Illustrated fiction is fun, and hugely popular, often well beyond its target audience. It has been around for a long time, but in the last few years, it seems to have gone through a new lease of life, which is much welcome.
Here is a small selection of titles to look out for:

Claude in the Country
Alex T Smith
(Hodder Children’s Books)

When they find themselves in need of fresh air and a quiet walk, Claude and his faithful sidekick Sir Bobblysock decide go to the countryside. But an encounter with Mrs Cowpat, farmer at Woollybottom Farm, changes the course of their day and soon they find themselves mucking out the pigs and helping with the preparations for the County Fair, with hilarious consequences.

Claude in the Country is the fourth book in a series (you can find my reviews of the three first titles here) and there is no relenting in the quality of this series. There are comical situations aplenty again in this new instalment, with humour that will appeal to both children and adult readers. Because it is so heavily illustrated, this series is perfect for young readers’ first steps into independent reading. The stylish retro artwork, which is Alex T Smith’s instantly recognisable signature style, helps convey the quirky sense of fun. There are plenty of slightly naughty innuendos for the grown-ups and a hilarious classic Vicar of Dibley-esque moment involving a puddle. There is absolutely nothing to dislike about the Claude series, nothing. Claude, with his humour and cheekiness, is quintessentially British, despite his French beret, and that is why I love him so dearly. Two more titles, Claude in the Spotlight and Claude on the Slopes, are due in 2013.


The Grunts in Trouble
Philip Ardagh, with artwork by Axel Scheffler
(Nosy Crow)

Mr and Mrs Grunt live in a homemade caravan, with their adopted (read: stolen) son Sunny. They ride along the countryside, eating roadkill and looking for the next nasty trick. When they come across Bigg Manor, an unusual chain of events is set in motion, which includes bees, dynamite, and even an elephant.

Philip Ardagh’s style is pitched perfectly at the targeted audience. Silly jokes, repetition, play on words, irony (though this might be more for the benefit of the adult readers) make this story a laugh-out-loud little gem. Ardagh, as the narrator, constantly addresses the reader directly, and this makes such entertaining reading, as well as engaging the reader into the story a little more, which will be great at drawing in reluctant readers.
 It would be difficult not to be reminded of Roald Dahl’s infamous couple, The Twits, when reading The Grunts in Trouble, and in typical Dahlesque tradition, the Grunts certainly deliver when it comes to disgusting habits and nasty behaviour. Their outrageous behaviour and the effect on their long-suffering son does provide a lot of the humourous episodes.  However the Grunts, unlike the Twits, do manage to redeem themselves ever so slightly, with small hints throughout that they do actually care about Sunny, and the donkeys.
This truly wacky tale is brought to life perfectly by Axel Scheffler’s artwork. The drawings are almost deadpan, a far cry from his work for younger children. Ardagh and Scheffler make a great team on this series, and it is hard to imagine any other artwork to accompany the text.
Three more titles are planned in the series.


Operation Bunny
Sally Gardner, with artwork by David Roberts
(Orion Children’s Books)

Emily Vole has had a hard life. Orphaned, she was adopted by a vain and unintelligent couple, the Dashwoods, who once they had their own offspring, started using Emily as the family slave. Her only friend is the old lady next door, Miss String, and her talking cat, Fidget. When Miss String dies suddenly, she leaves Emily a rather unusual inheritance: an old shop and a small bunch of golden keys. Emily finds herself amidst a world is full of fairies and magic. She must reopen the Fairy Detective Agency, but Miss String’s arch enemy, wicked witch Harpella, is desperate to stop her, at any cost.

Operation Bunny, first volume in the “Wings & Co” series, is such a charming story; with tons of quirky details, plenty of whimsy but also some looming darkness both in the real and magical world, Gardner offers us a story of exquisite quality. The tale has many of  the ingredients of a Cinderella kind of story: the poor maltreated orphan, the kind fairy godmother, humans being turned into cute animals. But unlike Cinderella, Emily is no victim and with the help of Fidget she manages to overcome the difficulties life throws at her. There is something very satisfying about the underdog, particularly when it is a child, prevailing against the odds. The Dashwoods, as well as being  insufferable, are great baddies of our time: she is a air-head WAG-type consemurist and he is a hedge fund manager with a few wrong-doings under his sleeve. Very contemporary indeed.

David Roberts’ stylish and quirky drawings manage to convey both the humorous and dark elements of the story equally well. His depiction of Harpella is very threatening-looking indeed and his demented triplets actually scary. Roberts is such a talented, unusual artist.

Operation Bunny is a magical read which will appeal to boys and girls alike. A second volume, Three Pickled Herrings, is due out in February 2013.


David Walliams, with artwork by Tony Ross
(HarperCollins Children’s Books)

Zoe leads a very lonely life. Her dad spends his life in the pub, drowning his sorrows and hiding from Sheila, Zoe’s stepmother, who enjoys making her life hell, And if this wasn’t enough, she is persecuted by the school’s bully, Tina Trotts, who unfortunately also lives in her tower block. And to make things worse her hamster has just died.When Zoe discovers a little rat, which she adopts and names Armitage, she thinks things might be looking up. But when Burt, the burger van owner, finds out about Armitage, things take a turn for the worst.

There are many characteristics of traditional tales within this story: the heroine is poor, her father detached and weakened by grief, her stepmother selfish and unsuitable, the baddy nasty and unrepentant  These are the kind of things that children really enjoy, and Walliams’ style is not only accessible but manages to bring these themes in a contemporary setting successfully. There are plenty of laughs within those pages but Walliams, as in all of his books, manages to deal with more serious themes as well. Here, bullying and domestic violence are tackled without pretence.
Tony Ross’ artwork works in perfect unison with Walliams’ prose.
Though the ending feels a bit rushed maybe, this is a great pacy story with plenty of humour. David Walliams has become a real force to be reckoned with in children’s publishing in the last few years and is responsible for getting many, many children back into reading, so three cheers for that!


Some other rather wonderful illustrated fiction books:
* the Ottoline series by Chris Riddell (reviews here and here)
* the Madame Pamplemousse series by Rupert Kingfisher (reviews here and here)
* David Almond’s The Boy Who Climbed the Moon (review here) and My Dad’s A Birdman, both illustrated by Polly Dunbar.
* A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton (review here)
* the Frightfully Friendly Ghosties series by Daren King (reviews here and here)