Children's book reviews: Sometimes it's hard to be a dragon …

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A round-up of children's fact and fiction.

BABIES AND TODDLERS

Little Rabbit lives in the city where there are many things to see and do and her favourite eatery, the Carrot Caf, is there too. But sometimes she feels lonely and when a trail of music leads her to Brown Rabbit she is delighted to make a new friend. But Brown Rabbit lives in the park and Little Rabbit likes the city. How can they resolve this problem? Natalie Russell brings us the story in the delightful Moon Rabbit (Macmillan, 10.99). The screen-printed illustrations are simple, clearly showing all the emotions of the rabbits. The book is sure to enchant young children just as the moon enchants the two rabbits.

Catherine Rayner gives us another tale of friendship in Sylvia and Bird (Little Tiger Press, 10.99). Sylvia is a dragon, lonely because, although she has searched all over the world, she has never found another dragon. But one day she meets Bird and they become best friends. Theirs isn't a straightforward relationship but at the end of the book Sylvia realises Bird is the best friend she could possibly have. Rayner uses a predominantly blue and green palette to illustrate her story and its simplicity is wonderful, enhancing the text. And across all the pictures the bright yellow Bird stands out as the story's hero.

Another odd couple appears in Emily Gravett's The Odd Egg (Macmillan, 10.99), although we don't discover that until the end of the book. With her usual attention to detail and quiet humour, Gravett gives us a very simple story about birds waiting for their eggs to hatch. Duck doesn't have an egg of his own but he finds one that he thinks is the most beautiful egg in the whole world. The other birds don't agree but they all get a huge surprise when Duck's egg cracks open. The birds are illustrated in muted colours, with much clear cream space on the pages. We see the eggs hatching in a clever device of changing page sizes. The surprise at the end is sure to make all readers smile.

Follow That String (Red Fox, 6.99) by Deborah Brown and Kathy Bacovitch is quite different, being full of bold colours, flaps to open and a book within the book. It mixes photography with collage as Ning and Keppy follow a riot of string out of a parcel until it leads them to a very special box. There is plenty to grab the attention in this busy, clever package of a book.

4-6 YEARS

The new Sparkle Street series, written by Vivian French and illustrated by Joanne Partis, lives up to its name; its colourful pages are liberally and effectively spattered with glitter. In Lizzie Ribbon's Hat Shop (Macmillan, 5.99) we join Ellie and Emma as they step through the magical mirror into Sparkle Street. Everyone is in a panic trying to ensure the mayor's hat parade runs perfectly. Luckily, the girls are on hand to save the day. This bright, fascinating series will delight newly confident readers.

A century older than Sparkle Street is The Wind in the Willows (Walker Books, 9.99) by Kenneth Grahame. This abridged edition, illustrated by Inga Moore, is sure to be a hit with today's young readers. Ratty, Mole, Toad and their friends are as loveable here as they ever were. Moore's illustrations are full of detail and evocative of Edwardian Britain. Her characters have mobile, expressive faces and children listening to the story will want to have plenty of time to pore over the pictures. An even older story is that of Noah's ark. David Flavell and Alison Bartlett have created their own take on it in The Two-by-Two Band (OUP, 10.99). The story starts on board the ark as the rain falls. Everyone is bored so Mrs Noah suggests forming a band. Conveniently, Noah has a cupboard full of instruments. But when the animals start to play, it sounds dreadful. Noah decides to conduct the band but he needs a baton. At that moment, the dove returns with just the thing … The collage-style pictures are in bold colours and are full of humour, complementing the text. The animals are all wonderfully individual; I especially love the giraffes.

Bang up to date is Muddle Ocean by Ben Cort (Campbell Books, 9.99). Diver Dave is exploring caves deep under water. He meets lots of fish swimming around and tries to follow them. The book contains a vast array of sea creatures, cut out and ready to move over the magnetic pages, as the young reader completes different activities. This is a bright, sturdy book, complete with a special pocket for the fish and handle for carrying – children will love playing with it.

7-10 YEARS

The obvious, daft humour of Treasure Fever! By Andy Griffiths (Scholastic, 4.99) is just the thing for young readers. Henry McThrottle and his friends are at first bewildered, and then delighted, by their new teacher Mr Brainfright. Northeast Southwest Central School is an interesting place, with its idiosyncratic headmaster, Mr Greenbeard, who behaves as though the school were a ship under his command. When he tells Henry about missing treasure, he sparks an orgy of digging in the school grounds. Aided by their new teacher, class 5C is determined to find it.

A nine-year-old is the star of How to Talk to Girls (HarperCollins, 5.99) – the twist is that Alec Greven is the author. "If you are a boy who needs help getting girls, this book has all the answers!" he says. Alec is full of good advice and grown-up men should pay as much heed as Alec's contemporaries. This is a fun book with cartoon illustrations and very direct comments. It won't be Alec's fault if his readers fail. But the boy is a realist. "It's pretty hard to get a girl to like you," is his conclusion.

Children making an early foray into reading alone will enjoy Hello Charlie (Scholastic, 4.99) by Hilary McKay and illustrated by Sam Hearn. It's a collection of four short stories about Charlie, brother Max and best friend Henry having a series of crazy adventures. The boys think they're the most fun ever but, sadly, not everyone agrees. Young readers will enjoy these funny tales. Hilary McKay's pacy stories are complemented by Sam Hearn's clever illustrations.

Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport (Scholastic, 10.99) is written and illustrated by Rolf Harris and comes with a DVD featuring his classic song. The marvellous double-page spreads tell the story of the song as Harris lovingly depicts the Australian Outback using faded colours. There is real humour in the pictures showing Rolf's battle with the kangaroo, as well as more macabre fun. Children will be fascinated by the illustrations and adults might just find themselves singing along.

