait until you see the pictures: they combine the fantastic scenery and light of John Martin with the weird, obsessional vision of Richard Dadd. Throw in a gothic imagination and you have stepped into surreal territory. 'The sight that greeted them when they reached the meadow took their breath away. The rising arch of the Rainbow, so rich with colour and promise, almost blinded them.' When the flowers rise up against the thieves, the scene of destruction is awe-inspiring. This book was originally published in America in 1978; perhaps this sort of baroque imagination was considered too rich for British children at that time?

A Big Day for Little Jack by Inga Moore, Walker pounds 7.99. Velvety drawings and a simple story - little Jack Rabbit prepares for his first solo outing to a party - make this a perfect picture-book for three- to five-year-olds and one guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat of any granny. Life in the burrow is rendered with great delicacy: the fur on Jack, big brother Buck and sisters Nancy, Rhona and Rita looks so soft you could pick them up and rub them against your cheek. Golden light even suffuses the end-papers; every page is a delight. This is a beautiful book.

Dinosaur Roar] by Paul and Henrietta Stickland, Ragged Bears pounds 6.99. A cracker - perfect for three-year-olds or when children reach that dinosaur moment. Simple text of opposites ('Dinosaur sweet, dinosaur grumpy, Dinosaur spiky and dinosaur lumpy') augmented by gorgeously coloured beasts - acid fruity greens, pale pinks, kingfisher blues. These brilliant creatures stomp across double-page spreads with large, clear type at the foot. The simplicity and comforting rhythms make this instantly appealing - and why shouldn't dinosaurs be lovely to look at?

Captain Abdul's Pirate School by Colin McNaughton, Walker pounds 9.99. A jolly yarn in the Captain Pugwash vein: all pirates are buffoons and the 'ooh-arrgh' is a vital means of expression for all aspirant buccaneers.

Captain Abdul ('hairy, scary and with more bits missing than a second-hand jigsaw') is a hideous old goat with five teeth, an eye-patch and a hook for a hand - but for all that his goofy plans and botched lessons ('R is for rum', 'X is for X marks the spot') make him a pushover when it comes to mutiny. Lively, detailed drawings of the pirate pupils in their regulation red spotted bandanas include the young Henry Morgan and Anne Bonney as well as the more fanciful Beryl Flynn and Pickles the heroine. Good fun for fives and up to read by themselves and lots of comic-strip incident to keep younger ones attentive.

Lazy Daisy by Rob Lewis, Bodley Head pounds 7.99. Daisy is a ship's cat but it seems a bit unkind to call her lazy - inept might be a better word, as the rats run rings round her and she is threatened with the sack. However, all ends happily when she saves the ship in a storm. And the rats? You have to wait to the last page to find out what happens to them. Rob Lewis's relaxed and simple style and characteristic use of colour are again in evidence. A useful book for four- and five- year-olds to try to read alone.

Dr Dog by Babette Cole, Cape pounds 8.99. It seems no season is complete without a book from this author, and - like her earlier and successful Mummy laid an Egg] - this is another example of the fashionable infotainment. This one seems to have too much 'info' (smoking is bad for you, you must wash your hands after using the lavatory), and not enough 'tainment': the climax is the Gumboyle's roof being blown off as Grandpa's irritable bowel syndrome blasts him over the neighbours' houses. This sort of wheeze would appeal to four-year-olds, perhaps; it is drawn with all Ms Cole's usual loopy charm.

Honeybee's Busy Day by Richard Fowler, Doubleday pounds 4.99. A round, user-friendly cardboard bee sits in a plastic flap on the cover; each page is printed with a 'winding word path' for the bee and slits lead from one page through to the next. A good idea for threes and over, as they learn to follow the type which curves from flower to pond to tree and back to the hive. The pen and wash illustrations are bright, clear and detailed - a ladybird here, a beetle there - and repay repeated journeys; the size and weight of the paper make it good for young readers.

Little Inchkin by Fiona French, Frances Lincoln pounds 8.99. A Tom Thumb story set in 19th- century Japan with 'period' illustrations, each page painted with a border of brocade. As an exercise in pastiche, this is very accomplished, with good use of the relevant perspective, but the colours seemed a bit on the bright side - and that shade of green? It is a difficult choice as the style is prone to seem cold and formal and an awkward one into which to breathe life and warmth, usually prerequisites for children's illustrations. However, five- year-olds would be fascinated by Inchkin's size and his derring-do.

The Court of the Winged Serpent by Russell Hoban, illus Patrick Benson, Cape pounds 8.99. Delicately etched drawings gradually lead you further into this quirky tale, which begins with John in bed and dreaming of a jungle. So far, so unexceptional, but this strange story is not one of the 'I had a horrible dream but, phew, I woke up' sort; it spirals into infinity (think of the Guinness commercial of the Tower of Babel). The illustrator's skill is extraordinary: the creepery of the jungle beneath a yellow sky, the dark passage leading up to a sort of Mayan temple courtyard, the emerald serpent and the emerald key; these all give a muted mystery to the text, which is simple and unornamented, allowing the pictures to do most of the conjuring. Initial reservations over the size of the type - small - were soon forgotten: this would suit seven-year-olds who like their fantasy to be subtle.

Kevin Saves The World by Daniel Postgate, David Bennett pounds 5.99. The neat story of a boy who is good at nothing except making faces, which just happens to be the one thing that scares a predatory alien on a reconnaissance mission to Kevin's back garden. A simple text, droll cartoons and a well-paced story would make this a suitable book for beginners to read on their own, as well as a comfort to non-achievers of any age.

