The 50 best books: Once upon a time,

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1

LET'S DO IT

By Amy MacDonald, illus Maureen Roffey

A well-chosen book is probably one of the most rewarding gifts you can give a child of any age, and with Christmas on the not-so-distant horizon, now is an excellent time to be thinking about which ones you should be buying. To this end, Sally Williams and Nicholas Tucker, The Independent's two regular children's book reviewers, have chosen the very best of the year's offerings, from simple, indestructible board books for babies to challenging, dramatic novels for adolescents and young teenagers. Read on...

Don't be deceived by the graphic simplicity of this sturdy board book. It's part of a series of four that introduces some complex ideas to babies: making animal noises, banging a drum, and blowing bubbles. Beyond the pictures of chubby toddlers and succinct clear lessons is a sympathetic understanding of the needs of this young audience.

How much: pounds 3.50 (Walker)

2

GRUNTER: THE STORY OF A PIG WITH ATTITUDE

By Mike Jolley, illus Deborah Allwright

Grunter, the pig with "shocking wind", is rude, selfish, and needs to be taught a lesson. He has "flattened the farmer, spat on the cat - and dropped something dirty on the duck"! A joyously rumbustious read, and the pictures strut with self-confidence. Features an explosive pop-up (pictured, right) and a huge typeface; while the noxious porker meets a very gratifying end. Or does he?

How much: pounds 9.99 (Templar)

3

SUSAN LAUGHS

By Jeanne Willis, illus Tony Ross Even without the startling ending, this would be a great book - the last page turns it into an out-standing one. Susan laughs, she sings. She gets angry, she gets sad. She is good, she is bad. In fact, Susan is no different from any other child - except... A book of great depth that moves and teaches, but never turns a fact into an issue. How much: pounds 9.99 (Andersen)

4

HAIR IN FUNNY PLACES

By Babette Cole Wickedly funny, Babette Cole is the sort of adult sometimes more popular with children than with parents, who might be embarrassed at her total and exuberant lack of shame. Her latest title shows how Mr and Mrs Hormone set about changing two pleasant -year-olds of either sex into hairy, spotty, smelly adolescents who finally meet and become the parents of the child spotted on the first and last page. Anatomical detail is not spared, but no one could stay offended for long with this most entertaining of picture books. How much: pounds 9.99 (Jonathan Cape)

5

KIT'S WILDERNESS

By David Almond David Almond is a writer with a gift for establishing instant atmosphere. In Kit's Wilderness, he mixes past and present for a tense story in which a young new arrival to an old mining area finds himself trapped in bitter, ancient disputes. With some help from the supernatural, everything finally works out, but with plenty of high suspense along the way. This is a fine successor to the author's first novel, Skellig, one of the runaway successes of 998/9.

How much: pounds 4.99 (Hodder, paperback)

6

HIPPERTY-HOP, HIPPERTY-HAY: GROWING WITH RHYMES FROM BIRTH TO AGE 3

By Opal Dunn, illus Sally Anne Lambert How much: pounds 0.99 (Frances Lincoln) Don't change nappies or fasten BabyGros in silence, urges the author of this absorbing anthology of rhymes, an expert in language development. Sing. And if you're hazy on the words and actions, then this is the perfect book to help you to help your child.

7

LITTLE BO PEEP'S LIBRARY BOOK

By Cressida Cowell

Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep. So far, so predictable. But from familiar beginnings evolves the wonderfully inventive story of Bo Peep's trip to the local library to look for a book on how to find sheep. Various nursery-rhyme characters are browsing there too. Miniature "real" pull-out books and visual gags add to the fun.

How much: pounds 2.99 (Hodder)

8

ALICE'S ADVENTURES

IN WONDERLAND

By Lewis Carroll, illus Helen Oxenbury New and modern life has been breathed into this old, old tale by Oxenbury's wonderful illustrations. Gone is the Alice in prissy petticoats and a pinafore. This Alice is casually dressed, a child of today - and of tomorrow, as Oxenbury is careful not to concentrate on the sort of detail that dates. An abundance of delightful, crisp images make this unabridged version stand out a mile.

How much: pounds 4.99 (Walker)

9

CHARM SCHOOL

By Anne Fine Anne Fine is an excellent writer with strong feelings where it really matters. Her latest novel tears into the whole tacky subject of juvenile beauty pageants. It opens with a Saturday class of self-hating would-be models who have been taught never to be satisfied with how they look. This culture is undermined by a disbelieving visitor, Bonny, who prefers to dress rough and act rougher. Facts as well as fur fly as the whole silly business is brought to its knees when the final "Curls and Purls" show is comprehensively wrecked.

