One present that has no need for batteries and which stands a strong chance of affording children lasting pleasure is a book. Rosemary Stones selects titles with enduring appeal and beautiful artwork.
The ideal stocking filler this year must be the shrunk in the wash miniature version of Max Velthuijs’s touching picture book, Frog and the Stranger . When a travelling stranger, Rat, appears and sets up camp, the animals instantly take against him – after all, he is ‘different’ and therefore in all probability a thief or dirty… The amiable Frog is curious and wants to get to know Rat despite Pig and Duck’s misgivings. And Rat turns out to be an excellent friend to them all – brave, clever, funny and kind. He is much missed when he moves on. The tale could have been didactic but Velthuijs tells it with understated deftness and lightness of touch, leaving the illustrations to convey the changes that take place. This small format version has a particular charm with frog’s green skin picked out on the cover with spot lamination so he shines against the drab grey fur of the trusty Rat.
Novelty classics for under 5s
First published in the 1970s, Robert Crowther’s The Most Amazing Hide-and-Seek Alphabet Book helped to spark off a renaissance of novelty publishing that has lasted to the present day. Few of the many titles that followed it onto the market, however, have matched its stylish design, witty illustration and consummate integration of paper engineering in the service of the whole rather than as an end in itself. The letters of the alphabet in this landscape book are a bold black against a white background but tabs and pulls reveal hidden animals and birds whose characteristics are ingeniously suggested by each device – thus the pull for W reveals a woodpecker about to tap away at the letter itself; a double device to the pull for O uncovers a lugubrious owl which then closes its eyes, as quickly or slowly as you please; open the tab for Q and a startled quail takes off. And so forth. A companion volume, The Most Amazing Hide-and-Seek Numbers Book , with black numbers against white is similarly engaging (the pull for 90 reveals ninety fleas). Walker’s welcome reprint of these now classic titles adds covers in full colour.
The creative duo of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler (of Gruffalo fame) has, in Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book packed story after story in one book in a most amusing and fast-moving way. Donaldson’s rhyming text has Charlie curled up in an armchair, reading a book about a pirate captain who in turn is reading a book about Goldilocks who in turn is reading a book about a knight… You get the idea: this story is actually 11 stories in one and its fast-moving plot returns us neatly to Charlie at the finis. With his subtle positioning of an eye dot or the angle of a mouth, Scheffler conveys how his (always rather wary looking) characters, both animal and human, are feeling. Not to be missed is Baby Bear’s outraged face on discovering that Goldilocks is not only in his bed but she is reading his favourite book…
The envy a mother can feel for a daughter as the latter grows up to rival and then replace her in youthful beauty is a subject rarely aired – except in fairy tales (or perhaps on the analytic couch). Snow White’s wicked stepmother stands for a great many mothers of daughters as she gazes into the mirror and asks ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall,/Who is the fairest one of all?’ This version of Snow White is published in a handsome, square volume expressively illustrated in soft pastels by Julie Monks. Joyce Dunbar’s retelling of the powerful tale has an occasional false note but does well enough to enthral young readers.
The Classic Treasury of Princess Fairy Tales is a large format portrait picture book illustrated by Peter Malone in a sumptuous style at times reminiscent of the dress and conventions of 18th-century ‘conversation piece’ portraiture. The collection contains eight tales (Snow White, Cinderella, The Frog Prince, The Sleeping Beauty, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Rumpelstiltskin, The Princess and the Pea,and Beauty and the Beast) retold by Margaret Clark in an unadorned, conversational style. The emphasis in these retellings of tales about beautiful princesses is on inner beauty – as the reteller points out, in every tale ‘you will find a girl who is kind and brave, who works hard and enjoys using her brain, and who, in fact, possesses all the virtues of a true princess’. Both or either of these fairy tale volumes would be a beautiful gift.
Earlier this year the wood engraver Christopher Wormell designed a series of stunning postage stamps featuring animals. Animals also feature in his Mice, Morals & Monkey Business: Lively Lessons from Aesop’s Fables , an elegant, square, cloth bound book in which the moral of each fable is underlined with an expressive linoleum block print. Wormell’s vibrantly chunky black line frames each scene and contrasts with the subtle palette (eg burnt orange and crepuscular blue) of his background colours, the whole printed on cream paper. Thus in The Wild Boar and the Fox, the boar is intent on sharpening his tusks against a tree, the weight of his body solid against the trunk, whilst observed from a distance by the curious fox outlined against the sky. In The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, the alert wolf covered in a sheepskin is flanked by sheep serenely oblivious to the danger they are in. An exquisite volume and a fine introduction to Aesop.
For older readers of eight or nine upwards, Roberto Innocenti’s illustrated version of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio is hard to beat. First published in 1988, this new edition has twenty new illustrations. Innocenti’s often sinister and surreal landscapes and characterisations reflect the edginess of Collodi’s masterpiece as the little puppet wrestles with his conscience whilst being continuously sidetracked by appealing adventures or misled by villains. The vertiginous perspectives of many of Collodi’s illustrations remind us of the puppet’s size and fragility as he roams insouciantly through the world. Look out for Innocenti’s magnificent double page spread showing the reunion of Geppetto and Pinocchio inside the body of the monstrous shark. This superb edition of Pinocchio will be read and reread.
Rosemary Stones is Editor of Books for Keeps .
Frog and the Stranger , Max Velthuijs, Andersen, 1 84270 466 4, £4.99 hbk
The Most Amazing Hide-and-Seek Alphabet Book , Robert Crowther, Walker, 0 7445 7027 1, £6.99 board
The Most Amazing Hide-and-Seek Numbers Book , Robert Crowther, Walker, 0 7445 7028 X, £6.99 board
Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book , Julia Donaldson, ill. Axel Scheffler, Macmillan, 1 405 03469 6, £10.99 hbk
Snow White , retold by Joyce Dunbar, ill. Julie Monks, Scholastic, 0 439 95994 2, £14.99 hbk
The Classic Treasury of Princess Fairy Tales , retold by Margaret Clark, ill. Peter Malone, Courage Books (Running Press), 0 7624 1890 7, £8.99 hbk
Mice, Morals & Monkey Business: Lively Lessons from Aesop’s Fables , Christopher Wormell, Running Press Kids, 0 7624 2611 X, £12.99 hbk
The Adventures of Pinocchio , Carlo Collodi, trans. Mary Alice Murray, ill. Roberto Innocenti, Jonathan Cape, 0 224 07056 8, £14.99 hbk