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Saturday, March 12, 2005

2004 Children's Books Top Picks (part one)

Children's books

A world of wonder
Dec 9th 2004
From The Economist print edition

The pick of the crop

BOOKSHOPS are piled higher than ever with lavishly illustrated children's books tricked out to look like instant classics. What to buy? The Economist offers its own selection of new titles for children of all ages.

Five years old and under

Whether to be read alone or to be read aloud, a good picture book for young children strikes a balance between words, which must not be too plentiful, and images, which must not shout too loudly. “ How Many Miles to Bethlehem? ” (Scholastic, $16.95 and Orion, £9.99), is a deft re-telling of the story of the Nativity by an English poet, Kevin Crossley-Holland, with Peter Malone as illustrator. The words are spare and well chosen (every actor in the drama, from the ass to the angel, has a page to present his point of view), while the rich pictures are almost Giotto-like in atmosphere and choice of detail.

Also ringing the changes on a seasonal theme is “ Santa's Littlest Helper ” (Bloomsbury, $15.95 and £9.99), a collaboration between Anu Stohner and Henrike Wilson as illustrator. One of Santa's undervalued assistants stumbles upon a startling fact: animals, unlike children, don't usually get presents.

Alexis Deacon is one of the finest of a younger generation of English illustrators for children. In his third work, “ Jitterbug Jam: A Monster Tale ” (Hutchinson, £10.99; to be published in America by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in March), Mr Deacon collaborates with an American writer, Barbara Jean Hicks, to produce a gentle morality tale about the nature of strangeness. His horned monsters, alarming to look at but gentle in character, seem distantly related to Maurice Sendak's wild things.

The best animal picture book of the season is “ Lord of the Forest ” (Frances Lincoln, $16.95 and £10.99) by Caroline Pitcher and Jackie Morris. Ms Morris's illustrations are lavish and painterly, and the story—who exactly is the king of the jungle?—holds the reader in suspense until the very last page.

The funniest new picture book is Posy Simmonds's “ Baker Cat ” (Jonathan Cape, £10.99), the tale of a baker's cat who manages to outwit his owner, a thoroughly punitive and miserable fellow, by forging a cunning alliance with the very mice he is supposed to be keeping out of the bakery. Children will adore the fussy detail and the hilarious dialogue.

New in Britain, “ The King of Capri ” (Bloomsbury, $16.95 and £4.99) is a tale by Jeanette Winterson, who is better known for her novels for grown-ups; it is illustrated with panache by Jane Ray. The wind blows away the clothes of a greedy king, but they land on the roof of a tender-hearted woman. The story has all the ease and surprise of an old folk tale.


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