Fiona Waters looks at new titles for the festive season.
For the jaded adult, the word ‘Christmas’ usually provokes at the very least a deep groan, but for children it is a time of the utmost magic. And looking at the piles of books surrounding me I can confirm that Christmas magic is alive and well there too! Just when it seemed impossible to produce a single book that had anything new to say or depict about the 25th December, a fresh wave of imaginative and innovative publishing appears. Lots of dross as well, of course, but why waste precious space talking about that?
The Christmas Story Retold
Sometimes the Christmas story itself gets overlooked in the spate of commercialism, but here are four outstanding picture book re-tellings. A Night the Stars Danced for Joy by Bob Hartman and illustrated by Tim Jonke (Lion Publishing, 0 7459 3610 5, £7.99) is the shepherds’ view. At the end of a long hard day they lie looking at the stars which seem to be shining more brightly than usual. Then, the shepherd boy makes a wish, which comes true almost instantaneously.
The First Christmas by Georgie Adams, illustrated by Anna C Leplar (Orion, 1 85881 276 3, £8.99) is a delightfully simple re-telling, beginning with the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. The text is just right for the youngest children and the illustrations warm and approachable. A Medieval Christmas with the Tyndale translation of the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke, and illuminations from the collection of Books of Hours in The British Library (Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 1057 8, £9.99) is a slim but handsome book, with the jewel-like colours of the illuminations superbly well reproduced. Most breathtaking of these four Christmas story re-tellings is This is the Star by Joyce Dunbar, illustrated by Gary Blythe (Doubleday, 0 385 40602 9, £9.99). Joyce Dunbar’s text is intense but spare and dramatically complemented by Gary Blythe’s mysterious and unearthly pictures, full of brooding chiaroscuro.
Every family should have a Christmas collection, a compendium of stories, poems and traditions that they can return to annually, taking it off the bookshelf each 1st December. Here are some interesting and varied new candidates for this annual ritual. The Little Book of Christmas, selected by Caroline Walsh and illustrated by Sophie Allsopp (Kingfisher, 1 85697 498 7, £6.99) contains poetry, carols and prose extracts. There are lots of familiar friends here together with some surprising and less obvious choices. Star of Wonder: Christmas Stories and Poems for Children, compiled by Pat Alexander and illustrated with black and white line drawings by Robin Laurie (Lion Publishing, 0 7459 2264 3, £12.99) is a very satisfying collection, all 224 pages of it. With the emphasis on the real meaning of Christmas, the stories and poems, both traditional and modern, include a wide range of well-established and less well-known writers.
Pocket sized, A Treasury of Christmas Stories, chosen by Sian Hardy (Kingfisher, 1 85697 249 6, £4.50 pbk) is another attractive collection where stories such as ‘Baboushka’, ‘The Little Fir Tree’ and ‘Brer Rabbit’ sit alongside less familiar tales like ‘The Christmas Roast’ where a goose has an unexpectedly happy Christmas. Also from Kingfisher, Christmas Stories for the Very Young, selected by Sally Grindley and illustrated by Helen Cooper (1 85697 252 6, £4.99 pbk) is a collection of read-aloud stories by contemporary writers like Mary Rayner, Chris Powling and Martin Waddell. Stories which tell of the sheep deserted while the shepherds go to Bethlehem, or of a lonely dragon and a very rich spoilt king who wants a surprise for a present, all pick up various strands of the Christmas story.
No one could have better credentials for putting together a collection of festive writings than former Guardian children’s book editor Stephanie Nettell and she does not disappoint with Collins Christmas Treasury, illustrated by Ian Penney in full colour (Collins, 0 00 198057 2, £14.99). In her introduction Stephanie Nettell wishes for an anthology that will cause people to exclaim, ‘Do you remember that lovely bit when …?’ Just so, here it is, a real plum pudding of a book made up of an endless variety of ingredients with a superb range of the familiar and the totally unexpected.
Christmas Titles for Schools
Silent Night, illustrated with embroideries by Belinda Downes (Mammoth, 0 7497 2965 1, £5.99 pbk) is a selection of twelve of the most popular carols with music. The text is easy to read, and the illustrations are humorous and attractive. For the classroom, Christmas (in the Wayland ‘Festivals’ series, 0 7502 1846 0, £9.50) looks at how Christmas is celebrated in different parts of the world and within different cultures.
