At this time of year bookshop tables groan with ‘gift’ titles for the Christmas market. Fiona Waters selects those which will give young readers lasting pleasure.<!--break-->
What is a gift book? To me any book is a gift whether you buy it for yourself or whether it is truly a gift from another. But of late, publishers and booksellers alike have fallen into the habit of calling any large collection of stories, whether about the same characters or a motley assembly but with a common theme, a gift book. So be it, I would certainly be very happy to receive any of the following as a gift!
If sheer weight were a criteria of selection then the Thomas the Tank Engine Story Collection and The Complete Collection of Stories: Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner would win hands down, hands down flat on the table because these two chunky volumes are very difficult to handle comfortably. They are both handsome and impressive books, complete with ribbon bookmarks and printed on good quality paper, and certainly if a gift of the complete works is required then here is a generous answer but I couldn’t help missing the small format hardback Thomas and the simple black and white illustrated Pooh of my childhood.
Blyton and Dahl fans
Mary Cadogan and Norman Wright have compiled a comprehensive collection of stories in A Treasury of Enid Blyton’s School Stories. For all devotees, this is a must! With extracts, short stories and an out of print novel the book encompasses the entire range of the school stories written by Enid Blyton. The illustrations are coloured versions of the originals so there is a delicious period feel to the selection, and the foreword, by Children’s Laureate Anne Fine, pays tribute to Blyton’s sheer readability.
The Roald Dahl Treasury is a big friendly giant of a book, stuffed with extracts from much loved favourites like The Twits, Revolting Rhymes, The BFG himself, The Witches, Danny Champion of the World, and of course Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but also with some new material, previously unpublished poetry and letters. As well as the familiar Quentin Blake illustrations, such a quintessential part of the Dahl experience, there are some new pictures he has drawn especially for this collection together with new illustrations by artists like Patrick Benson, Babette Cole and Posy Simmonds.
The Kingfisher Treasury of Classic Stories is an amalgam of two earlier collections, Classic Girl Stories compiled by Rosemary Sandberg and Classic Boy Stories by Michael Morpurgo. With extracts from more than thirty classic stories including Little Women, Treasure Island, Tom’s Midnight Garden, Black Beauty and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe this is a wonderful introduction to the best of children’s classic literature. The book is lavishly illustrated by the likes of Tony Ross, Christian Birmingham, Jill Murphy and Emma Chichester Clark.
Bible tales and Greek myths
Miracles, Whales and Wonderful Tales: Voices from the Bible is an interesting version of some of the best loved bible stories. Narrated by Shirley Isherwood from the perspective of the adults and children involved and, in places, creatures like the serpent in the story of Adam and Eve, this is a warm retelling of stories from both the Old and the New Testaments. Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Jonah and the Whale, the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes, the Good Samaritan and the Last Supper are here along with five other tales all fully illustrated by Liz Pyle, Allison Reed, Gareth Lucas, Megan Stewart and Reg Cartwright.
If you are looking for a more comprehensive collection of bible stories there is a huge array, but The Lion Bible for Children is a good choice. With beautiful illustrations by Helen Cann that are a real addition to the text rather than mere decoration, here is an excellent retelling of the key stories from both the Old and the New Testaments by playwright Murray Watts. The text is dutiful to the original while bringing a modern and exciting voice to the narrative.
Atticus the Storyteller’s 100 Greek Myths written by Lucy Coats and illustrated by Anthony Lewis is a real winner. For a very long time there has been a real lack (despite many attempts!) of a superb retelling of the Greek myths for younger children. This version will be with us for a long time, it is to be hoped, as it is vibrant, immediate and above all, fun! The labours of Heracles, the wanderings of Odysseus, the Minotaur, Medusa, Pandora, Jason and the Argonauts – the list is endless – all are here and we see them through the eyes of Atticus the sandal maker and wandering storyteller as he makes his way to the storytelling festival at Troy. The device works very well as a link to all the tales and provides that wealth of small detail which children find so fascinating. A really lovely book for all the family to share.
A small but exquisitely packaged gem is Bilbo’s Last Song by J R R Tolkien. Serious Tolkien addicts will not want to be without this beautiful little book of the last song sung by the hobbit Bilbo Baggins as he sets off on his final voyage to the Undying Lands at the end of the sunset. Pauline Baynes, the definitive Tolkien illustrator, and his favourite, produced a jewel in this interpretation of the song, and this small format hardback finally does justice to her interpretation. Alongside the main pictures illustrating the journey towards the Grey Havens, there is a series of smaller pictures depicting episodes from The Hobbit – Bilbo’s first journey alongside his last. From the glowing endpapers in, this is a very special little book.
