CHILDREN'S BOOKS FOR EASTER; Where will you meet a bat called Narcissus, a hedgehog - sorry, hodgeheg - who gets his words jumbled up, a girl who goes down sewers and some really horrible snakes? We've got brilliant books for good eggs here, so just tuck in
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Picture Books

The Little Ships by Louise Borden, illus Michael Foreman, Pavilion pounds 9.99. A young girl takes part in the evacuation of Dunkirk aboard her father's boat, the Lucy, based in Deal. A moving story, beautifully illustrated. 6+

The Frog Ballet by Amanda McCardie, illus Caroline Crossland, Julia MacRae Books pounds 9.99. The young frogs put on a ballet to entertain the oldest frog: one of them, pirouetting, gets caught in the curtain, the musicians can't keep up and the hornpipe ends in a tangled heap, but the oldest frog loves it all. His life gently ebbs away and the story gradually becomes a fable about bereavement. 4+

Leon and Bob by Simon James, Walker pounds 8.99. Lonely Leon has an imaginary best friend called Bob, who mysteriously vanishes when a little boy moves in next door. Terrific pictures, in which Leon is dwarfed by huge doors, vertiginous steps, giant tables. 3+

Animal Stories by Dick King-Smith, illus Michael Terry, Puffin pounds 12.99. A collection of reprinted stories by the ever-popular creator of Babe the Sheep-Pig: there's Lawrence, the very fat cat, Walter the wimpy woodlouse, Max the spoonerist Hedgehog (or Hodgeheg) and Woolly the mammoth; irresistible illustrations (see main pic, right). 6+

The Afternoon Treehouse by Robert Ingpen, Pavilion pounds 9.99. The unnamed "I" (adult? child? we're not told) discovers a mysterious treehouse in the park. No one else is ever observed using it, but the narrator finds clues to its owner inside: marbles, magazine cuttings, a bundle of broken sticks, a mythic cauldron. The illustrations are exceptional, the mystery hauntingly unresolved. 6+

Dragon Quest by Andy Dixon, illus Nick Harris, Usborne pounds 7.99. Winston the Wig-wearing Wizard has made the villagers' hair fall out. Can you penetrate the Wizard's lair before the onset of winter, negotiating the Stinky Swamp, the pirates' lair and the Smelly Sewers? On each finely detailed page you have to spot keys, weapons, provisions and clues to help the quest along. 9+

The Forgotten Garden by Caroline Repchuk, illus Ian Andrew, Templar pounds 9.99. An old man hesitantly approaches an old house. Passing through the rusty gates, he finds a dilapidated greenhouse and in it a pair of shears. He begins to clip the bushes into topiary shapes. The garden comes to life ... Almost too subtle for young children, with exquisite pastel/pencil drawings. Read aloud.


Unusual Day by Sandi Toksvig, illus Georgien Overwater, Corgi pounds 3.50. On Unusual Day, everyone in Blue Class has to bring in something unique, but Jessica is cross when she's told she can't bring in her granny. Then there's a fire in the house next door and the children get involved in the rescue. Toksvig's tall tale is appealingly brisk: "Miss Johnson patted her hand and then took Phoebe off to change her pants." 7+

Sludge Gulpers by Jane Waller, Macmillan pounds 3.99. The sewers of London have their own society, mirroring the one above: there's a Gutter Press, a Royal family, and a parliament of squelchy creatures. But Queen Greenmould is turning into a dictator, so the underground prime minister, Harold Foot-Webb, turns to Suzie Stanmore, a young girl who lives with her mother in a tower block. She has just the qualities to lead the fight against despotism. An enjoyable fantasy with serious facts: for confident readers.

Alien Attack by Michael Johnstone, Deutsch Madcap, pounds 2.99. Damian's Dad is working on a satellite to control the weather. Damo wants to be right up there for the launch. Only it looks like a bunch of unfriendly extra- terrestrials have nicked it

Bag of Bones by Helen Cresswell, Hodder pounds 10.99. Griselda is nine, she doesn't like her name much, and she's waiting for something to happen. She doesn't get the "dragon" she wants, but she does get a bag of bones, which proceeds to turn into a rather chippy magic cat. Together, they voyage "a long way into a world ... out of the ordinary". A parallel-reality scenario for the under-10s.

The Owl Tree by Jenny Nimmo, illus Anthony Lewis, Walker pounds 6.99. "How could Joe explain to someone far away that Granny Diamond didn't look too well? How could he tell Dad about a tree that meant so much to Gran; without it she might fade away?" A touching story, pregnant with pity and fear, with simple line drawings very well done. 7+

The Nubbler by Pam Ayres, Orion pounds 9.99.

The Nubbler is a green, web-footed creature who hears about Rufus's problems through his headset - his parents seem to be splitting up. With his secret friend's encouragement, Rufus learns to turn outwards for help - to a nice new teacher, to a new Chinese kid at school. An empathetic tale from the priestess of the pome, rhyme-free but warmly illustrated.

Cybermama: An Extraordinary Voyage to the Centre of Cyberspace by Alexandre Jardin, Dorling Kindersley pounds 9.99. A huge-format graphic novel translated from the French. When Chris, Lily and Felix's mother dies suddenly in an accident, the children travel deep inside their computer to find her image, through superbly twisted and virtually-real-looking photography and text. The mood is surreal and haunting, a little dubiously so at the end, when the children plan to log on every day to talk to their "cybermama": "They knew now that they would never be alone again." For all solo readers.


