Children's Books: What Maisie did next

Vultures, but no turkeys: Sally Williams reads books for under- fives
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The Independent Culture
Zagazoo by Quentin Blake (Jonathan Cape, pounds 9.99). Zagazoo is a gurgling pink baby delivered (gift-wrapped) to George and Bella. Now, Quentin Blake isn't big on babies. Frogs, clowns and eccentric outsiders are more his line. But then the baby changes. And the domesticstory turns in to something very exciting indeed. First Zagazoo becomes a screeching vulture, then an elephant, a warthog, a bad-tempered dragon... and so on, until a young man with perfect manners appears. The illustrations, as ever, say more than words ever could, and the visual metaphors are sublime.

The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes (Bodley Head, pounds 12.99). Just why pictures have to get fewer as children get older is a mystery. Perhaps publishers think that pages of Palatino type is just what older children like to look at when reading more sophisticated stories. I'd prefer the sweeping illustrations in this wonderful story of Lenny Levi, a wartime evacuee, who discovers the true meaning of bravery. It's a big book: 58 pages. There are big characters, too: the aloof Lady De Vass; the loathsome Joyce; and enigmatic, one-legged Mick. Shot through with classic Hughes touches, this book is so epic, so cinematic it almost has you reaching for the popcorn.

The Puffin Book of Utterly Brilliant Poetry edited by Brian Patten (Puffin, pounds 12.99). The funky cover and chatty title say it all: poetry can be fun, kids. And if you're in any doubt turn straight to Benjamin Zephaniah's "Talking Turkeys!": "Be nice to yu turkey dis christmas, cos turkeys jus wanna hav fun." There are matey interviews by Patten (he is interviewed by his cat) with each of the listed ten contemporary poets, who include Roger McGough, Alan Ahlberg and Jackie Kay. She is one of only two women included, which isn't brilliant, but everything else about this upbeat collection is.

Let's Look at Animals Underground (Moonlight Publishing, pounds 6.99). This absorbing book has a gimmick that works (no, really). The press-out "torch" can be slipped between the plastic pages and the dark pages underneath to light up the subterranean world of animals that lies under your feet. There are rabbit burrows, a nest of moles, grubs and creepy crawlies to discover. The text is illuminating, too. And if (when) your torch gets lostthe book helpfully shows you how to make another.

Why? by Lindsay Camp, illus by Tony Ross (Andersen Press, pounds 9.99). Children and parents will cackle with recognition at this story of Lily who likes to ask questions. "Why?" is her favourite. Her dad tries to be patient and give sensible answers but sometimes he's driven nuts - especially when he doesn't know the answer. Camp and Ross have the knack of making stories like real life, but much funnier.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S.Lewis, illus by Christian Birmingham (Collins, pounds 12.99). Abridged picture-book version of the classic story to stir the interest of younger readers. Cue tut-tutting from literary purists; but also whoops of pleasure, because this book is very good. Birmingham is one of the best illustrators of faces around and the gleeful eyes of Lucy, Peter et al look out at the reader, keeping the story alive between them.

Tell Me Something Happy Before I Go To Sleep by Joyce Dunbar, illus Debi Gliori (Doubleday, pounds 9.99). Bedtime has been done many times before, but this story of Willa who can't sleep because she's afraid of having a bad dream achieves the remarkable feat of being unlike any other. The text is repetitive, which children enjoy and the story reassuring. Cosy and beautifully coloured illustrations give it a sleepy warmth. Read it and yawn.

The Gigantic Turnip by Aleksei Tolstoy, illus Niamh Sharkey (Barefoot Books, pounds 9.99). The illustrations in this folk tale of an elderly couple who grow a very big turnip will stop you cold. They are stunning: spare and direct, almost like Shaker furniture, but with a hint of magic realism children will love. When you've stopped admiring the carrots and beans, there's a funny, pacy tale to read and numbers to practice counting.

Maisy at the Farm and Happy Birthday Maisy by Lucy Cousins (Walker Books, pounds 7.99 each). Whatever Maisy does is OK by most children. With few words, simple pictures and tabs to pull, these new stories are perfect for teenies; four, five and 40-year-olds will be grabbed by the gorgeous young mouse.

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