Fun stories, vivid illus-trations and good design make the momentous discovery of numbers and letters even more exciting and can awaken vital, long-term enthusiasm. Old favourites such as Lucy and Tom's a.b.c. by Shirley Hughes (Picture Puffins pound;4.99), with its familiar, homely illustrations, retain their appeal for young children, but the more comic, irreverent style of Quentin Blake's ABC (first published in 1989, Jonathan Cape is considering a reprint) is a stronger influence on the latest crop of alphabet and counting books.
All small children who love rhymes will be enchanted by One, Two, Skip a Few!, a "first number rhymes" book from Roberta Arenson (Barefoot pound;8.99). Her bright, simple but funny illustrations make it easy for older infants to count the objects but even babies will love to listen to the rhythm of well-known rhymes such as "Once I Caught a Fish Alive" and "Ten in the Bed", plus lots of newer ones. One Duck Stuck (Walker pound;8.99) combines a similar bright and clear style from the illustrator, Jane Chapman, with Phyllis Root's absorbing story of rescue attempts by an ascending number of animals.
The Pear Tree (Macmillan pound;9.99), based on the tree in "The Twelve Days of Christmas", is too complex to use for simply learning numbers. Meredith Hooper and Bee Willey have artfully woven together counting, nature study and the months of the year. Willey's realistic illustrations of the tree in each month incorporate progressively more animals for children to spot and count, while depicting activities such as pollen collecting, nest building and hibernation.
In the same vein of spot-the-object, Izhar Cohen's ABC Discovery (David Bennett BooksRagged Bears pound;10.99) groups objects alphabetically in illustrations with a surreal humour that will amuse and challenge older alphabet learners. An extensive list of extra games at the end provides more difficult puzzles that demand detailed scrutiny of all the pictures, ensuring a longer than usual shelf life. Another book with staying power - one to treasure, in fact - is Charlotte Voake's Alphabet Adventure (Jonathan Cape pound;9.99). The illustrations are witty as well as beautiful, and are accompanied by joined-up writing and a "look out for" introduction which moves beyond the letter-learning stage.
Annie Ate Apples by Lynette Ruschak and Bonnie Matthews (Dorling Kindersley pound;9.99) is fun, but fragile with its flaps to lift, tabs to pull and wheels to turn. The paper engineering and Bonnie Matthews's pictures are a little too complicated for under-fours but the illustrations are brilliantly comic, full of children bothering bugs, hating their hair and parading as parsnips. Guaranteed to provide lots of laughs - as long as it lasts.
A simpler lift-the-flap ABC is Sue Hendra's Amazing Animal Alphabet (Oxford University Press pound;9.99), a lovely introduction to both letters and animals. The flaps are big and strong enough for tiny fingers to lift, revealing the creatures hiding underneath. Sue Hendra's bright and bold illustrations show them peeping out of jungles snowy woods and farmyards, each described in a catchy rhyme.
Enterprising charities now recognise the potential of children's book publishing as a means of communicating their ideals and raising revenue. W Is for World: a round-the-world ABC, produced by Oxfam with Frances Lincoln (by Kathryn Cave pound;9.99), is really a cultural alphabet describing life mostly in developing countries and introducing geography, history and development issues ("D" is for "Desert" and "P" is for "Peace"). It provides an introduction to the world's diversity and inequities for children who already know the alphabet.
The National Trust ABC by Ian Penney (National Trust pound;9.99) will appeal to a wider age group. The colourful, amusing illustrations are full of animals and objects to talk about with toddlers. But they also contain hidden objects (and NT acorns) for older children to spot. Like the Oxfam book, this succeeds in teaching without preaching.