The big question is: when does a child grow out of picture books? Never, as long as the books keep asking big questions.
Satoshi Kitamura's Me and My Cat?, coming from Andersen Press in November (see our front cover), is one to grow into. In his study of what happens when a boy called Nicholas swaps bodies with his cat, Leonardo, Kitamura grapples with metamorphosis, reincarnation and the gulf between human and animal intelligence. The result could be sub-titled Kafka for Kids (and visually literate adults).
The humour on the page as NicholasLeonardo fights for territory and meets his feline mother (the neighbour's cat, Heloise) is matched by what is left to the imagination - off the page. Meanwhile, Leonardo Nicholas is struggling through a day in a boy's body. Every reading yields something new: reproductions of famous paintings on the walls of Nicholas's house predict the action; Kitamura has installed the poet Roger McGough as Nicholas Leonardo's teacher in a reference to his last project (the illustrations for McGough's anthology The Ring of Words, published by Faber last year).
Anyone who has trouble with the deeper concepts in this clever narrative could try The Philosophy Files by Stephen Law. This teenagers' paperback guide to life, the universe and everything by a London University lecturer, is on Orion's release list for the autumn and was one of the more interesting popular non-fiction books on show at Bologna.
The new titles in the excellent Epix graphic novel series published by Egmont have similar streetwise appeal for young teenagers.
The Glass Garden, Fiona French's latest book with text by Joyce Dunbar (Frances Lincoln), is a more traditional picture book that will reward return visits by older readers. A tale with echoes of "The Sleeping Beauty" and "The Selfish Giant", it is set in the ultimate artificial environment on an island in the Venice lagoon. The glassmaker's daughter escapes from French's silhouettes into the explosive fantasy of Carnevale in a city that is itself a temporary triumph over nature.
The garden in Growing Good by Bernard Ashley, illustrated by Anne Wilson's lush collages, is the real thing. In the uplifting inner-city utopian story from Bloomsbury, Samuel and his grandfather battle to bring the spirit of St Lucia to their unpromising patch, and then to save it from the men with clipboards.
Pick of the crop for younger readers is Scarlette Beane (Oxford), another energetic green-fingered story full of American Gothic charm with text by Karen Wallace (Think of an Eel) and paintings by Jon Berkeley busting out all over.
The best picture books are easy on the ear too, and there will be a good choice of illustrated poetry and nursery rhyme anthologies later this year. First off the shelf must be Here Comes Mother Goose from Walker, the second volume of nursery rhymes collected by Iona Opie and illustrated by Rosemary Wells. New finds among the better known rhymes include: "I'm Dusty BillFrom Vinegar HillNever had a bathAnd I never will". This time the collection has expanded into short poems, songs and jingles, and Wells's subversive supporting cast of rabbits, raccoons and cats is more sophisticated with funky new outfits.
Time for a Rhyme, a compendium of poems and rhymes for young children chosen by Fiona Waters and illustrated by Ailie Busby, is Orion's follow-up to A Year Full of Stories. There is a wide choice of British and American poets including, of course, Anon, who returns to the gardening theme: "Do you carrot all for me?My heart beets for you . . . You are a peach.If we cantaloupeLettuce marry". The Oxford Literacy Web also has a new nursery rhyme book with a matching big book.
The star illustrated poetry collection for older readers is likely to be The Mermaid's Purse (Faber). This collection of poems by Ted Hughes, about a quarter of which are previously uncollected, is illustrated by Flora McDonnell.
There are also several picture books with strong rhyming texts this year: see Jez Alborough's One Duck Stuck from HarperCollins (title self-explanatory) and Debi Gliori's No Matter What (Bloomsbury), a richly detailed tear-jerker which explores the bond between Small and Large and the scope of the child's inner world.
Coral Goes Swimming (Hodder), a story of a voyage around the world in a paddling pool, by a relatively new author, Simon Puttock, with pictures by Stephen Lambert, and Crispin's Box by Ted Dewan, coming next year from Doubleday, cover similar imaginative territory. Dewan's book, starring a pig whose nouveau riche parents can buy him everything except fun, is an antidote to consumer frenzy and broken toys.
The biggest belly laughs of 2000 are likely to be generated by Miaow Miaow Bow Wow (Orion's follow-up to Moo Baa Baa Quack) by Francesca Simon and Emily Bolam, with stories raining cats and dogs, and Hiccup: the Viking who was Seasick (Hodder), Cressida Cowell's tale of a small, polite, sensitive seafarer.
Some millennial anthologies will have a life beyond 2000. Centuries of Stories edited by Wendy Cooling, the offering from HarperCollins, will include new stories, each set in one of the past 20 centuries, by leading contemporary children's authors, from Michael Morpurgo, who writes about ancient times, to Margaret Mahy on the brink of the future. Bloomsbury is publishing Dare to be Different, an anthology on the eternal theme of freedom, with royalties to Amnesty International.
Geraldine McCaughrean's collection of retellings in Britannia: 100 Great Stories from British History (Orion) has a millennial flavour. Each story, illustrated by Richard Brassey, comes with an explanation of its historical roots, but the accounts are intended to be stronger on fiction than fact. Wales, Scotland and the regions are well represented and there is a balance of kings (Offa, Canute, two Henrys and so on) and commoners (the Jarrow Marchers, the Dunkirk fleet, Bob Geldof).
The stories have great dramatic potential and McCaughrean is now working on short playscripts.
As usual, she was one of the most omnipresent names in the UK section at the Bologna fair. In her Orchard Book of Roman Myths and Legends, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark in a variety of styles incorporating panels inspired by Roman mosaics, the characters of Romulus and Remus, Diana and Endymion, the Sibyl and the household gods drive on the tales set in a climate of duty, superstition and fatalism.
McCaughrean's feisty retelling of the Baba Yaga story, Grandma Chickenlegs, will be published in January by Doubleday, and her Beauty and the Beast (also from Doubleday in September) is likely to have appeal across a wide age range with Gary Blythe's illustrations of a very contemporary Beauty.
Helen Oxenbury will win younger readers for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with her illustrations for the forthcoming unabridged edition from Walker. Oxenbury's Alice looks ready for adventure in her sundress and sneakers, and there is a band of well characterised animals.
What Lewis Carroll would have made of the National Year of Numeracy is anyone's guess. The UK publishers' stands at Bologna were littered with attempts at using 32 pages to count up to 10. (Robert Crampton gets up to 90 in his Most Amazing Book of Numbers from Walker.) Enjoy the excuse for Alfie's Numbers by Shirley Hughes (Hutchinson) or wait until next year for Animal 123 from David (Rumble in the Jungle) Wojtowycz, published by David and Charles. This has an entertaining framing story of a grand hotel with five fiddling fruit bats, 10 tigers in tutus, and so on, hiding behind the room numbers.
Or go back to the poetry shelf. Colin McNaughton's collection of poems Wish You Were Here (and I Wasn't) from Walker has "Love me Wanda, Love Me Twoda . . . Love Me "Tenda, do!" and there are countless number rhymes in Iona Opie's book, including sums with wives, sacks, cats and kits en route to St lves.