The giving and receiving of gifts is a part of Christmas which arouses conflicting feelings in all of us whatever our age. Now and in memory there is anticipation and disappointment, unbearable excitement and awful anti-climax, joy, tears, envy, security, exhaustion, fulfilment. We’ve selected books from this season’s crop which provide space and opportunity for children, alone or with adults, to explore this emotional mix up.
The three kings following the star and bearing their symbolic gifts to Bethlehem began it all. Two books retell that Christian myth in ways which illuminate the theme.
Words by Peggy Blakeley, paintings by Yutaka Sugita, A & C Black, 0 7136 2867 7, £5.95
Rich colours glow so brightly from the shiny textured appearance of Sugita’s pages that many young readers reach out to touch or even lick the pictures. Here, illustrating a simple text, the kings, smiling and friendly, move steadily in stylised forms through the book. They are joined on their journey by Cat (‘A cat may look at a king’) … and Donkey … and Bird; arriving at the stable the animals are sad to have no gifts until they realise that they can give themselves – the bird will sing, the donkey (delicately foreshadowing Palm Sunday) offers rides, the cat will play and be stroked.
Amahl and the Night Visitors
Gian Carlo Menotti, ill. Michele Lemieux, Faber, 0 571 10070 8, £5.95
This longer story is a retelling by the composer of his famous Christmas opera. The kings seek hospitality from a poor shepherd boy and his widowed mother. Amahl hearing that the child the kings seek will ‘build his kingdom on love alone’ offers his crutch as a gift: ‘Who knows he may need one, and this I made myself.’ Miraculously he is cured; can walk, run and dance and rides off with the kings to present his gift in person. All the humour, the drama and the magic of the story are captured in the illustrations.
More everyday concerns about Christmas and presents can be found in this next batch.
James and the Father Christmases
Ute Krause, Methuen, 0 416 63910 0, £5.95
proposes a world in which the news that THERE IS NO FATHER CHRISTMAS spreads like wildfire through the media.
Eventually even the Father Christmases hear about it, letters from children decline to a trickle and at the very first world conference of Father Christmases they decide to go on strike, take a break in the South Seas and deliver no presents that year. James however has his doubts and a little bit of evidence is all he needs to convince him he has to go to the South Seas to put things right. Back on duty the Santas make their Christmas calls leaving labels, ‘If I’m not real, where did the presents come from?’ Amusing, cartoony pictures show identical Santas – useful to explain away the one in every store – and the concept of depersonalised generosity which we did not deserve or believe in is something to discuss!
A Bear for Christmas
Holly Keller, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 283 0, £4.95 and
Thomas and the Christmas Presents
A Vesey, Methuen, 0 416 96890 2, £4.95
deal with the awful anxiety about what you are ‘getting for Christmas’ and the dreadful temptation of hidden parcels. In A Bear for Christmas Joey tracks down a present he knows is for him. He opens it and finds a big bear he immediately names Fred. Trouble begins when he lets his friend Arnold into the secret and a squabble leads to Fred getting ripped. Joey’s guilt and anxiety ruin the Christmas preparations for him but luckily he has a wise mum and everything is cleared up on Christmas morning. As usual Holly Keller has her finger on exactly how children feel.
Thomas, in A Vesey’s story, is a cat, but his desperate desire to know if he is getting the longed-for bicycle for Christmas will be recognised by many human counterparts. It drives him, one night, to unwrapping all the parcels in the landing cupboard to find out. No bicycle, just bad dreams and, next morning, two angry disappointed parents. Thomas tries hard to make amends but when he hangs up his stocking on Christmas Eve it is more in hope than certainty … Guess what happens!
Both these books are just right for newly developing readers.
The Best Christmas
Lee Kingham, ill. Janet Duchesne, Julia MacRae (Redwing Books), 0 86203 262 8, £3.95
is a longer text and could be read alone for more experience or shared with a class – there’s something here for all ages. First published in 1949, this could be an antidote to those relentlessly competitive recitals of who’s being given what or (after Christmas) who’s got what.
The rural life-style of a large, poor American family living on the Atlantic coast in the early part of this century may have little in common with that of video-watching, computer-using collectors of Transformers, Care Bears, My Little Pony and He-man. But what may communicate and give rise to talk are the feelings of a family when the oldest child, grown-up Matti, is missing at sea. The simple ritual Christmas preparations cannot disguise anxiety and, for the younger children, there is the realisation that no Matti means no store-bought presents. Erkki is ten and the fifth child; secretly, using anything he can lay his hands on, he makes presents for everyone else and (trying to take on his brother’s role for Matti’s sake) he discovers the excitement of giving. Sensitively observed detail makes this well worth attention – and there is a happy ending.