The Inside Seaside by Mavis Taylor, Hutchinson pounds 8.99. Pretty, pastel-shaded watercolours tell this story without words. A little girl and her faithful mutt (breed indeterminate) are foiled in their efforts to spend a day at the beach (rain stopped play), so with a blue and white quilt as the sea, pillows as islands and the sofa as a galleon, they enjoy themselves indoors. By the time the sun is out and the family get to the beach, girl and dog are too exhausted to do anything but flop and sleep. A good exercise for pre-readers, but the pale, rather vapid style may mean that it has a limited appeal.

Today is Monday by Eric Carle, Hamish Hamilton pounds 8.99. With big, bold splodges of colour, the pictures look as though they are collages; there are bright clean shapes of animals eating the meals mentioned in the song (music given at the back). This is graphic art at its best - clear images, large format and a good rhyme to remember for fours and fives.

Princess Primrose by Vivian French, illus Chris Fisher, Walker pounds 7.99. Our feisty heroine finds her birthday presents aren't up to snuff: 'A teddy bear and a train set. HUH] I wanted a gold coach with six white horses.' This little madam needs to be taught a lesson and in due course the cook's boy manages it. Lively layout, busy drawings with cute incidental detail (the egg-cosies are miniatures of the royal family), whimsical text and a clear message. A good reminder for five-year-olds to mind their Ps and Qs.

Jimmy's Sunny Book by Paul Dowling, Andersen pounds 5.99. This plods along in workaday fashion, with tabs to pull and short sentences for very young readers. Jimmy seems a genial if anodyne little chap, and does boyish things with his puppy ('Puppy') until bedtime. Sturdy construction means it might stand up to repeated use, as long as your child is not of the 'I want to see how it works' type.

Handa's Surprise by Eileen Browne, Walker pounds 7.99. A little girl sets off from her Kenyan village, carrying on her head a basket of seven fruits for her friend. On the way, with Handa trotting along unawares, greedy animals steal every one, but luckily a goat butts in and saves the day. Rich, hot colours and fluid brushstrokes zap each scene into life - and on close inspection it becomes clear why the images seem to leap off the page, as the girl, the animals and indeed the fruit are all outlined in a thin strip of white. It is a curious style, but one that is very effective. With the text taking a back seat, this would appeal to smart three- year-olds and upwards.

Whistling in the Woods by Selina Young, Heinemann pounds 7.99. Fun with fox cubs: 10 of them, but sensibly, rather than going through the laborious business of naming them, Mother Fox has dressed them in numbered jerseys - although '7' stands out, with specs and spotted scarf. The text is a sort of burbling rhyme: 'They wash their front paws (twenty in all). Then they hear their mother call: 'Tea's on the table.' After tea Mother Fox shoos them out to play. She wipes all ten noses and warns them 'Be careful cubs. Don't stray.' ' Well, they don't, but a little girl in red called Rosy does - and she's lost. The clever cubs join forces to summon help. That night Rosy snuggles down to sleep in her own bed, and in her hand is a spotted scarf . . . Maps of the woods inside the covers and Selina Young's splashy, devil-may-care drawings will appeal to five-year-olds.

Courtney by John Burningham, Cape pounds 8.99. It is axiomatic that parents in children's books are stupid, but these seem more feeble-minded than most. Courtney is a mongrel wonder- dog: he cooks, vacuums, juggles, plays the violin, mows the lawn and rescues the baby from the burning house. And what do the parents say when the dog (very sensibly) decides to leave? 'We told you that dog was no good . . . If they are not thoroughbred you cannot trust them.' There seems little point in carrying on after that, and an editorial pencil should have tightened up this ramble. Courtney's charms are wasted. The large format and Burningham's wacky drawings would be suitable for pre-schoolers.

Bouncing Buffalo by Posy Simmonds, Cape pounds 8.99. Pleasantly droll story of a family who are rescued from ruin by a stuffed buffalo head that comes to life; the comic-strip format and expressive drawings are vintage Simmonds (villain has spotted bow tie and beard - typical signs of unsoundness), but the fantasy seems a bit too gross and weighty to be contained. Devotees of Posy Simmonds's first children's book, Fred, with its singular theme and slightly younger readership, might be somewhat disappointed. Nevertheless, this is a book that will probably go straight to the heart of most six-year-olds.

Little Rabbit Tale by Sue Porter, Dorling Kindersley pounds 7.99. A rabbit toddler puts Mummy through an exhausting day. So what else is new? Don't be discouraged: this large format, wittily laid-out picture book is a triumph. Minimal text frames each spread, which deals with a different activity, with a series of cosy watercolours inside the borders. The best scenes are the awakening - mum complaining about getting up so early - and bathtime, which always seems to bring out the best in fathers. Lots to spot and plenty to chat about with very young children.

Emily by Michael Bedard, illus Barbara Cooney, Julia MacRae pounds 9.99. It is winter in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the middle of the last century, and a little girl watches the pale yellow house across the road where the reclusive Emily lives. And yes, it is Emily Dickinson, and no, it is not in the least pretentious, but a gentle glimpse into another world. The pale, 'nave' paintings (rigid perspectives, doll-like figures) maintain the dream-like atmosphere, and this would make a good introduction to poetry for sixes and sevens who have progressed beyond nursery verses.