Best children's books: Educational animals and fantastical phantoms are all the rage

Nicholas Tucker
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:01
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Younger children

Alison Murray's Apple Pie ABC (Orchard, £10.99) coaxes an old text into brilliant new life, with each page showing the same puppy slavering over a delicious-looking pie before finally giving way to temptation. Rarely can the alphabet have been presented in a more child-friendly way. Andrew Weale's rhyming The Newt in the Suit (Hodder, £10.99) does the same for the first 10 numbers. Stridently illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain, every page thrums with comic energy. Infant fans won't even realise that they are learning to count at the same time.

Jonathan Allen's I'm Not Sleepy! (Boxer Books, £11.99) offers a useful riff on that eternal dialogue between parents who want some free time and tired infants who insist on staying awake. Baby Owl finally gets the point, as various forest animals back up Mum and Dad's gentle insistence on the benefits of a good night's sleep. This picture book should get everyone yawning in the best possible way. But for action and excitement, go to Emma Dodson's ingenious Speckle the Spider (Walker, £10.99). Equipped with maps, flaps and other pull-out surprises, this story of a tap-dancing spider is as eccentric as it is enjoyable, with illustrations to match.

Jeanne Willis's Sing a Song of Bottoms! (Puffin, £6.99) should certainly raise a laugh as it turns a succession of cheeks from skunks with stinky ones to rhinos with wrinkly ones. Brightly illustrated by Adam Stower, its rhyming text bounces along happily in the best traditions of earthy humour. Also very amusing, Tony Mitton's Sir Laughalot (Orchard, £10.99) features a young knight who just can't help laughing whenever taking on a new foe. Dragons and giants are soon disarmed by this new technique, and an evil sorceress is also eager to concede when the damsel she has kidnapped can't stop laughing either. Sarah Warburton's outsize illustrations perfectly complement the rhyming text of this hilarious picture book.

Eight- to 13-year-olds

Jenny Valentine's Iggy and Me and the Happy Birthday (HarperCollins, £4.99) is a delight. Generously illustrated by Joe Berger, it starts with a beautifully observed swimming lesson undergone by the unwilling young Iggy and ends with the arrival of a much wished-for hamster. Told as if by her understanding older sister Flo, this affectionately comic writing never lets up. For an equally successful story, this time about two small boys, go to Steve Voake's Hooey Higgins and the Shark (Walker, £3.99). Hooey and his best friend Twig decide that they simply must own a giant chocolate egg that is way beyond their means. What they do about this takes up the rest of this continually amusing story, illustrated by Emma Dodson with anarchic glee. Also recommended, Daren King's Frightfully Friendly Ghosties (Quercus, £5.99, inset right) involves a group of conversational spirits who never quite get around to frightening anybody.

Dominic Barker is another seriously funny author, and his Adam and the Arkonauts (Bloomsbury, £5.99) is a joy. A modern version of Doctor Dolittle, it features a wandering father and his son Adam, along with a boatful of talking animals which answer back, make dreadful jokes and argue about whether evolution implies that humans are more intelligent than apes. Disembarking in Buenos Sueños, a corrupt port where all the policemen come from the same extended family, Adam also has plenty of excitement, before rescuing his parents from the clutches of evil Professor Scabelax.

Back at home, the story of King Arthur is ingeniously reworked in JP Buxton's I Am the Blade (Hodder Children's, £5.99). Known as Tog, a Cornish woodcutter's assistant, the boy Arthur talks in reassuringly 21st- century tones ("He bloody does!") while fighting off ancient dangers at every turn. This stirring account stops before the disintegration of the Round Table; its sequel next year should be well worth waiting for.

Teenagers

Katy Moran's epic Spirit Hunter (Walker, £6.99) describes the ruthless court of Empress Wu, China's only female ruler, whose reign ended in 705AD. She is opposed by Asena, a young Shaman from the horse-riding Mongol tribes, and also by Swiftarrow, an adolescent spy who changes loyalties when he and Asena come together. An exciting climax sees the corrupt Tang dynasty go out with a satisfying bang as the young lovers make their last-minute escape.

Joanne Owen's The Alchemist and the Angel (Orion, £8.99) takes place in 16th-century Prague. Its teenage hero, Jan, is an alchemist's apprentice trying to make his way in the world after being abandoned. He is befriended by the beautiful Zuzana who, unknown to him, is also the mad Emperor Rudolf's daughter. Illustrated with darkly gothic drawings by Jeremy Holmes, and occasionally interrupting the main narrative to include fairy tales of equal gloom, this atmospheric novel is a genuine feat of the imagination.

So too is The Chosen One (Simon & Schuster, £6.99). Written by Carol Lynch Williams, this story is set in an imaginary present- day US cult ruled by a self-proclaimed prophet. The Prophet is backed up by a sorry group of elderly polygamous male disciples who get first pick of the young women to expand their cohort of wives. But 13-year-old Kyra has other ideas, and attempts an escape in scenes of almost unbearable tension. The author had an abusive childhood herself; this story is both angry and understanding and most certainly deserves to be read.

Kevin Brooks' iBoy (Puffin, £7.99) is a hugely readable revenge fantasy. It is also morally queasy and occasionally stomach-turning. Its teenage hero, Tom, develops superhuman powers after he is struck by a mobile phone that explodes in his brain after being thrown from a great height. From then on he can read everyone else's text messages at will and can also turn himself into a human Taser. This ability comes in useful for seeking out and punishing the depraved youths who had recently gang-raped his girlfriend. Tom does worry about his capacity for violence, but this does not prevent the killing spree on which this confoundedly gripping novel ends. Read it if you dare.

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