For much younger children, Christmas and New Year (Moonlight, 1 85103 247 9, £6.99) makes full use of the ‘First Discovery’ series trademark transparent overlays to reveal the magic of Christmas.
Teachers are always looking for Christmas plays so the Scripture Union must have a winner with The Grumpy Shepherd and other Christmas Plays (Scripture Union, 1 85999 085 1, £7.99 pbk). The plays are written by Heather Butler and Elspeth Jackman with plenty of supporting parts for angels and sheep to ensure the whole class can take part; there are also lots of songs arranged by Ken Harratt.
Santa’s Workshop by Paul Stickland (Ragged Bears, 1 85714 107 5, £12.99) has ‘A magical three-dimensional tour’ as its sub-title and the opening spread of Santa’s workshop is pure magic. A hive of activity, the workshop is full of incredible detail and will keep children fascinated for ages – a Christmas decoration in itself.
The pop-ups in The Christmas Alphabet by Robert Sabuda (Barefoot, 1 898000 63 8, £15.99) are three-dimensional and startling for being pure, snowy white. There are no jolly red holly berries, no glittering tinsel, no flashing lights here, but intricate and beautiful paper engineering of the highest quality. This book doesn’t shout, it sings a rich, low sustained note of joy. Don’t dismiss it with a cursory glance, it is exceptional.
Not quite a pop-up, more a spread-out comes from Templar and Gallery. Woodland Christmas by Marie Angel (0 85692 197 1, £9.99) is a nature frieze, a story and an Advent calendar all in one. The illustrations are both beautiful and accurate with clear labelling giving the names of the animals and birds to be seen in this winter landscape as fact merges into fantasy in an entirely believable manner.
Jesus’ Christmas Party by Nicholas Allan (Red Fox ‘Mini Treasures’, 0 09 972491 X, £3.99 pbk) is a witty version of the Christmas story from the viewpoint of the innkeeper. Not for the po-faced! This small format picture book is really excellent value: it has two double gatefolds with press outs which make a nativity playset. Wonderful fun.
It is difficult to imagine yet another version of The Twelve Days of Christmas, yet here one is and very stylish too (North-South, 1 55858 608 3, £4.99 pbk). Dorothée Duntze has created the most suave partridge in a pear tree ever and has filled the subsequent pages with intriguing hints at what has gone before.
Two very different versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol come next. From Walker a most handsome edition, abridged by Vivian French and illustrated by Patrick Benson (0 7445 4999 X, £6.99) with wonderful ghosts and Scrooge scared out of his wits. The Christmas Mouse by Toby Forward and illustrated by Ruth Brown (Andersen, 0 86264 628 6, £10.99) is one of my absolute favourites this year. Toby Forward has re-jigged the Dickens’ classic for the younger children. Ben the mouse doesn’t believe in Christmas and spurns the present offered to him by his friend Tim. On Christmas Eve Ben is visited by a strange mouse … Ruth Brown’s atmospheric illustrations have haunting glimpses of another mean creature and his late night visitors as the mouse tale runs parallel to that of Scrooge. Feel your toes nipped by the cold and your heart chilled by the unknown as Ben edges through the night.
The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder and translated by Elizabeth Rokkan, illustrated by Rosemary Wells (Phoenix House, 1 86159 015 6, £14.99) is a story within a story, a magical tour that follows the wanderings of a lost girl, Elisabet, as she travels back in time to Bethlehem. Her journey is pieced together by Joachim as he opens the windows of his Advent calendar day by December day. This is a book for children of all ages up to ninety which will make the reader think again, and again about the Christmas story.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Santa Claus and very jolly he is too in Sssh! by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Tim Warnes (Magi, 1 85430 400 3, £8.99). Not only jolly but very noisy! Even the reindeer tries to persuade Santa not to wake the children, but he keeps bursting into song. All ends well, however, and there is a nice twist to the story at the end. Tim Warnes has an open and bright style, ideal for this very cheerful picture book for the very young.
