What's the story?


SPRING IS IN THE AIR, AND nowhere more so than the farmyard in which Dora's Eggs by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Jane Chapman (Little Tiger, 4.99) is set. Surrounded by fluffy ducklings, wriggly piglets and playful lambs, Dora becomes disenchanted with her first clutch of shiny, immobile and not-very-cuddly eggs. Thank goodness, Dora's mother-hen instincts take over when the eggs hatch and she couldn't be more delighted with her chicks. Clear, bold illustrations and a happy resolution make this a very satisfying picture book.

Emily Gravett's colour palette for Monkey and Me (Macmillan Children's Books, 9.99) is as limited as Dora's Eggs is lush, but it's equally effective. A mischievous wee girl in red woolly tights and her long-limbed toy monkey are depicted in shades of red, charcoal and sepia against a white background as they imitate the actions of some of their favourite animals. The repetitive text - "Monkey and me ... we went to see..." - encourages toddlers to join in. Which animal is going to be waddling, bounding or lumbering over the page? Kangaroos and elephants are easy - penguins are trickier. Watch the changes in Monkey's expression as the story progresses. A simple, but inventive picture book with lots of toddler appeal.

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Happy I'm a Hippo by Edinburgh-based author, Richard Edwards (Alison Green Books, 10.99/5.99) is a rollicking read-aloud about a discontented young hippo, who stomps off into the hot, dusty African landscape to seek a more exciting role model. "Don't want to be a hippo. No! No! NO! Rather be a zebra or a buffa-luffa-lo." She meets a monkey, an eagle, a meerkat and more, and tries to emulate them by climbing, flying and burrowing - all with disastrous results. But when she spots a hungry crocodile creeping up on a young wildebeest, she discovers that hippos have their talents too. Carol Liddiment's swirling illustrations exude tropical warmth and are packed with colourful creatures to spot amongst the foliage.

AGE 4 TO 7

THERE'S MORE EBULLIENT rhyme and lively illustration in Grill Pan Eddy (Andersen Press, 10.99) from the inimitable Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross. In his blue jeans and red bovver boots, Eddy is a mouse with attitude. He scorns the human family's increasingly desperate attempts to stop him skiing down the butter, sneezing in the "snottage" cheese and keeping them awake by banging on an old tin pan. But when Eddy finally dies the family all miss him terribly: "Our hearts just feel like leady..." But is that the patter of tiny feet they hear? The rhymes are as cheeky as Eddy himself, fun to read aloud and almost impossible to get out of your heady.

In Katie Morag and the Dancing Class by Mairi Hedderwick (Bodley Head, 9.99) Katie Morag isn't keen on the idea of ballet; she's got better things to do on a Saturday. But with pressure coming, for once, from both grannies, Katie doesn't have much choice. However, she contrives to be late for every class, until finally she misses the ballet altogether and joins the Big Boy Cousins for their tap-dancing lesson. This is more like it! Grannie Island comes up with a novel solution to her lack of tap shoes and poor Granma Mainland's dream of seeing her granddaughter dressed in pink instead of "those dreadful wellies" is thwarted. As always Hedderwick's soft-toned watercolours are full of atmosphere and humorous detail.

AGE 7 TO 10

MORE GENTLE HUMOUR SHINES through Friendship According to Humphrey by Betty G Birney (Faber, 4.99). Humphrey is the class hamster and the observant and articulate narrator of this story. Returning to school after the holidays, he is shocked to discover that he's no longer the only class pet. There's a frog called Og, who ignores his friendly overtures and - worse - the fickle children are much more interested in Og than Humphrey. But Humphrey is resourceful, and in the course of the term he restores harmony to Room 26 and even grows to love lumpy, bumpy Og.

Joan Lennon's second novel, Ely Plot (Andersen Press, 4.99) is a fast-paced, medieval thriller set in the Norfolk Fens. Pip has been brought up by the monks in Wickit monastery. His life is happy if uneventful until he meets Perfect, a tiny walking, talking stone gargoyle who takes up residence in the hood of his tunic. When Pip and Perfect overhear a plot by two noblemen to kill the young King Arnald they find themselves on the run with a rather ungrateful 14-year-old king in tow. This is a pacy, witty read, the first book in The Wickit Chronicles.

With its gold-tooled cover, fold-out postcard collection and quirkily detailed drawings on every page, Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell (Macmillan Children's Books, 8.99) is as much a treat to handle, as to read. Although the mystery adventure is great fun, it's the artwork that makes this book such a delight. Ottoline lives on the 24th floor of the Pepperpot building, surrounded by the exotic paraphernalia gathered by her globe-trotting collector parents. While they are away Ottoline is looked after by the hairy Mr Munroe and a raft of such service providers as The Home Cooked Meal Co and Happy Nest Bedmakers. Ottoline is an inquisitive girl who loves solving tricky problems, so when a spate of dog-nappings and jewel thefts in the City piques her curiosity, she sets off to solve the mystery. The illustrations are full of textual and visual clues, encouraging and rewarding close scrutiny. Top-notch.

AGE 9 TO 12

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ANDY STANTON'S UNIQUELY energetic prose style and David Tazzyman's scratchy illustrations make a winning combination in Mr Gum and the Biscuit Billionaire (Egmont, 4.99). Mr Gum is ghastly. He even draws extra scowls on his forehead. He lives in Lamonic Bibber (surely just down the road from Royston Vasey?), also home to England's most revolting butcher, Billy William the Third. To counteract the nastiness there's a little girl called Polly, a dog hero called Jake and Friday O'Leary, the wise man. The plot is simple but very, very odd. There are daft jokes, mad asides and surreal catch phrases - children and adults will love it.