How much: pounds 0.99 (Doubleday)

0

LITTLE SOLDIER

By Bernard Ashley

TOUCH AND FEEL: KITTEN

Dorling Kindersley

What makes this "feel a different texture on every page" book so appealing is the quality of material used. No ratty felt; instead, fur thick enough to get lost in; a tongue so rough it sets your teeth on edge; and by the time you get to the scratchy straw basket, every aspect of a kitten has been revealed.

How much: pounds 4.99 (Dorling Kindersley)

2

ROVER

By Michael Rosen, illus Neal Layton An extremely funny dog's-eye view of humans. Rover is the dog's name for his pet girl: "She has very weak claws. Her coat only covers her head. Her bark is very squeaky." In the summer, he notes, the family go to "an enormous sandpit, lie down and pretend to be dead". And if you've ever wondered why dogs like to stick their heads out of the windows of speeding cars, it's to make the "family box" go faster.

How much: pounds 9.99 (Bloomsbury)

3

THE CHILDREN'S ILLUSTRATED

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HEAVEN

By Anita Ganeri What is heaven? It's a tough question, and this comprehensive survey provides 60 pages of possible answers. There's Christian heaven, Jewish heaven, Hindu heavens, Japanese heavens as well as ways of getting to heaven, heavenly beings, visions of heaven, and much more. Well conceived and cleverly executed, this is great for either dipping into or deeper study.

How much: pounds 4.99 (Element)

4

THE REVENGE OF THE TOFFEE MONSTER

By Susan Gates Susan Gates is that comparatively rare animal these days: a truly funny British children's writer who can keep up the humour to the last page. Her latest warm, child-friendly novel starts in a disused toffee factory, then develops into a series of fantastic adventures. The monster himself comes, as it were, to a sticky end, but not before providing a lot of entertainment plus some occasional food for thought.

How much: pounds 3.99 (Puffin Books, paperback)

6

FEELING LUCKY

By Pete Hautman Once, it would have been unthinkable to publish a novel for younger readers about playing poker, but Hautman's done just that, and very gripping it is, too. American teenager Denn finds he can win at cards by watching the expressions of the suckers sitting opposite him. But success brings problems, and he ends up rich but lonely, chained to the game that has ruined his life. Written with apparent authority but also with a light touch, this story, once started, threatens to become as addictive as gambling itself.

How much: pounds 4.99 (Bloomsbury, paperback)

5

WHERE IS MAISY?

By Lucy Cousins Whatever Maisy mouse does is okay by most children, and it's easy to see why. Colourful, drawn with naive charm, and excellent on the sort of detail that keeps children wanting more, "Maisy" books are inspired creations. Here, Maisy is hiding. Lift the flaps and see if you can find her. Is she in the wardrobe? Is she in the stable? Made of tough board and in an easy-to-carry format.

How much: pounds 4.99 (Walker)

7

THE BIGGEST BED IN THE WORLD

By Lindsay Camp, illus Jonathan Langley If you have ever slept with a child's foot lodged in your ear, you will recognise this father's quest to find a bed big enough for himself and his ever-growing family - just as any child will recognise the smiley faces snuggled up to mum and dad. A very satisfying picture book.

How much: pounds 0.99 (Collins)

8

ELF HILL AND OTHER TALES FROM HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN

By Naomi Lewis, illus Emma Chichester Clark The main drive of this absorbing collection of Andersen's tales is the novelty in the retelling. "The Little Match Girl" and "The Princess and the Pea" are here, among the more unfamiliar "Little Aida's Flowers" and "The Moneybox Pig", but all are written with a wonderful freshness and no-nonsense directness, and illustrated with just the right mix of naive elegance and matter-of-factness. How much: pounds 2.99 (Frances Lincoln)

9

GIFT OF THE GAB

By Morris Gleitzman Rowena Batts has a father who, although untalented, insists on singing Country & Western ballads in public every Anzac Day. He also farms, but somehow nothing comes up right. The only remedy is to make him travel from Australia to France, where Rowena's much-mourned mum died in mysterious circumstances. The novel moves at a furious pace, and readers who enjoyed Gleitzman's marvellous Bumface will not be disappointed with this latest exercise in high adventure with a constantly wacky sub-text.

How much: pounds 0.99 (Viking)

20

(MEGAN)

By Mary Hooper The title's style is symbolic of the fact that Megan, aged 5, has a baby, which she is looking after while also trying to lead some sort of teenage life. The father is not much older than she is, and offers little help, while her friends, once the initial interest has waned, don't really want to know. But this is no moralising homily; rather, it is a story every teenager can empathise with, well written and convincing throughout.

