Just as on the High Street or on the box, there is something about the Christmas season that can bring out the worst in publishers – a phoney holiness desperately straining after the real meaning of Christmas, sugary illustrations and sentimental texts smug with cloying symbolism, an unearthing of backlist gems polished into gift books and a jollying-up of out-of-copyright classics. But you cannot keep Christmas, or a good publisher, down, and among it all there is some awesomely good stuff. Stephanie Nettell reports.<!--break-->
It was Jane Ray’s The Nativity that prompted my Scroogeish conversion: it has been reissued with a 3-D nativity scene unfolding from the endpapers, with its own envelope of characters. Unlike a child, I can remember the first edition, yet still my heart fairly leapt at its joyful brightness, the few lines of unembellished narration of the familiar story (no injected feelings) contrasting with the glory of her paintings. Stylised in Ray’s inimitable way in a long frieze, with few perspectives and almost everyone in profile, they are naive yet rich in decoration and detail (such as each wise man’s cloak suggesting his knowledge); the continuous sweep is broken by frozen moments, framed like icons – her middle-eastern Mary, suckling her baby under the gaze of an ox, is exquisitely tender. Snowy clichés are replaced by the hope-filled freshness of a Palestinian spring, angels are allowed to be as darkly Semitic as the people of Nazareth. I suppose a thing of beauty really is a joy forever.
Francesca Crespi’s style in some ways echoes Ray’s, but it is softer, with a pastel prettiness that is more obviously infant-oriented. Her Advent Carousel also tells the story simply, but each spread above the words opens into a pop-up scene that includes four or five days of an Advent calendar, the windows opening on to charmingly unpretentious objects and scenes, building to a climactic host of angels. It could become a cherished annual ritual for any family – or classroom – that shrinks from those monstrosities that suggest kids demand a goody in every Advent window. In a Lion series about Christian festivals, Christmas , by Lois Rock, illustrated by Helen Cann, also guides us back to simple pleasures. Interleaved with the biblical story are carols and explanations of traditions, but the book is predominantly a photographic step-by-step manual for creating our own cards and decorations (including a Nativity). It is colourful and ingenious, with results that look enticingly achievable: great for primary teachers, but also for those parents like me, who lovingly set out their children’s battered creations years after they have left for their own homes.
Perhaps because of the wartime Christmases of his childhood, this is an especially significant season for Michael Foreman; he has now produced his own Christmas Treasury (with a wonderful jacket design), an anthology stamped unusually clearly with its creator’s character, since he has illustrated as well as selected its contents. It justifiably contains some of his own writing (the next edition must include The Little Reindeer ), many oft-anthologised Christmas stories and poems, and several pieces that are more about snowy winter than Christmas – it is a very Foremanishly blue book. It is also very beautiful, a pleasure to smell and stroke, brilliantly designed and illustrated – I lingered long over his Dickens pages, and the wild seascape accompanying Stevenson’s poem.
Now two nicely contrasting picture books. For little ones, much-loved Kipper, Pig and baby Arnold are thinking about trees and presents in Kipper’s Christmas Eve , with Mick Inkpen’s trademark skill in sharing little jokes behind Kipper’s back, and ending with yet another utterly charming surprise. And for older readers, a thoughtful allegorical version of a familiar story, Three Wise Women . Mary Hoffman almost caresses her tale of three women following their star – a young European with a home-baked loaf, an African girl and her baby, and a grandmother full of tales from the Far South-East – and of the baby who received their gifts; and although Lynne Russell’s attractively textured figures, suggesting crayons on rough paper, seem stiff to me, they glow with firelight, the moon and the stars.
That grandmother gave the baby her stories, and every baby’s birthright is a fine collection of fairy tales – given these days, as often as not, by Naomi Lewis. In Elf Hill she offers nine sprightly tales by Hans Andersen, illustrated with mischievous affection by Emma Chichester Clark (the princess sensitive to peas under mattresses appears to be in school uniform). Some are old friends, but others were quite new to me. ‘Elf Hill’ itself is sheer delight, a one-night frolic among mer-royalty, elf princesses and juvenile delinquent trolls. Naomi Lewis’s name graces The Hutchinson Treasury of Fairy Tales through a foreword and a tale or two, but in fact this is a fat, handsome compendium of twenty-eight mainly already-published fairy tales – traditional, the Grimms, Andersen, Perrault, with a Wilde and a Goethe and a Leprince de Beaumont, who wrote ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (I never knew that) – illustrated by a whole range of superb artists in a whole range of styles, a few especially for this volume. They are ordered by age, from Goldilocks for toddlers to the savagery of the red shoes for older and tougher souls, but the closing words belong to the hard-won sunshine of ‘The Snow Queen’, retold by Naomi Lewis herself. A gorgeous gift.