It must be very confusing for younger children to start seeing Santa as early as November and in Tesco’s too; the magic of Father Christmas arriving on Christmas Night must seem very distant. I’m the Real Santa Claus! by Ingrid Ostheeren, translated by Rosemary Lanning and illustrated by Christa Unzner (North-South, 1 55858 616 4, £4.99 pbk) deals with this contemporary worry in a witty and satisfying way when Santa arrives too early and is puzzled to see lots of men dressed just like him … The Little Reindeer by Michael Foreman (Andersen Press, 0 86264 692 8, £9.99) tells how a small boy living in New York finds a very strange present on Christmas Eve – a little reindeer who develops a taste for peanut butter sandwiches. This is a very warm and special story.
Kittens and puppies often feature in Christmas picture books. Here are four very special picture books that will pull at the heart-strings. Snowy: The Christmas Dog by Sheila Lavelle, illustrated by Susan Scott (Oxford, 0 19 272271 9, £3.99 pbk) is found on the roof on Christmas Eve. He settles in with his new family but he doesn’t like hot weather and he seems to be waiting for someone … Come Back, Buster by Linda Jennings, illustrated by Catherine Walters (Magi, 1 85430 395 3, £8.99) tells how a little dog’s world is turned upside down when his beloved master is taken into hospital. Will he see him on Christmas day? Catherine Walters has created the most endearing little dog in Buster, with his one black eye and lopsided ear – children everywhere will just want to give him a huge hug. Cosy Christmas with Teddy Bear by Jacqueline McQuade (David Bennett Books, 1 85602 253 6, £8.99) shares the mounting excitement of a teddy bear and his friend the cat as they get ready for Christmas. The illustrations are cosy and vibrant and full of festive detail. The text has two layers, big bold one-liners for the youngest reader and smaller more detailed descriptions for more advanced readers.
Christmas is not always fun for a cat when there is too much noise and too many big careless feet. A Pussycat’s Christmas by Margaret Wise Brown with illustrations by Anne Mortimer (Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 0979 0, £4.99 pbk) presents Christmas from a cat’s eye view. The lovely text, first written nearly fifty years ago, is given a new lease of life with Anne Mortimer’s glowing, wonderfully detailed illustrations and irresistible cat.
One of the most famous puppies of them all is Mick Inkpen’s Kipper. In Kipper’s Snowy Day (Hodder, 0 340 65678 6, £9.99) our hero plays endless games in the deep snow leaving both paw prints and Kipper shapes all over the garden. Mick Inkpen has created a most endearing character in Kipper and here he captures perfectly the real magic and excitement of snow for very young children.
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski, illustrated by P J Lynch (Walker, 0 7445 4007 0, £9.99) was actually published last Christmas but as it has just won The Kate Greenaway Medal I make absolutely no apologies for including it here! This is a picture book full of the deepest emotion. The story is rich in warmth and gentle perseverance, and P J Lynch’s illustrations heart-rendingly beautiful and emotive. This is a fine and classic book which should join the ranks of the Christmas books to be re-read every year – if you could ever bear to put it away in the first place.
And a few stocking fillers to round off with!
The Teenage Worrier’s Christmas Survival Guide by Ros Asquith (Piccadilly, 1 85340 349 0, £3.99 pbk) is a wonderfully daft Christmas survival kit – how to cope with the dreaded relatives, plan now to avoid next Christmas and ensure you keep some of those awful New Year resolutions. Two activity books should guarantee some peace and quiet for busy parents. The Little Fir Tree’s Busy for Christmas Book, text by Lois Rock and illustrations from Cathy Baxter (Lion Publishing, 0 7459 3426 9, £2.99 pbk) provides Christmas activities, games, decorations and a press-out crib to make, all with a Christian slant, while Santa’s Sackful of Best Christmas Ideas by Deri Robins (Kingfisher, 1 85697 054 X, £4.99 pbk) has lots of very jolly ideas for cards, presents and foodie gifts. Christmas Crackered by Caroline Plaisted (Bloomsbury, 0 7475 2990 6, £3.99 pbk) helpfully includes multiple-choice thank-you letters, and guidance on present buying if you are broke. Top stocking filler this year must be the latest in the hugely successful series, ‘Animal Ark’. Kitten in the Cold by Lucy Daniels (Hodder, 0 340 68147 0, £3.50 pbk) is a sure-fire winner for animal-dotty readers of about eight, with an abandoned kitten and a sick reindeer.
Fiona Waters was a children’s bookseller for many years and a consultant for a number of radio and television book programmes. Her latest poetry anthology, The Poetry Book, has just been published by Orion.