Rosemary Wells, Collins, 0 00 195328 1. £3.95
Max and big sister Ruby, Rosemary Wells’ two characterful ‘human rabbits’, are here again. Ruby pushes, prods and faces a barrage of questions as she organises Max into bed on Christmas Eve. Finally, standing on him to keep him down, she is driven to authoritarian BECAUSE! when Max wants to know why no-one ever sees Santa Claus. Being the kind of rabbit who needs to know for himself Max waits by the chimney and subjects Santa Claus to a similar inquisition. Once again it’s the pictures that tell more than half the story – Rosemary Wells’ rabbits must have the most expressive body language in picture books.
Happy Christmas, Gemma
Sarah Haves. ill. Jan Ormerod. Walker Books. 0 7445 0618 2. £5-95
A family Christmas simply described in the words of baby Gemma’s older brother and chronicling in particular Gemma’s part in it all. ‘Another day we put up the decorations. I made a long paper chain. Gemma made a mess.’ Jan Ormerod’s pictures of this delightful Black family – including Grandma – extend the text with a wealth of human observation. Look at the range of facial expressions as Gemma, who has her back to us, turns her howl of Christmas dinner upside down. Lovely.
More Christmases Past are available for comparison in
A Christmas Carol
Adapted from Dickens by Jane Wilton-Smith. ill. John Worsley, Blackie, 0 216 92080 9. £4.50
The central theme of this most definitive of all discussions of the Christmas spirit is retained in this very slimmed-down version. Dickens’ voice survives despite a (probably unnecessary) tendency to simplify the vocabulary in places ‘very much’ for ‘exceedingly’, ‘scarf’ for ‘comforter’. Sadly, also, some richly detailed set pieces – Fezziwig’s party. the streets of Christmas present, the Cratchit family’s concentrated involvement with goose and pudding have become bare bones to make room for pictures which, though supportive cannot replace the images created by the words. Still, you can always go back to the original for these and this is a workable text to read aloud to juniors.
A look at the dreadful, lifeless ‘adaptation’ in the pop-up A Christmas Carol (Methuen, 0 416 96550 4, £6.95) will show you how not to do it. The illustrations by Victor Ambrus catch the Dickens spirit and the pop-up effects arc nicely inventive – Marley’s face appearing in the knocker for one. Hut the text! Bah! Humbug!
The Christmas Party
Faith Jaques. Orchard Books. 1 85213 002 4. £4.95
takes us to Edwardian England in the form of a make-it-yourself model of a children’s party. It’s unusual for us to recommend a toy rather than a book: but this one provides so many opportunities for story-making and the detail is so carefully researched and incorporated that we think it’s worth mentioning. Try it with lots of speculative questions – Who are the children’? What games will they play at the party? What will they eat! Who are the presents on the tree for? What’s in the parcels on the table? Who are the cards from? When did we start sending cards, decorating our houses with Christmas trees. balloons. paper chains. greenery? Who put up the decorations in this house’? Where is father? Did all the children in Edwardian England have a Christmas like this? A good focus for children researching and writing.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales
Dylan Thomas, ill. Edward Ardizzone. Dent, 0 400 02772 7, £2.95
This full-size paperback edition must be the bargain of the season. Dylan Thomas’ memories of thirties’ Christmases capture exactly the child-sized perspective on uncles, and eating and presents. and amazing events like Mrs Prothero’s fire. Ardizzone’s illustrations are all you could ask and more. Magical.
The Christmas Day Kitten
James Herriot, ill. Ruth Brown, Michael Joseph. 0 7181 275 I . £5.95
This unassuming story, adapted from a chapter in one of the Herriot memoirs, is the most successful by miles of the three books so far produced from this source. The telling is unremarkable but Ruth Brown’s pictures take this book into the special class. Landscapes, location, people and especially the animals – cats and Basset hounds – lift the flatness of the prose into a vividly real world. Ruth Brown has drawn cats before but never like this; Debbie the bedraggled stray and Buster the kitten she brings to Mrs Pickering on Christmas Day are so completely realised you can feel the texture of their fur and read their different personalities. Don’t he put off by the cover design which makes this look like a twee book. It isn’t. It’s another view of giving and receiving.
The Polar Express
Chris van Allsburg. Andersen, 0 86264 143 8. £5.95
A beautiful, atmospheric book whose pictures and story speak to all ages of the undying magic of Christmas, the best gift of all and always there for those who wish to find it. The first person narrative tells how ‘many years ago’ on Christmas Eve the Polar Express a huge steam train pulled up outside a boy’s house. the guard invited him aboard and he and a train load of other children, all in their night-clothes, set off for the North Pole and Santa’s city. Houses, forests, wolves, mountains, viaducts, factories are simultaneously real and mysterious in Chris van Allsburg’s snow-filled pictures; but Santa Claus is as sharp and clear as the delineation in the final picture of the hell from his sleigh that the now adult storyteller asked for as ‘the first gift of Christmas’.
Winner of the Caldecott medal when it was first published in the USA last year, this is a really special book: without doubt my Christmas book of the year by miles.
Books selected by Pat Triggs.