8 DECEMBER 2001, Page 55

Year of the hands-off mother

Juliet Townsend

Iremember once standing in the uncovered ruins of Skara Brae on Orkney and thinking how very cold and uncomfortable it must have been to live in a time and place where all your furniture, as well as your house, was made of stone. Raymond Briggs has taken this a stage further in his amusing new book Ug, Boy Genius of the Stone Age (Cape, £10.99), in which everything, bedclothes, football and even Ug's trousers, are made of stone. Told in comicstrip format, it is an easy and very entertaining read for children from six upwards, charting Ug's dauntless pursuit of his dream of a pair of soft trousers, and has the educational bonus that no one could possibly finish the book without understanding the meaning of the word anachronism. Lig is one of a number of books this year by talented writer/illustrators. Too often the text is the weaker element in such books, as illustrators often seem to think anyone can write a story for young children, whereas writers are less likely to think they can easily dash off a few acceptable illustrations. Torn Finger by Gillian McClure (Bloomsbury, £10.99) has beautiful and evocative watercolour pictures of a mysterious cat who leads Queenie through all the perils of a snowy forest as she follows his red thread trail. The story is excellent for reading aloud, with a rhythmic lilt

and plenty of repetition.

For children who like a useful message delivered with a lot of humour, Lady Lupin's Book of Etiquette by Babette Cole (Hamish Hamilton, £10.99) echoes that famous 1920s classic, Lady Troubridge's Book of Etiquette ('How to deliver the Cut Direct, the most deadly weapon in the social armoury'), with the minor difference that Lady Lupin is a Scottish deerhound. Her advice is nonetheless sound for other species: 'Never bark with your mouth full. Remember to open doors for older dogs. Too much makeup may give an unsuitable impression ... and could attract the wrong mate!' The illustrations of the sophisticated Lady Lupin and her friends effortlessly clearing every social hurdle are a delight.

Another book which will make young children laugh is Cressida Cowell's Claydon was a Clingy Child (Hodder, £9.99). Claydon simply would not let go of his mother's leg. "It's safer here," said Claydon.' Unfortunately, his mother, as his teddy bear complains, while a fine woman, is fond of the More Dangerous Forms of Exercise!' We see poor Claydon and his loyal bear hurtling down ski-slopes, skydiving and crushed in the rugger scrum until they find their own feet, or rather wheels.

Claydon has a loyal bear; Lily has an equally loyal kangaroo, who gets blamed for everything naughty that Lily does — and she is a very naughty child. Emma Chichester Clark is in top form in It Was You, Blue Kangaroo! (Andersen Press, £9.99) which vividly brings to life the semimagic relationship between a child and her toy. Also about animated stuffed toys and aimed at very small children, Old Bear's All-Together Painting (Hutchinson, £9.99) is Jane Hissey's latest addition to this much loved series. The meticulous, beautifully painted pictures make you feel you could almost lift the animals off the page, and the gentle story makes for ideal bedtime reading. Also for young children, Rhino's Horns by Michael Terry (Bloomsbury, £10) is a well drawn and brightly coloured account of a rhinoceros with an inferiority complex about his horns, and how his friend the baboon tries to help.

The clear bright colours of the African plains merge into the muted misty hues of England in Christian Birmingham's evocative illustrations for Little Farmer Joe by Ian Whybrow (Kingfisher, £10.99). It is perhaps a slightly idealised picture of country life — the blurb says it all: 'The lyrical text is a joy to read aloud and soft pastel illustrations bring the gorgeous farm animals and gentle countryside scenes to life.' Actually the book is much better than that sounds, with the climax coming when Joe overcomes his fear of the animals and helps deliver a lamb.

Another large-format, lavishly illustrated book, but for children of about 8-11, is Pirate Diary by Richard Platt (illustrated by

Chris Ride11, Walker Books, £12.99). This is a lively account of Jake's adventures when his ship is captured by pirates and he becomes a pirate himself. It is rip-roaring and thoroughly enjoyable stuff, but, like Richard Platt's earlier book, Castle Diary, is full of interesting and accurate historical information.

Also from Walker Books at £12.99 and also combining instruction and enjoyment, is Michael Rosen's Shakespeare, His Work and his World, beautifully produced and illustrated by Robert Ingpen. It provides an excellent and vivid introduction to Shakespeare for readers from 10 upwards. A poet himself, Michael Rosen manages to infuse this account of Shakespeare's life and times with the spirit of his verse, through short phrases and extracts which enrich and inform the narrative. There is a very useful chronology at the end, relating Shakespeare's life to world events. Rosen has several contributions in A Poem for Everyone, collected by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark. It is an elegantly produced book of verse centred on people, from The Phantom Lollipop Lady to The Dirtiest Man in the World, For those people who prefer annimals to the human race, My First Book of Animal Poems, edited by John Foster, is a lively and colourful selection of verse for younger children on every conceivable creature from a woodworm to a gorilla. Both are published by OUP at 12.99.

Two very different novels approach a similar theme — a fostered or adopted teenage girl in search of her beginnings. In Dustbin Baby (Doubleday, £10.99) Jacqueline Wilson provides real insight into the teenage mind and gives a most convincing account of April, veteran of countless foster homes, who longs to find the mother who dumped her in a dustbin at birth. April is at once maddening, tough, vulnerable and funny, and although this is gritty stuff the story ends on a positive note. Safbr's Angel by Hilary Mckay (Hodder, £10) is an altogether lighter affair, dealing with the scatty, bohemian Casson family whose children are named after the colours on the artist's paint chart, Cadmium, Indigo and Rose. When Saffron discovers her name is not on the chart she also discovers the reason — she is adopted. The book follows her on her search for the stone angel left her by her grandfather, but its main strength lies in the extremely amusing and perceptive picture of the chaotic lifestyle of Saffron's adoptive family: Bill, the absentee father, irresponsible, inconsiderate but full of charm — 'the taxidriver considered him a lovely man'; Eve, the hands-off mother, only happy painting in her garden shed; Caddy, dividing her affection between her driving instructor and innumerable guineapigs; Indigo, perched on his window-sill 'dealing with extreme fear' to prepare him for a career as a polar explorer; and Rose, who can manipulate them all.

For those whose appetite for magic and

adventure has been whetted by Harry Potter, The Witch Trade by Michael Molloy (illustrated by David Wyatt, Chicken House, £11,99) is an exciting story of a world dominated by the battle between the Light Witches and the Night Witches — forces of good and evil. Abby and Spike, with the aid of Sir Chadwick Fleet, Master of the Light Witches, and Captain Starlight, the Ancient Mariner, journey through perilous seas in their magic boat to bring the evil Wolfbane to account.

It is impossible to describe in a few words Philip Pullman's powerful trilogy, His Dark Materials, the last volume of which, The Amber Spyglass, was published earlier this year. As the series title suggests, it presents a somewhat sombre view of life, but it is compulsive reading for older children and indeed for adults, with its remarkable imaginative sweep allied to a rattling good story. The three books are now available in a boxed set (Scholastic Press, £25) and could bring many hours of peace to your household over Christmas.