Books: Journeys to the centre of the earth

Magic ships, feisty thistles and a lion behind the curtains: Sally Williams on books for under-5s
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More by Emma Chichester Clark (Andersen Press pounds 9.99)

A little boy goes off in a sulk after his mother says "that's enough". "It's not fair," he moans to the lion who lives behind his bedroom curtains. Off they fly to a world where Billy can have more rides, more spins, more lollipops. More even than Billy wants. The illustrations are stunning. Enjoy the big adventure, and marvel at Chichester Clark's use of colour.

Balloon by Jez Alborough (Collins, pounds 9.99)

Children will love this story of a little boy (another Billy) and his balloon. The sing-song text: "Billy saw it. Mummy bought it. Man threw it. Billy caught it" is great to read aloud; the skilful use of strip- cartoon style keeps the pages turning and the bold poster-paint bright illustrations have a fresh appeal - which is just as well. You'll be coming back to this picture book again and again.

Bible Stories for the Very Young by Sally Grindley, illus by Jan Barger (Bloomsbury, pounds 7.99)

Even nonbelieving parents can see the point to Bible stories. Great characters, huge cultural importance and then there's competition for church-school places. Divided into fun-size chapters, this book keeps its sentences short and the balance just right. It's simple, without being chummy; instructive without being preachy. Page after page of warm, friendly illustrations make this attractive to the eye as well as offering all sorts of potential long-term benefits to the soul.

The Green Ship by Quentin Blake (Cape, pounds 9.99)

Two children exploring the undergrowth of the big house stumble across a magic ship, shaped from trees and branches. They spend the rest of the summer holiday voyaging to distant lands and drinking lime juice with the ship's owners, Mrs Tredegar (looking very Bloomsbury in elegant hat, scarf and floaty dress), and her bosun (the gardener). Blake's signature scratchy nib is here, but also something much softer, much slower than his normal breezy strip style. There are more water-colour washes, more lingering double-page spreads. And it's so sad. The ship grows up (gets overgrown) and leaves the children. We knew Quentin Blake could draw, we knew he could be very funny, but we didn't know he could tell such a powerful and nostalgic tale.

Bear in a Square by Stella Blackstone, illus by Debbie Harter (Barefoot Books, pounds 8.99)

How is your child at shapes? Good at squares and circles, perhaps. But what about moons or zigzags or hearts? What makes this find-the-shape- on-every-page picture book so appealing is that it works on so many levels. Chant the repetitive rhyming text, spot the shapes "in context" - triangles as fishes' fins; count them up; admire the bright, naive illustrations.

Say Cheese! by David Pelham (Cape, pounds 8.99)

The time and effort that must have gone in to this book! It's shaped intriguingly like a lump of cheese. The cover is remarkable: a sweet little 3-D mouse peeps through a cellophane window. The Grandma Mouse wants a family photo and organises a big mousy get-together. Such a shame, then, that this exquisitely intricate book will end up scuffed by sticky fingers, dribble, biscuits and argument.

I've Lost My Teddy! by Barbara Mossman (Puffin, pounds 4.99)

Crisis in the jungle. Lola has lost her teddy bear. And nobody can find it. Can you? Of course you can, which is why this warm and amusing story will be enjoyed by children of all ages. Mossman has a great eye for character, too (not easy in a monkey): the put-upon uncle, the dorkish brother. Grown- ups will especially like the look of glum resignation on the mother's face when the bear is lost.

The Thistle Princess by Vivian French, illus by Elizabeth Harbour (Walker, pounds 10.99)

A king and queen desperate for a child. Magical flowers. An enchanted garden and a romantic fairy story, as moving and as memorable as any of the classics. There are some welcome differences, though. The heroine is not a drippy Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, but a feisty thistle. And the story opens not with "once upon a...", but with a startlingly lyrical "Long, long ago, before time was caught and kept in clocks..." The beautifully fragile and delicate illustrations perfectly complement the other-worldliness of the tale.

Illustrations, left to right: one boy and his balloon by Jez Alborough; an angel from Bible Stories for the Very Young by Sally Grindley; multi- coloured dream world in More by Emma Chichester Clark; and detail from The Paradise Garden by Colin Thompson