How much: pounds 4.99 (Bloomsbury, paperback)

2

BABY ANIMALS

By Rod Campbell These baby animals will appeal to the smallest of fingers. The clear lines and bright colours attract immediate interest, and the pop-up animals are satisfyingly chunky and tough enough to resist a fair bit of tugging. And when the dribbling stage is over, your infant will have a few simple facts to read, too.

How much: pounds 4.99 (Campbell Books, paperback)

22

WHIFF, OR HOW THE BEAUTIFUL BIG FAT SMELLY BABY FOUND A FRIEND

By Ian Whybrow, illus Russell Ayto Whiff is a big, fat, smelly baby warthog. He is very well behaved, and has very nice table manners, but every time he gets invited out by new friends, he comes home in disgrace. And then he meets Baby Littlebird, who appreciates him for what he is. Energetic illustrations spice up this readable, reassuring story.

How much: pounds 9.99 (Doubleday)

23

CLARICE BEAN, THAT'S ME

By Lauren Child

Clarice is searching for some peace and quiet. But it's not that easy. She has an annoying twit of a younger brother, a self-obsessed older sister who is always telling her to "GO AWAY!", and an older brother who's lost in the "dark tunnel of adolescence" and a pile of stinking socks. A fresh, playful, wonderfully chaotic look at family life that will make you laugh out loud.

How much: pounds 0.99 (Orchard)

24

KENSUKE'S KINGDOM

By Michael Morpurgo Desert-island stories have a long lineage in children's literature, and this novel shows that the genre still has a lot going for it. Wrecked and apparently marooned, young Michael finds he shares a small island with an ancient Japanese soldier left over from the last war. Gradually they become friends, combining forces to fend off some evil hunters out to kidnap babies from the island's orang-utan colony. This is a magical, serene story, fetchingly illustrated by the excellent Michael Foreman.

How much: pounds 8.99 (Heinemann)

25

MISTER SPACEMAN

By Lesley Howarth This is a truly excellent novel. Young Thomas Moon wants to be a spaceman, so much so that everything else - in particular, school - seems of no importance. Parents and teachers get increasingly fed up with him, but this is a boy with a mission. Told partly in emails sent to his best friend, this story is funny and touching, and highlights a problem in the education system whereby eccentric pupils are sometimes seen as little more than a threat to a school's overall academic standards. A lovely book.

How much: pounds 9.99 (Walker Books)

26

HERE COMES MOTHER GOOSE

Edited by Iona Opie, illus Rosemary Wells

A sequel to My Very First Mother Goose, this treasury has more rhymes, both familiar and obscure, to delight young readers. The pleasure of this collection lies in indulgence. The format is big, the colours are rich, it's well stocked with beautiful images, and the use of space is generous. So, whether it's dancing around the mulberry bush or tipping like a teapot, this sumptuous slab is a book to really take your time over.

How much: pounds 4.99 (Walker)

27

I WANT A SISTER

By Tony Ross When the Little Princess is told that there is to be a new addition to the family, the royal tot declares firmly that it must be a sister: brothers are smelly, rough and have all the wrong toys. But even little princesses don't always have their way. This inventive variation on the new sibling theme was extremely popular with my son when his longed-for baby brother turned out to be a baby sister.

How much: pounds 8.99 (Andersen)

28

THE GREAT CASTLE OF MASHMANGLE

By Malachy Doyle, illus Paul Hess A little boy goes to stay with his Granddaddy. That's the basic story, but the real subject of this wonderful book is words and the fun that can be had with them. The boy discovers that Granddaddy has a special language. He calls water "soggadrop", stairs "the wooden hill", bed is a "fortywink cockpit" - and so gradually a treasury of rich and evocative words is revealed.

How much: pounds 9.99 (Andersen)

29

TELLING TALES

By Susan Price Susan Price is a master storyteller, as anyone who has read her superb The Sterkarm Handshake will surely agree. This collection of 2 original stories weaves traditional themes within modern needs and contexts. As three generations of storytellers sit around a fire sewing, one story runs into another as seamlessly as the bride's new clothes featured in the first tale of this bewitching assembly.

How much: pounds 4.99 (Hodder, paperback)

30

THE STONES ARE HATCHING

By Geraldine McCaughrean Geraldine McCaughrean always offers something special, possessing as she does the wildest, strangest imagination in children's literature today. This story features an ordinary child unwillingly travelling back to a spirit world where there are heroic acts he is required to perform. Surrounded by figures from folklore, he fights off ghouls, spectres and his own weaknesses in order to achieve his goal. Told in a rich, concentrated text, his adventures are extraordinary and unforgettable.

