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In for the count;Picture BooksEarly years


Alfie and the Birthday Surprise By Shirley Hughes Bodley Head pound;9.99 Alfie and his little sister Annie Rose continue to delight young readers, who are reassured and entertained by everyday domestic details. In the year when she herself is 70, Shirley Hughes returns to her most popular siblings with some profounder issues - growing old and death - presented in a straightforwardly touching story.

Alfie and Annie Rose never grow old, but their creator has found new and richer ways of portraying them. This is not just the repetition of a successful formula. The pictures are more powerful, free, painterly and charged with colour. They express an ever-deepening knowledge of the language of painting, yet they remain totally child-friendly. The work of a masterful illustrator. Elaine Williams. See book offer, page 16 Sloth's Shoes By Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross Andersen pound;9.99 As soon as you can say the title without a hitch (several tries allowed) you can step into a story at once zany, funny and moving. Sloth, in his high, high, tree, sends a message to friends that his birthday party is "today at three". He's on his way down. The jungle guests, weird but kind, bring him a present of new green shoes. Where's Sloth?

Quality nonsense (see Lear and Carroll) is a wild growth, but its roots are in the garden of reason. It has its necessities - logic (of a sort) is one, proper detail another. Sloth's Shoes passes on both counts. Ross (a native of nonsense-land) is on top form in the manic pictures. Willis's text is in racing rhyme - always apt for four to seven-year-olds.

I'm not sure that the mixing of real and fantasy characters is within the rules, and it may cause zoological problems later. But it does not spoil today's enjoyment of this latest Willis-Ross offering - not a jot. Naomi Lewis Shaggy and Spotty By Ted Hughes Illustrated by David Lucas Faber pound;9.99 Appealing fairground tale speeds two scruffy farm dogs from roundabout to dodgems, from giant wheel to Wall of Death to switchback until, catapulted by a trampoline, they fly. Back on Earth, they can only bark and chew bones. Oh for language!

Hughes's own words, supple and simple, with judicious repetition, are matched by David Lucas's illustrations, full of humour, frantic activity and delightfully bemused doggy expressions. Heather Neill The Orion Book of Princesses By sally gardner Orion pound;9.99 If you must buy a pink book of princesses, buy a funky shocking pink one with Seven Dwarfs straight out of Maurice Sendak, a delightfully stroppy pair of Ugly Sisters and an enchanting wake-up call for the Sleeping Beauty. Clever typography heightens the drama of midnight's chimes at the Palace Ball and encourages early attempts at reading. Geraldine Brennan SECTION:Features NO PHYSICAL FILETen Terrible Dinosaurs By Paul Stickland Ragged Bears pound;7.99 Stickland's beasty dinosaurs dance, stamp and swing their way through this traditional-style countdown with tremendous momentum and rhythm. Elaine Williams Little Miss Muffet Counts to Ten By emma chichester clark Andersen pound;8.99 Elegant and engaging. After the curds and whey, the spider (one) takes over. The verse is continued by lemurs (two), magpies (three), foxes (four), pussycats, poodles ("with oodles of noodles"), all bringing curious gifts. Finally, crocodiles (10) arrive with a huge pink box, What's inside? Naomi Lewis (TES, June 13) Fruits By Valerie Bloom Macmillan pound;8.99, pound;4.99 A big friendly book, cheerfully funny, following two young Caribbean sisters through unauthorised feasts of one to 10 native fruits. Full-page paintings, oil on canvas, reflect the story totally. Shortlisted for the Smarties Prize. Naomi Lewis (TES, June 13)

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