Dibby Dubby Dhu by George Barker, illus Sara Fanelli, Faber pounds 8.99. An adventurer, an astronaut, sailor, philosopher, cowboy: all these is Dibby Dubby Dhu, mysterious hero of some of these pieces by the famed Faber poet who died in 1991. Exciting stuff, reassuringly rhythmical, teasing rather than taxing, but with that true poetic shiver: "The Cow she is the Queen of Cud. / The Pig he is the King of Mud. / Who are their Princes of the Blood? // The Princes are the little cows / And little pigs whose blood will souse / The Butcher in his Slaughterhouse."

A Spell of Words: Selected Poems for Children by Elizabeth Jennings, Macmillan pounds 9.99. Elizabeth Jennings (b.1926) remembers the first good poem she wrote as a child, about a dead bird. "I held it in my hand / With its little soft hanging head. / It was soft and light and whole, / But it was dead." One of Britain's foremost contemporary poets, she has made this new selection from her adult work: quiet, dignified pieces with a calm, only-just-there religious sensibility. Several poems deal with lessons, holidays and other staples: "Legs in knee-socks, / Standing on the rough playground, / Suddenly thinking, 'Why am I here?' "

The Noctuary of Narcissus Batt by Paul Muldoon, illus Marketa Prachatick, Faber pounds 8.99. Narcissus Batt is alarmed to discover, sitting in his armchair, that an A to Z of talkative beasts is emerging from his chimney. One by one they pop out with a witty couplet leading on to the next one in the series. The rabbit in the high-rise warren talks gloomily of loan-sharks; "A SHARK slides past: 'If you know in your gut / that the issues are murky / never cleanly-drawn, never clearly cut - / we might be talking turkey." The wordplay might be lost on little ones.


The Ghosts of Ravens Crag by Hugh Scott, Walker pounds 8.99. Miff, ne Arnold, is plunged into a supernatural adventure with intrepid sister Sammy on holiday. On the road they keep passing the same old man, waving a walking stick; in the church by the hotel there's a frightened priest and a never- to-be-used box-pew, last occupied in 1949 by an old man with a walking stick ... A creepy and atmospheric thriller.

The Life and Loves of Zoe T Curley by Martin Waddell, Walker pounds 8.99. Practising to be a writer, and keen to note down her feelings "while I am still young enough to see things clearly", Zoe keeps a diary of her life as a lowly Minion of Zog. Waddell has a good handle on teenage life, though some of the children's names (Cyril, Arnold Potts) evoke Richmal Crompton rather than the late Nineties.

Outside Permission by Eleanor Nilsson, Viking pounds 7.99. A paranoia thriller, set in Australia in the near future. David, his sister Susie, and best friend Simon have always been a threesome, but now Simon is acting weird; the relationship is strained even further when the boys daringly infiltrate the mysterious House of Records, where everyone's future is on file. It's obviously a fashion for boy protagonists to have indomitable sisters.

Dancing Through the Shadows by Theresa Tomlinson, Julia Macrae Books, pounds 9.99. Ellie's mum discovers she has breast cancer; Ellie, meanwhile, is learning to dance to Debussy, and has discovered an ancient well in the woods up by her house. A bit worthy: "I rather dreaded our tea times since Mum had taken up the healthy eating plan, but that night I have to admit the salads were really rather exciting." The ancient-well-and- Debussy business is reminiscent of Alan Garner, but magic rapidly gives way to a perfectly PC good sense. Unobjectionable, if formulaic.


Looking at Pictures by Joy Richardson, A C Black/National Gallery, pounds 9.99. This "introduction to art for young people" examines famous works from the National Gallery. Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne is analysed for different pigments and varnishes, Hobbema's avenue leads to a discussion on perspective, Wright of Derby's air-pump shows the importance of lighting. Did you know that Monet got fragments of shell and sand in the paint of "The Beach at Trouville"? 10+

The Snake Book, photographs Frank Greenaway/Dave King, Dorling Kindersley pounds 7.99. Close-up, detailed shots of the yellow and brown Californian king snake, the reticulated pylon, the bulb-headed rattlesnake and the black mangrove snake, snapped with its pink mouth open and hissing. Now take it away, please.

The Usborne Illustrated Thesaurus, Usborne pounds 10.99/pounds 7.99. A boon for any young essay and story-writer and easily laid-out. Look up "river" for a list of things a river can do (flow, gurgle, eddy, surge); look up fantasy and your first story almost writes itself: "A malevolent enchantress lived in a castle cloaked in mist..."

The Aztec News by Philip Steele, illus Gino D'Achille, Walker pounds 9.99. "Why did Moctezuma II treat the Spaniards as if they were gods? And why did he fail us in our hour of need? The Aztec News investigates." A colourful, dramatic way of absorbing history, with the mock ads as informative as the editorial. Also in the series: The Egyptian News. 9+

Bible Questions & Answers by David Pickering, Dorling Kindersley pounds 6.99. How many sons did Jacob have? On which day of the week did Jesus rise from the dead? What was Palestine originally called? Multiple choice answers mean you don't feel quite so ignorant. All ages.

Pocket Money Projects: Make Fake Fossils, by Moira Butterfield, illus Emma Proctor, Bloomsbury pounds 1.50. These projects "don't need a genius brain to follow the steps", and "don't use stuff that's impossible to get, such as four giant buckets of cactus glue". It's educational on trilobites and ammonites, papier-mache and plaster casts, and has uncute cartoon illustrations. The mock-conspiratorial tone is elegantly done. 8-11s

Above: Paul Muldoon's wacky Narcissus Batt (see review). Below: Helen Cann's illustration for Russian folk tale "Vasilisa the Beautiful", from Mother and Daughter Tales by Josephine Evetts-Secker (Barefoot pounds 12.99)