9-12 YEARS

Linda Newbery's The Sandfather (Orion, 6.99) tells the story of Hal. Brought up by his single mum, he doesn't know who his father is. As the story opens, the turmoil in his head is beginning to get the better of him and he is excluded from school. Sent to stay with his great-aunt, he discovers the beach and, he thinks, his father. Newbery creates a strong sense of place – you can smell the seaweed – in this story as Hal makes discoveries that change his life.

From hot-air balloons in Abbeyhill to UFOs in Bonnybridge, Flight in Scotland by Frances and Gordon Jarvie (National Museums Scotland, 5.99) zips through over 200 years. Filled with pictures, the book is ideal for anyone wanting an overview of the subject. Its engaging style, informative text and quirky facts (who knew Campbeltown airport has the capacity for the Space Shuttle to land?) make it an easy, enjoyable read.

Amy Green Teen Agony Queen: Boy Trouble (Walker, 5.99) is a first foray into children's fiction for chick lit author Sarah Webb. Amy's Aunt Clover is the agony aunt for a teenage magazine and Amy is her secret helper. This leads her into some challenging situations, but fortunately Clover is usually on hand to bail her out. But only Amy can make decisions about what is important in her life and who her friends will be. This funny, lively and thought-provoking book will appeal to pre-teen readers. Amy is a believable heroine facing the same kind of problems and choices as her readers.

Enthusiastic older readers will enjoy A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson (Picador, 6.99). It is the story of Ellen Carr, who leaves her intellectual London home to become housekeeper at a school in the Austrian countryside. The story is set in 1937 and Hitler's shadow is rarely absent from the sunny storyline. Ibbotson's evocative descriptions of an idyllic Austria are laid over the grim menace of Nazi persecution, making this a darker novel than many she has written. Readers, however, should not let that deter them from this beautifully written, plotted and characterised story.

TEEN BOOKS

FANCY A SUPERB SLICE OF SCI-FI dystopia? The Hunger Games (Scholastic, 6.99) by Suzanne Collins comes with an enthusiastic marketing campaign and a glowing recommendation from Stephen King, perhaps because it bares similarities to his novella The Running Man.

America, many hundreds of years in the future, has suffered civil wars and suppressed revolutions and now the vengeful Panem government run an annual reality-TV fight to the death with sacrificial teens. Katniss and Peeta are our heroes from District 12. They must not only fight the other combatants but also each other, even after they've fallen in love. Many teenage novels, stuffed full of wonderfully exciting high-concept ideas, are let down by the actual writing. No fear of that here. Collins's prose is as punchy and energetic as her plot, making for a gripping, powerful read.

Runaway girls seem to be a hot topic for teenage fiction right now, and in Siobhan Dowd's Solace of the Road (David Fickling, 10.99) 14-year-old Holly is travelling from London to the ferry port at Fishguard, in the hope of reaching Ireland and being reunited with her estranged mother. She should be happy with her well-meaning foster parents but Holly can't settle and finally finds the courage to make the journey when she discovers an old blonde wig. In it, Holly becomes Solace; a braver, smarter, sassier person.

Holly/Solace is a fascinating character, full of contradictions, self-denial and thinly disguised fear. Dowd's bullseye portrayal of a young woman at odds with herself and the world around her is heart-rending.

Julia Donaldson is best known as the creator of the fabulous Gruffalo picture books. Running On The Cracks (Egmont, 6.99) is her first novel for teenagers. So how does the author famous for her sing-song texts cross over into the gritty world of teen fiction? Really rather well. Half-Chinese Leo has been orphaned and is desperate to find her Asian grandparents. She runs from Bristol and the attentions of a slimey uncle to Glasgow, where she finds shelter with the elderly Mary and a rag-tag band of care-in-the-community individuals.

She also befriends the feckless but die-hard Finn, a boy who just wants to do good no matter how much trouble it seems to land him in. Told from differing viewpoints, as well as via newspaper cuttings and emails, the plot relies a little heavily on coincidence but it's a pacey, engaging story with a heartfelt and satisfying conclusion.

Jonathon Stroud's Heroes Of the Valley (Doubleday, 12.99) is a brilliantly original fantasy. Halli Sveinsson lives deep in the titular valley, a feudal landscape set in the shadows of the surrounding hills, the deadly Trows and the all-encompassing hero myths of old. Halli's quest is to become a hero like those of legend but he's too clumsy, too small, and far too clever for his own good. Stroud manages to conjure a vivid setting, three-dimensional characters and avoid all the usual clichs that bog down most fantasy. The imagination is sweeping, the writing layered with themes, puzzles and insights for the reader to ponder during their own quest for the truth at the heart of the legend.

Edinburgh-based JA Henderson is like a crazy scientist, throwing everything into the gurgling mixture before sitting back to see just when, and how, it's all going to explode. The plot for his third teenage novel, Colony (OUP, 5.99), is too consciously convoluted to explain here, suffice to say it's something about the US Army injecting children with insect pheromones in the hope of using them as psychological weapons. What do you mean, it doesn't make sense? Suspend disbelief and strap yourself in as the story spins and ducks and throws up red herrings for the sheer fun of it. Readers will feel like they're clinging on for dear life.

There's not even anything as pass as a main character – everybody gets a couple of pages in the spotlight. But to Henderson's absolute credit, we keep flipping the pages, desperate to know what happens next.

This book is mad, bad and dangerous to read.

KEITH GRAY

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