How much: pounds 5.99 (Oxford, paperback)

3

EYES, NOSE, FINGERS AND TOES: A FIRST BOOK ABOUT YOU

By Judy Hindley, illus Brita Granstrom Very young children will relish this introduction to the body: "A mouth is to laugh - ha-ha! Ha-ha!" "Are you wearing your ears today?" Good-humoured pictures of jolly toddlers encourage children not only to look and learn, but also to copy the actions - except perhaps the one where the child is drawing a bird on the wall.

How much: pounds 9.99 (Walker)

32

WOMBAT GOES WALKABOUT

By Michael Morpurgo illus Christian Birmingham What's remarkable about this magical book is not only Morpurgo's ability to plunge us into the heat and smells of the Australian Outback, but also to make us care. The setting is alien, the Bush animals are unfamiliar, but by focusing on a baby wombat's personal experience - losing its mother, the danger of a bush fire - the story is as immediate as the scene outside your window.

How much: pounds 0.99 (Collins)

33

IT'S DREAMTIME

By Sara Fanelli An intriguingly surreal story about three friends who have bizarre and puzzling dreams. Someone is trying to tell them something, and that someone turns out to be a lost pet from Mars. With original use of collage, calligraphy, comic strips, computer graphics and snippets of print, Fanelli weaves a strange and peculiarly compelling story.

How much: pounds 9.99 (Heinemann)

34

I WAS A RAT

By Philip Pullman

35

STONES IN WATER

By Donna Jo Napoli

Based on a true account, this book describes the incredible war- time journey taken by an Italian adolescent from East Europe, where he has been kidnapped by the Nazis, back to his hometown of Venice. There are dark moments, but, ultimately, this is a story about the victory of extraordinary strength in adversity. It is also compulsively readable, and nearly impossible to put down once started.

How much: pounds 5.99 (Oxford, paperback)

36

DAISY AND THE EGG

By Jane Simmons Daisy the playful duckling is definitely a character that's here to stay. Daisy is excited at the prospect of a new brother or sister, and helps her mother to keep the egg warm. Sweet but not schmaltzy, sunny but not sickly, this is a book that's full of luminous colour, strong shapes and real spirit. Daisy will be a star.

How much: pounds 0.99 (Orchard)

37

MR WOLF'S PANCAKES

By Jan Fearnley A tale with intriguing twists and turns. Mr Wolf is not dark and mean, but polite and gentle. His nursery-tale neighbours - the Three Little Pigs, the Gingerbread Man and even Little Red Riding Hood - are not sweet and good, as tradition would have it, but cross and disagreeable. When Mr Wolf has trouble making pancakes, his neighbours refuse to help. Cleverly thought out, with the cosy, wholesome illustrations making the end all the more startling.

How much: pounds 9.99 (Methuen)

38

THE MERRYMAID OF ZENOR

By Charles Causley illus Michael Foreman One of those rare stories that can be enjoyed not only by five-year-olds, but by adults, too. Based on a traditional Cornish folk tale and set in the real village of Zennor, this is the story of what Zachy sees after Tom Taskis, the tin miner, runs off with a mermaid. Causley's prose is beautifully spare and unsentimental, and the illustrations glow with lyrical detail.

How much: pounds 9.99 (Orchard)

39

SQUIDS WILL BE SQUIDS

By Jon Scieszka & Lane Smith Jon Scieszka writes with all the unpredictability of an extra member of the Monty Python team. His anarchic ramblings sometimes go on to invade even those close-printed sections on the first and last page that publishers normally reserve for themselves. This collection of ludicrous fables, illustrated by the equally surreal Lane Smith, stands comparison with both Thurber and Roald Dahl. Squids Will Be Squids is funny, zany and curiously mesmerising all at the same time. It has to be seen to be believed.

How much: pounds 4.99 (Puffin Books, paperback)

40

THE BABOON KING

By Anton Quintana Written in Dutch 7 years ago, but translated into English only this year, here is an animal story with a difference. Cast out of his native village, African tribesman Morengru ends up living with a troop of baboons. Adopting some of their own codes and ways of communicating, he still longs to return to the humans who have treated him so badly. Fantasies of living wild don't come much richer than this; a story to ponder over but also to dream about.