There are more strange and twisted characters to be found in F E Higgins's debut novel The Black Book of Secrets (Macmillan, 8.99), but this is altogether a darker affair. In the opening chapter, the reader is plunged into a scene of Gothic horror as young Ludlow Fitch struggles to escape having his teeth extracted and sold by his parents for drinking money. He escapes, his teeth almost intact, and winds up as assistant to Joe Zabbidou, a pawnbroker who deals in secrets as well as goods. And those who live in Pagus Parvus have darker secrets than most. In exchange for their confidences, which Ludlow writes up in a Black Book, Zabbidou helps them to pay their debts. But, unable to understand why he's helping them, the townspeople turn against him. A grimly fascinating tale, superbly told.

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Edinburgh-based publisher, Barrington Stoke was deservedly named Children's Publisher of the Year recently. Its excellent low-reading age fiction by established authors has transformed choice for less robust readers. A new non-fiction series called Reality Check includes Dick Turpin: Legends and Lies by Terry Deary and Crazy Creatures by Gill Arbuthnott (both 5.99). Arbuthnott clearly revels in some of nature's more weird and wonderful creatures. Illustrator Shona Grant has risen magnificently to the task of drawing vomiting fulmars, exploding sea cucumbers and farting herring (it's how they communicate).

Closer to home, Blackouts, Bombs and Bananas: Childhood Memories of Wartime by Fife Young People's Services Librarian Maggie Gray (Fife Council Community Services Libraries, 3.99) features recollections gathered by youngsters as part of the Fife Libraries Home Front Recall project. This is a fascinating and very readable collection of childhood reminiscences, photos and memorabilia from the Second World War, from making flour bags into knickers to Italian POWs at the local prison camp. Best of all is a letter home from an evacuee on a farm in Australia. "I don't think you'll get me back after the war's finished... Andy's coming back, but I'm not, so Goodbye. Your loving son, Ian." Goodness knows what effect that communication, joking or not, had on the lad's parents.

Teen fiction

IN THE ASTONISH-ing Life of Octav-ian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation (Candlewick, 12.99), MT Anderson, an American who was educated for a year at Winchester College and then took his degree at Cambridge, has written a novel that will stand for years to come as a classic treatment of slavery and the forces at play in the period leading up to American independence. His most noteworthy book before this was Feed, a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award and a work of febrile, stylish brilliance.

Anderson acknowledges that the new book (the first of two volumes, subtitled "The Pox Party") places demands upon the reader with its 18th-century diction. But he has faith in his audience. "In reading, as in everything else, kids want to have a certain kind of sophistication, which means they will push themselves to understand things," he says.

Octavian is taken as a young boy along with his teenage mother and placed in the care of the College of Lucidity, where he is made the subject of an experiment to see if a slave child's brain is capable of acquiring a classical education. Eventually both the boy and the mother fall victim to another trial involving smallpox. It is a tribute to Anderson's skill as a stylist that the documents and correspondence that pack the last quarter of this volume hold the reader riveted until Octavian's return.

Being by Kevin Brooks (Puffin, 9.99) makes frequent use of one-line paragraphs composed of short declarative sentences, and can hardly be described as sophisticated - yet it gives rise to philosophical musings that are no less complex than those inspired by Anderson.

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On one level the book is pure chase-escape thriller. Robert, undergoing a routine investigation in hospital, is given a general anaesthetic after it's discovered he has machinery in place of vital organs. But he overpowers the staff and escapes. Now he is faced with the question, What is he? He has human feelings, but does the machinery inside him make him a robot? Puffin hope the website www.whatisrobert.co.uk will help to engage readers with this moral debate.

Was my lack of interest in the relationship between Robert and Eddi, the girl who helps him, another facet of Robert's possible non-humanity, or a serious narrative weakness? Either way, it's Brooks's coldest book to date.

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Zenith (Young Picador,. 9.99), Julie Bertagna's sequel to Exodus, and is far better the earlier book. We are still in the same dystopian future - a world ravaged by raised sea levels - but the horizons are more open and hopeful insofar as most of the action follows Mara and her voyage to Greenland. I feel a bit masculine and nerdy for objecting that such a poetic book would have been strengthened by a firmer explanation of technology's failure to survive - apart from a hi-tech magic box used to communicate via satellite.

Tug Of War by Catherine Forde (Egmont, 5.99) is set in a nearer, more scarily believable future, in which the cities of Britain are being bombed. Glasgow is one of the most targeted, and Molly and her brother John are evacuated to separate families in the country. The book becomes a fairly light-hearted family-swap story in which Molly's dowdy mother is contrasted with flighty new carer Pernilla. All very lively, but not quite what I was expecting from the author of Fat Boy Swim and Skarrs.

Waves by Sharon Dogar (Chicken House, 9.99) is one of those "what happened last summer" tales. Hal, 15, returns to Cornwall with his family while his sister, Charley, remains in a coma after an accident that happened on the previous year's trip. Dogar reveals last year's events in an expertly teasing manner. Philip Pullman accurately describes the book as "sensuous and sinister". Three teenagers on a long drive are caught in a rainstorm and hit something. They stop, and find a dead girl at the side of the road. The consequences, after they call at a nearby house, make engrossing reading. The story would also make for a great TV drama.