BABIES & TODDLERS
Children's publishers have bought a job lot of holographic paper this year. Covers twinkle merrily, but there's plenty of genuine gold beneath the glitter. That's Not My Snowman (Usborne, 5.99) by Fiona Watt, illustrated by Rachel Wells, is a welcome seasonal addition to the popular "touchy-feely" board-book series. Toddlers are encouraged to explore textures - from a soft felt hat and fluffy scarf to bumpy buttons and twiggy arms - and join in with the words. In Baby Christmas by Michael Lawrence (Orchard, 10.99), a frazzled Mother Christmas keeps her baby son amused on Christmas Eve by dressing him up just like his famous daddy. But when Rudolf Junior's nose glows - a sign that he's old enough to fly - Baby Christmas seizes his chance and sets off into the night on his toy sleigh, causing panic. Arthur Robins's riotous illustrations and a rollicking text make this the jolliest of picture books to share.
In The Sea Mice and the Stars by Kenneth Steven, illustrated by Louise Ho (Little Tiger Press, 5.99), snow is falling when the sea mice wake to see the sky filled with shooting stars. Uncle Trumble tells them they must gather the shimmering stars to give light in the dark winter months, but little Ashenteen gets left behind in the gathering storm. Will the others find her?
There's glitter on every page of Julia Donaldson's colourful The Princess and the Wizard (Macmillan, 10.99), adding a tactile dimension to Lydia Monks' vibrant illustrations. When a wicked wizard kidnaps Princess Eliza on her seventh birthday, her fairy godmother grants her seven chances to escape, by changing her colour and her shape. But each time the wizard easily guesses where Eliza is and sets her another unpleasant task - darning his socks, scrubbing his bathroom - until she has only one chance left.
Alone in a chilly sepia and violet-tinged mountain wilderness, with only her flea-bitten dog for company, Chris Wormell's The Wild Girl (Red Fox, 5.99) seems a forlorn figure, but she's also endearingly brave and kind. When she spots bear tracks in the snow near her cave, she's ready to fight, but the bear is only looking for shelter for her cub and all four discover that they're better off sharing their warmth ... and their fleas.
Delicious! (Doubleday, 10.99) is Helen Cooper's third story about Cat, Squirrel and Duck, who share a fondness for pumpkin soup. Cat and Squirrel are eager to try something new. Fish soup, mushroom soup, even bright pink beetroot soup - all are scrumptious and nutritious, but Duck won't try them. Meanwhile, enterprising bugs are siphoning off the wasted soup and setting up a restaurant. Cooper's glorious colours and sharp humour might persuade some fussy eaters to be more adventurous in future.
Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy (Bloomsbury, 12.99) combines two of Michael Rosen's most popular poetry collections in one handsome hardback edition. There's new artwork by Quentin Blake, a chatty, informative introduction by Michael Rosen and an audio CD of the latter's matchless readings. But don't miss out on the fun of performing them yourself. Steve Turner's Don't Take Your Elephant to School, illustrated by David Mostyn, (Lion Children's Books, 4.99) contains three short poems for each letter of the alphabet - from aardvark to zoo - and the result is a wide-ranging, funny and thought-provoking collection.
In Clarice Bean, Don't Look Now by Lauren Child (Orchard Books, 9.99), what with the ceiling falling down, her best friend leaving and a snooty new girl at school, Clarice has more than enough worries. And then there's "the worry that you haven't even thought to worry about" ... Creative typography and comic illustrations help make this a hugely enjoyable and touching read.
Another lovely book - more glitter - is Cornelia Funke's When Santa Fell to Earth, illustrated by Paul Howard (The Chicken House, 9.99). Niklas Goodfellow isn't your usual Santa. He's young, dark and beardless, but he's the last real Santa and must stop Goblynch, a rogue Santa who wants to turn Christmas into a soulless "golden feast of money" - and Niklas into chocolate. Aided by homely angels, swearing elves and two lonely children Niklas must save the true spirit of Christmas. A classic tale with a twist.
A young boy's breakdown in the aftermath of his parents' divorce doesn't sound like festive reading, but Cat Call by Linda Newbery (Orion, 9.99) is an engaging story that blends reality and the supernatural to compelling effect. The narrator is 11-year-old Josh, a bright lad who loves big cats. He and his little brother Jamie seem to have weathered the family upheaval, but after a visit to a wildlife park, Jamie retreats into his own strange world. He "becomes" Leo the lion - refusing to speak except in the voice of his feline alter ego - and only Josh can free Jamie from his obsession.
In Stone Heart by Charlie Fletcher (Hodder Children's Books, 10.99), 12-year-old George, venting his frustration at the unfairness of life, damages a dragon carved on the wall of the Natural History Museum and is plunged with terrifying abruptness into a nightmare world where London's statues come to life - and try to kill him. To add to the horror, only George and a troubled girl called Edie can see what's happening. The action all takes place within 24 frantic hours, as George and Edie are tested to their limits in a war between the good human statues or "spits" and the monstrous "taints". Thrilling stuff.
Inspired by Alfred Noye's famous poem, The Highwayman, Nicola Morgan's novel, The Highwayman's Footsteps (Walker, 6.99), is equally thrilling and morally more complex. Running away from a privileged, but emotionally miserable home life, young William de Lacey discovers that without the protection of his father's name and money, he has - and is - nothing. Reluctantly he throws in his lot with fiery, independent Bess, daughter of the poem's highwayman, who has embraced her father's profession and steals from the rich to give to the poor. On one level this is a rip-roaring adventure story - Robin Hood heroes versus cruel Redcoat soldiers and evil landowners. But our young protagonists also rob, murder and take pleasure in revenge, making this a challenging and deeply satisfying read.
Finally, what better stocking-filler than an entertaining book that could help to save the planet? Spud Goes Green by Giles Thaxton, illustrated by Nigel Baines (Egmont, 4.99), follows the progress of Spud's New Year Resolution to be more green. Written in a jokey, diary format with colourful cartoon illustrations, there's sage advice about recycling rubbish, saving energy, caring for wildlife and more. By the end of the year Spud can declare himself a full-blown greenie. Will you be able to say the same?
TODDLERS to 4 YEARS
Merry Christmas Spot by Eric Hill (Frederick Warne, 4.99)
Everyone's favourite puppy helps his mum get ready for Christmas in this large board book.
4 to 8 YEARS
Horrid Henry's Christmas Cracker by Francesca Simon, illustrated by Tony Ross (Orion, 4.99)
Anarchic seasonal fun with the world's naughtiest boy.
8 to 12 YEARS
Starring Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson (Doubleday, 12.99)
Tracy is back and she's desperate for a part in the school production of A Christmas Carol.
TODDLERS to 4 YEARS
Baby Christmas by Michael Lawrence (Orchard, 10.99)
Baby Christmas causes chaos as he follows in his father's footsteps.
4 to 8 YEARS
Clarice Bean, Don't Look Now by Lauren Child (Orchard Books, 9.99)
Girls, boys (and grown-ups) will enjoy Clarice Bean's latest adventures.
8 to 12 YEARS
When Santa Fell to Earth by Cornelia Funke (The Chicken House, 9.99)
The last real Santa's bid to save the Christmas spirit. Perfect holiday reading.
Spud Goes Green (inset) by Giles Thaxton
Going green has never been so much fun.