I suspect older classics are now defined as gifts. Rosemary Sandberg’s anthology hopes to lure the six-to-tens to discover some for themselves. The difference is that she is openly – nay, brazenly – addressing only girls, with tempting tidbits from mainly conventional classics ( What Katy Did , Little Women , Milly-Molly-Mandy , and the same ‘Little House’ Christmas that Foreman picked) to a few modern favourites ( The Worst Witch , Matilda , Gilly Hopkins). Sixteen excerpts are spaciously laid out and vividly illustrated, often by their original artist, the border pattern running down the sides of each page making a lovely book. The heroines are picked for their spirit and sense of adventure – although an alarming number seem to have suffered rotten childhoods – and there is no denying that, even if it were not called Classic GIRL Stories (its caps), boys would hate it as much as most little girls will love it.
Boys, I hope, still enjoy The Story of Doctor Dolittle – I have an ancient tape of my six-year-old reading it aloud with relish – and surely anyone would be captured by Bodley Head’s sumptuous large-format edition of this Hugh Lofting classic? It has an interesting introduction by his son Christopher, some tiny PC emendations, and Lofting’s own quirky little line drawings, plus some amazing work by Robin Preiss Glasser, who in a seamless extension of Lofting’s style has added large and small colour illustrations.
Retelling a classic
I must admit I do not view Bunyan as a modern (or any) child’s first choice of reading, but if anyone can make a rip-roaring adventure from a religious allegory, Geraldine McCaughrean, today’s Maestra of the Retold Classic, can. She has stripped the framework of A Pilgrim’s Progress of its seventeenth-century linguistic dress, shaken it about and completely reclothed it in her own invigorating fashion. (But why ‘ A Pilgrim’ instead of ‘ The’?) She is bold: she melds characters, changes Hopeful to a girl who grows old amid the pleasures of Beulah, re-orders events, brings in the famous hymn from the Second Book, inserts (I think) her own poignant scene about the questions of the dying, expands Atheist’s bitter scorn, and has great fun with names – Alec Smart and the Misses Trust and Stake, and if Mr Bendy sounds too like a cartoon Mister Man and I simply do not understand Owen Bends, only a McCaughrean could get away with turning ‘the black man with the net’ into an Irish O’Flattery. Jason Cockcroft’s pencil drawings are terrific – I prefer them to his coloured spreads – though it is strange to see Christian as a teenager, knowing he and Hopeful must die to reach the City. This is a thought-provoking work that makes Bunyan’s tract as accessible to a child as you are likely to find.
Bunyan created a whole world from his anguished imagination, but it is a planet away from Jill Barklem’s, a miniature one entire unto itself, portrayed with incredible and loving detail. Now here is a treat: The Complete Brambly Hedge brings all the eight stories since 1980 together for the first time. Simple stories for the very young, illustrations for everyone. What happy hours lie ahead, poring over these amazing pictures, immersed in this ideal mouse-world!
More fun from two ‘educational’ books in brilliant disguise. Blow the trumpets, beat the drums, because The Magnificent I Can Read Music Book is exactly what it says – I’ve never seen a pop-up performance like it! It’s jazzy with colour and actions, as its animals jolly along their young pupil from clapping a rhythm to playing scales on the keyboard on the last page. You heard right: an actual in-tune keyboard. By Kate Petty and Jennie Maizels, backed by a fantastic group of engineers and consultants, it is astonishing value. Castle Diary , the Journal of Tobias Burgess, Page, by castle-specialist Richard Platt, is an engaging piece of thirteenth-century social history. An impressively tall book, packed with a million intriguing details, Tobias’ simple but accurate account of his daily life is never solemn for a moment (though I hope his noble aunt did not really say ‘others who serve your uncle and I’), accompanied as it is by the always spirited Chris Riddell’s sly commentary.
All Christmas stockings needs a book, and The Once Upon a Time Map Book is shaped to slip down one. Printed on glossy card and looking satisfyingly complicated, it is actually simple enough for very young readers, though they will enjoy their journeys more if they know the original stories. Learning compass points, basic map references and reading keys is part of the fun, as they track down Cinderella’s wedding presents hidden in six picture maps of ‘storybook lands’. The Tale of the Turnip is a slim little jewel of a book, a traditional come-uppance tale neatly retold by Brian Alderson and exquisitely illustrated by that national treasure, Fritz Wegner. There will be tug-of-wars over it on Christmas morning.