How much: pounds 5.50 (Allen and Unwin)

4

BUGGY BUDDIES: A CROC WITH A CLOCK

By Nick Sharratt A nifty gimmick, this comes with a bouncy plastic strap to attach it to a buggy handle. But it's also a quality picture book about colours. One of four new titles zestfully illustrated by Nick Sharratt, it has a wonderfully silly rhyming text, big pictures and big words. The other titles cover counting, patterns and opposites.

How much: pounds 2.99 (Campbell Books)

42

LITTLE RED PLANE

By Ken Wilson-Max This is a book to wow boys (and maybe some girls), with flaps to flip, tabs to pull and a plane to "fly". The detachable walkie-talkie, control wheel and door flap will be destroyed, but there is enough quality reading to keep kids interested, once they've done their worst. And, as it's part of an eminently collectable vehicle series, there's always the tow truck, fire engine, space ship, taxi and train to replace this title with.

How much: pounds 4.99 (David Bennett Books)

43

WHADAYAMEAN

By John Burningham Children will find lots to talk about in this thought-provoking fable. God is shown around Earth by two children, and finds man (funnily enough, it is men) has destroyed His paradise with greed, pollution, intolerance and apathy. Scenes of the children tiny and vulnerable against a vast backdrop of destroyed rain forests, guns and tanks are no tea party. But it's not all doom and gloom. An excellent book for raising awareness, not bad dreams.

How much: pounds 9.99 (Cape)

44

CIRQUE DU FREAK

By Darren Shan Darren Shan is undoubtedly a literary find for children. Still in his twenties, he has produced a genuinely original story that combines near- horror with mainly good-humoured, everyday reality. This story describes how the juvenile hero - who shares the author's name - finally decides he has to becomes a vampire in order to save his best friend's life. Two more sequels are yet to come; children who read this story may have problems waiting to find out how it will all finish up, so great is the tension.

How much: pounds 3.99 (HarperCollins, paperback)

45

HOLES

By Louis Sachar This novel, which has already taken America by storm, combines realism and the extraordinary in an atmosphere all of its own. Sent to a surreal boys' juvenile detention centre in the middle of a Texan desert, young Stanley - who happens to be innocent - finally escapes the tyranny of a brutal female warden, who paints her nails with a rattlesnake venom that also seems to have entered her soul. A last-minute happy ending puts everything right, but not before some extraordinary events that, however weird, always remain totally convincing.

How much: pounds 0.99 (Bloomsbury; pub Jan 2000)

46

WOOF!

By Steve Bland When is a book more than a book? When it's a rattle, too. Not for purists, but a delight for the extremely young, Woof! has it all: tough board cut into an interesting, clutchable star shape, big beaming pictures, an invitation to make lots of animal noises - and there's a little safety rattle attached, to shake and jangle.

How much: pounds 2.99 (Campbell Books)

47

WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH A SHOE?

By Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, illus Maurice Sendak A shoe is for your foot, unless you are this inventive brother and sister, in which case you wear it on your head. Or butter it like bread. Hard to believe this is the UK debut of a book first published in the States in 955. The witty drawings haven't dated, the rhythmic words are still fresh, and brothers and sisters still squabble, fight and tease the hell out of each other.

How much: pounds 2.99 (Simon and Schuster)

48

A CULTIVATED WOLF

By Pascal Biet Wolf starts off wanting to eat cow, pig and duck for dinner, but ends up reading stories with them instead. Written with the same confidence and passion that Wolf develops for reading, this is a simple, humorous story laced with hopeful thoughts. It touches on the value of reading, the civilising effects of education, of persistence paying off - and the pictures are great, too.

How much: pounds 8.99 (Siphano)

49

THE ILLUSTRATED MUM

By Jacqueline Wilson Jacqueline Wilson can do no wrong these days, and this novel is one of her finest. A mother who goes for a new tattoo whenever she is depressed, drinks to excess and can't be bothered with childcare sounds like bad news. And so she is, yet such is the author's skill that it is also easy to see how her two young daughters can continue to love her. Old flames and new boyfriends threaten, leading to a happy-sad ending and, surprisingly, some really funny moments on the way.

How much: pounds 0.99 (Doubleday)

50

WALKING THE MAZE

By Margaret Shaw The subtitle to this fine, intelligent story is "Books are dangerous. You can get lost in them". And that is more or less what happens to shy, fantasising Annice, who gradually moves into an imaginary world of her own making. Getting her out again presents problems, since her fantasies are more attractive than what is going on around her. But when everything starts going wrong in her own head, it is time to leave, which she just manages. This highly individual tale asks interesting questions about reading itself, and is never less than entirely engrossing.

How much: pounds 5.99 (Oxford)

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