Bedtime stories and fairy tales
There is one story for every night of the week in Bedtime Stories: Tales from Terry Jones and Nanette Newman, illustrated by Michael Foreman. First published as individual picture books, this collection of original contemporary stories sparkles with zest, and the vibrant illustrations leap off the page. The Sleeping Princess and other Fairy Tales from Grimm is a delightful collection of ten of the best known stories from The Brothers Grimm. Retold with energy by Saviour Pirotta and with humorous and richly coloured illustrations by Emma Chichester Clark, including a wonderful full page spread for each story, this would make a very memorable introduction to Grimm for the young reader. The Nightingale is a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale by Stephen Mitchell with illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline. Written, as Stephen Mitchell says ‘as if Andersen were writing in the English of today’ this is an energetic and lively version of the familiar story of the emperor who has to learn the real value of simplicity. The illustrations are very much in the period of the setting of the story and they add a powerful dimension to this lovely book.
Hidden Tales from Eastern Europe by Antonia Barber and illustrated by Paul Hess is a truly different and interesting collection of stories from Eastern Europe. Antonia Barber’s poetic retelling of these wonderful tales is vividly brought to life by Paul Hess’s unusual and dramatic pictures, full of magic and viewed from such quirky angles. The Fabrics of Fairytale: Stories spun from far and wide is a fascinating new book from Barefoot who always do something special and different. Retold by Tanya Robyn Batt, the stories are from varying cultures – Armenian, Swahili, Hawaiian for example – and have all the art of the live storyteller in their magic. The illustrations by Rachel Griffin are a wonderful patchwork of fabric, beads, paper and objets trouvés, and each story is introduced by a short history of fabric relevant to the particular story, so carpet weaving before the story of Clever Anaeet for example.
Finally, and spectacularly, is The Story Giant. This is a truly magical book that will open so many fabulous doors to young readers. Written by poet Brian Patten, the giant of the title weaves a fantastic mixture of tales from all over the world in his quest to find the one elusive story that will save him and his castle from destruction and all the stories with it. Four children dream their way into the castle and the giant realises they may be able to help him, finding out a great deal about themselves on the way. Weird and wonderful black and white illustrations from Chris Riddell flesh out the bizarre collection of characters the giant has hidden away in his storehouse. Every child in the land should be given this book, a true gift book if ever there was one!
Fiona Waters is a writer and anthologist.
Thomas the Tank Engine Story Collection, Rev. W Awdry, Egmont, 1 4052 0202 5, £35.00
The Complete Collection of Stories: Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, A A Milne, ill. E H Shepard, Egmont, 1 4052 0201 7, £35.00
A Treasury of Enid Blyton’s School Stories, compiled by Mary Cadogan and Norman Wright, Hodder, 0 340 84145 1, £19.99
The Roald Dahl Treasury, ill. Quentin Blake et al, Jonathan Cape, 0 224 04691 8, £19.99
The Kingfisher Treasury of Classic Stories, chosen by Rosemary Sandberg and Michael Morpurgo, various illustrators, Kingfisher, 0 7534 0663 2, £19.99
Miracles, Whales and Wonderful Tales: Voices from the Bible, retold by Shirley Isherwood, ill. Reg Cartwright, Gareth Lucas, Liz Pyle, Allison Reed and Megan Stewart, Hutchinson, 0 09 176869 1, £12.99
The Lion Bible for Children, retold by Murray Watts, ill. Helen Cann, Lion Publishing Gift Edition, 0 7459 4804 9, £20.00, also available in a standard edition, 0 7459 4046 3, £15.99
Atticus the Storyteller’s 100 Greek Myths, Lucy Coats, ill. Anthony Lewis, Orion, 1 84255 026 8, £16.99
Bilbo’s Last Song, J R R Tolkien, ill. Pauline Baynes, Hutchinson, 0 09 188488 8, £7.99
Bedtime Stories: Tales from Terry Jones and Nanette Newman, ill. Michael Foreman, Pavilion, 1 86205 276 X, £14.99
The Sleeping Princess and other Fairy Tales from Grimm, retold by Saviour Pirotta, ill. Emma Chichester Clark, Orchard, 1 84121 541 4, £12.99
The Nightingale, Hans Christian Andersen, retold by Stephen Mitchell, ill. Bagram Ibatoulline, Walker, 0 7445 8528 7, £12.99
Hidden Tales from Eastern Europe, Antonia Barber, ill. Paul Hess, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 1949 4, £12.99
The Fabrics of Fairytale: Stories spun from far and wide, retold by Tanya Robyn Batt, ill. Rachel Griffin, Barefoot, 1 84148 060 6, £14.99
The Story Giant, Brian Patten, ill. Chris Riddell, HarperCollins, 0 00 711944 5, £14.99