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Picture books

TATTY RATTY. By Helen Cooper. Doubleday pound;10.99. MR BENN - GLADIATOR. By David McKee. Andersen Press pound;9.99. ALBUMAN'S QUEST. By James Cattell and Dorelle Davidson. Lothian Books Ragged Bears pound;7.99. PET BOY. By Keith Graves. Chronicle Books pound;8.99. SLOW LORIS. By Alexis Deacon. Hutchinson pound;10.99

While Harry and Frodo are pulling the crowds in the cinema, fantasy for all ages is exerting its magic in the picture book field. Helen Cooper's Tatty Ratty is about the creation of a fantasy by a small child and her parents when a favourite toy goes missing at bedtime. The text is a subtle display of family dynamics: the parents comfort their daughter by going along with Molly's ideas of what might be happening to Tatty Ratty, while preparing her for disappointment; she is both inconsolable and ready to exploit the situation.

Everything is designed to draw the reader in. You can almost warm your hands on the colours which radiate from the pages; densely painted images bulge out to meet you. Frames of all shapes and sizes and scatterings of vignettes interweave with the words and carry the happenings between reality and imaginings. The toy's adventures include encounters with fairy-tale characters, and the entertainment afforded by the references to other texts extends the age range of readers through key stage 1.

David McKee's cult hero goes time travelling in Mr Benn - Gladiator when he enters the costume shop and exchanges his suit for a helmet and tunic. He passes through the changing room mirrors (a double-spread design of fragmented images; a dazzling spectacle worthy of any arena) and emerges in Ancient Rome.

Here he learns enough about road engineering to trick the dim-witted emperor at the Colosseum, and so earns the undying gratitude of his fellow gladiators. It will take many viewings to relish the new style of games which Mr Benn invents, to connect the various incidents and running stories, and appreciate the eye-boggling tricks with perspective. Thumbs up for Mr Benn, the gladiator whose surveyor's whistle is mightier than the sword.

James Cattell and Dorelle Davidson have created a fantasy which may be read as straight, as a spoof, or as a political fable. There are all the right ingredients to intrigue children aged from about seven upwards, and adult sharers as well. It has a timeless setting in a lost land with a deserted forest, and a metropolis of kitchen utensils peopled by cutlery. Albuman, an almost brave hero - an egg with a benign expression and a bad memory - discovers mysterious objects, and with Ovatia, a fearless bird, takes on the evil usurper Albuminoid, a bad egg, who has imprisoned all the Albumen, down to the last yokel. This eggistential quest (sorry, it's infectious), told in solemn tenor which manages to incorporate deft and daft wordplay, is illustrated with vigour and distinctiveness. Don't miss it.

The traditional wisdom of "do as you would be done by" is brilliantly caught in Keith Graves's zany fantasy, Pet Boy. Stanley, an avid pet collector, has no sooner acquired one unique creature than he's after another. Snaffled by an intergalactic trader in rare pets, he finds himself somewhere over the spiral nebulae, an alien commodity in a cage, with much worse to come. It's a transformative experience, which teaches Stanley the value of empathy, loyalty, and friendship. More-or-less rhyming text propels the tale, while cartoon-style artwork, fizzing with bizarre images in wild hues and velour texture, show the impossible made almost palpable.

Slow Loris is a fantasy set in a zoo in which the animals, following the example of the eponymous hero, party together secretly at night outside their cages - which explains why, in the daytime, visitors find them slow and boring. Alexis Deacon has tremendous strengths as an artist and designer, but his story of subversion and self-expression transmits mixed messages about zoos - are they the prisons the pictures show or, as the words imply, doesn't it matter?

While children need to know that it's unwise to judge solely by appearances, the lethargy of all-but-nocturnal zoo animals is not the result of their having a riotous night life.

JANE DOONAN

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