Animal crackers and other monsters

Creatures behaving badly provide lots of fun in the best children’s picture books of 2013

Sat, Dec 14, 2013, 01:00

Animals in picture books are seldom well behaved. In Aunt Amelia, by Rebecca Cobb (Macmillan, £10.99), two children aren’t looking forward to being taken care of by their aunt, especially as their parents have left a long list of things they’re not allowed to do. But when Aunt Amelia arrives, looking strangely like a cheerful crocodile, they discover that she doesn’t follow any rules. The simple, funny story and Cobb’s scribbly illustrations are full of charm and wit.

There’s a less welcome animal guest in The Slightly Annoying Elephant (HarperCollins, £12.99), written by David Walliams and illustrated by Tony Ross. When Sam “adopts” an elephant at the zoo, he doesn’t expect a large grumpy pachyderm to turn up at his door – but that’s because he didn’t read the small print. Walliams’s wonderfully silly story and Ross’s evocative pictures will appeal to young children’s fine sense of the absurd.

David Wiesner is known for his almost word-free picture books, and his brilliantly original new book, Mr Wuffles (Andersen Press, £11.99), is perfect for anyone who likes to improvise when reading a story. House cat Mr Wuffles’s latest toy is a tiny spaceship, but it’s actually a craft full of real aliens, and they’re desperate to get home.

Lita Judge’s beautiful Red Sledge (Andersen Press, £6.99) also manages to tell a great story without many words. When a little girl leaves her sledge outside overnight, the woodland animals discover a great new toy. The only words used are sound effects, making this another perfect book for both a small child to look at and for an imaginative adult to read aloud.

There are more animals using unorthodox means of transport in Peter Bently and Mei Matsuoka’s very enjoyable The Great Balloon Hullaballoo (Andersen Press, £11.99). Simon the squirrel’s mum asks him to go to the shops – and what better way to get there than by Uncle Somerset’s hot-air balloon? When the balloon is knocked off course, Simon and his friends discover that shopping in outer space is both fun and dangerous. Matsuoka’s illustrations are funny and fresh.

In Richard Byrne’s likeable Penguins Can’t Fly (Andersen Press, £5.99), Hudson the penguin feels abandoned when his best friend, Gregory the gull, learns to fly – but he realises he has some impressive talents of his own.

Another baffled bird stars in Paula Metcalf and Cally Johnson-Isaacs’s Charlie Crow in the Snow (Macmillan £11.99). Charlie’s first winter brings lots of surprises, from disappearing leaves to freezing snow. But the appealingly rendered Charlie discovers that winter can be fun too.

There’s more winter magic in Snowflakes (Scholastic, £6.99), written by the CBeebies presenter Cerrie Burnell and illustrated beautifully by Laura Ellen Anderson.* When dark-skinned, curly haired Mitzi comes to live with her fair-skinned grandmother in the countryside, she’s aware that her classmates’ families look very different from her own. But the arrival of snow reminds her that “every snowflake is different, every snowflake is perfect”, giving her the courage to make new friends.

Tadgh Mac Dhonnagáin and Irisz Agócz’s likeable Uinseann Donn (Futa Fata) was inspired by none other than Vincent Browne. Written in Irish, it’s the story of a grumpy bear called Uinseann Donn whose attempts to hibernate are disturbed by a very noisy little pig.

There’s more prosaic fare on offer in Rebecca Patterson’s mildly amusing The Christmas Show (Macmillan, £10.99), in which the young narrator accidentally steals the show at a school nativity play. And Michael Foreman’s I Love You Too! (Andersen Press, £11.99), a small bear is determined to show how much he loves his dad (while avoiding going to sleep). It’s a sweet concept with a nice ending, but it’s all a bit sugary. Rachel Bright’s Love Monster and the Perfect Present (HarperCollins, £6.99) also veers into cutesy territory. The fun illustrations just about keep the story of Love Monster’s attempt to give his special friend the perfect gift from tipping into sickliness.

Several children’s-literature legends make a welcome return to the shelves with reissued and brand new titles. Julia Donaldson teams up with the illustrator Lydia Monks in Sugarlump and the Unicorn (Macmillan, £10.99), in which a glittering unicorn shows Sugarlump the rocking horse what life is like as a real horse. As ever with Donaldson, it’s a joy to read, though the liberally glittered illustrations are a bit overwhelming.

David McKee’s patchwork elephant Elmer reappears in Elmer’s Pop-Up Book (Andersen Press, £14.99), full of wonderful images and excellent pop-up surprises. In McKee’s latest book, The Sad Story of Veronica Who Played the Violin (Andersen Press, £5.99), a musical genius moves the world to tears before meeting a surprising fate in a remote jungle. I liked it, though some children will be taken aback by the abrupt ending.

There’s a brand new book from the late Richard Scarry. Best Lowly Worm Book Ever (HarperCollins, £12.99) is based on sketches and notes discovered by his artist son, Huck. Classic Scarry, it’s lots of fun.

And Walker Books has reissued two glorious collaborations between Quentin Blake and the late Russell Hoban.

In the darkly funny Monsters ( £6.99) John’s parents begin to worry about their son’s habit of drawing strange monsters, especially when it starts to look as if they won’t always stay on the page.

Even better is How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen (Walker, £12.99), in which Tom’s stern aunt decides to punish him for constantly fooling around by summoning the eponymous captain to teach him a lesson. But it turns out that fooling around has given the wonderfully nonchalant Tom all the skills he needs to beat the captain and his sportsmen. A perfect combination of words and illustration, it’s everything a picture book should be.

But so is a brand new book by a relative newcomer, Peter Brown. Mr Tiger Goes Wild (Macmillan, £11.99) is the story of a tiger living in a monochromatic, strangely Victorian animal world in which everyone behaves properly at all times. But Mr Tiger has the urge to throw away his top hat – and indeed all his formal clothes – and go wild. And that’s exactly what he does. Wise, witty, perfectly paced and gorgeously illustrated in shades of brown, green and bright orange, it’s a total joy.

*This article was edited on Wednesday, December 17th, 2013, due to a factual error.