Of course this Christmas is the last of the millennium, and two books have been particularly inventive in dodging the yawning qualities of those celebrations. I am quite jealous of Wendy Cooling’s splendid idea to ask twenty of our best-known writers each to produce a short story for a different century: Centuries of Stories . Aimed at about nine to thirteens, they offer a fine sweep through time, from the long, long period of (it sometimes seems) permanent windswept darkness to a wonderfully suitable millennial tale of magical symbolism from Margaret Mahy. The put-upon orphan and the crippled child who dreams dreams turn up frequently, the settings tilt heavily towards this country, and, pedantically, if we are to be taught the Viking origin of ‘berserk’ it should be spelled right, but there are nice surprises – Vivian French is in third-century China and Bernard Ashley in twelfth-century Africa; Malorie Blackman in the Deep South of the nineteenth century is touchingly poignant (while defying logic), while Geraldine McCaughrean, with typical ingenuity, tracks down a medieval bestseller all round the known world. Some writers surprise by stepping out of the character we are accustomed to, such as Pete Johnson doing a junior Josephine Tey on behalf of Richard III and Jacqueline Wilson suffering for all unwanted girl-children at the birth of Elizabeth. There is humour, too, especially from Annie Dalton’s funky angel sent to seventh-century Ireland and Jeremy Strong’s Christopher Thrush who almost re-built London. An altogether satisfying collection.
The Blue and Green Ark , Brian Patten’s poetic alphabet, celebrates the birth of our planet and the evolution of all its miraculous life-forms, from the blue and green Ark adrift in the dark, to Zero, the futures we will not have unless we cherish that ark. Each letter, with its own internal alphabet, is illuminated by Siân Bailey, and each verse is set into a magnificent spread by artists of the calibre of David Armitage, Patrick Benson, David Parkins and Jane Ray. It is a stunning example of publishing teamwork and the power of verbal and visual poetry, a fit herald of the new millennium.
Stephanie Nettell is a critic, author and journalist on children’s books.
The Nativity , Jane Ray, Orchard, 1 86039 852 9, £10.99
An Advent Carousel , Francesca Crespi, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 1358 5, £12.99
First Festivals: Christmas , Lois Rock, Lion, 0 7459 3907 4, £8.99
Michael Foreman’s Christmas Treasury , Pavilion, 1 86205 197 6, £12.99
The Little Reindeer , Michael Foreman, Red Fox, 0 09 940068 5, £4.99 pbk
Kipper’s Christmas Eve , Mick Inkpen, Hodder, 0 340 73693 3, £10.99
Three Wise Women , Mary Hoffman, ill. Lynne Russell, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 1423 9, £10.99
Elf Hill , Naomi Lewis, ill. Emma Chichester Clark, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 1426 3, £12.99
The Hutchinson Treasury of Fairy Tales , Hutchinson, 0 09 176793 8, £19.95
Classical GIRL Stories , ed. Rosemary Sandberg, Kingfisher, 0 7534 0344 7, £14.99
The Story of Doctor Dolittle , Hugh Lofting, add. ill. Robin Preiss Glasser, Bodley Head, 0 370 32701 2, £12.99
The Complete Brambly Hedge , Jill Barklem, Collins, 0 00 198367 9, £19.99
John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress , Geraldine McCaughrean, ill. Jason Cockcroft, Hodder, 0 340 69340 1, £14.99
The Magnificent I Can Read Music Book , Kate Petty, ill. Jennie Maizels, Bodley Head, 0 370 32377 7, £14.99
Castle Diary , Richard Platt, ill. Chris Riddell, Walker, 0 7445 2880 1, £14.99
The Once Upon a Time Map Book , B. G. Hennessy, ill. Peter Joyce, Walker, 0 7445 4077 1, £9.99
The Tale of the Turnip , Brian Alderson, ill. Fritz Wegner, Walker, 0 7445 4910 8, £9.99
Centuries of Stories , ed. Wendy Cooling, Collins, 0 00 185715 0, £14.99
The Blue and Green Ark , Brian Patten, Scholastic, 0 590 11389 5, £12.99
Stephanie Nettell is a critic, author and journalist on children’s books.