Throughout 2023, we’ve seen a welcome focus on reading for pleasure. Giving books is also a pleasure, especially when you know that they’re guaranteed (or as close as can be) to be received with delight. Each year, we sort through the books that their publishers claim deserve to be under the tree. Which have passed the BfK test this year? Find out below! (And don’t forget to use our Books of the Year features and review section when you go Christmas shopping too.)
For the very young
Usborne rise to the festive challenge with Don’t Tickle Santa, a touchy-feely sounds book in which you can stroke the reindeer, tickle Santa and his elf and finally, press a button to hear them all join in a raucous chorus of We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Can you Find Santa? by Axel Scheffler for Campbell will also develop motor skills and an early appreciation of books – felt flaps of different shapes can be lifted to reveal various characters and animals who are most definitely not Santa, excitement rising until we find him on the last page. Snow!, a boardbook by Leslie Patricelli is great fun too, two toddlers get dressed and play in the snow (‘We fall. We don’t care.’) before coming back in, stripping off to warm up in the bath. An exuberant, delightful depiction of fun and friendship for the very young.
Christmas picture books
We’re talking books that specifically feature Christmas celebrations and/or Santa here. Top of the list is Luna Loves Christmas by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers. Little Luna has two homes – one with Mum, one with Dad – so gets two Christmases. This year however, they’re all doing something different. The special day is spent at the community centre, sharing Christmas dinner with people who’d otherwise be alone or without. Story and illustrations capture the real joys of the season, sharing, giving, being together. There’s an added Christmas gift in the middle, an illustrated poem by Coelho, presented as a book read to Luna. In How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney? Mac Barnett attempts to answer that perennial question, coming up with some wonderfully absurd suggestions though no actual answer. Santa is inscrutable in Jon Klassen’s illustrations, even when being licked by friendly dogs, which only adds to the hilarity of the story while the final page turn is a piece of picture book genius. There’s more delicious absurdity, and invaluable advice, in You Can’t Let an Elephant Pull Santa’s Sleigh by Patricia Cleveland-Peck and David Tazzyman. It might be book six in the series, but it has all the energy, fun and zingy rhymes of the first. Merry Whatmas? by Eoin McLaughlin and Polly Dunbar explores Christmas through the eyes of Hedgehog and Tortoise, stars of The Hug. The two know nothing of Christmas, it being their first, and the other animals give descriptions skewed to their own particular interests. Our two little heroes are left feeling bemused and even anxious, until Owl explains what Christmas is really about. Polly Dunbar’s illustrations give Hedgehog and Tortoise so much character and it’s a lovely to book to share; the final image is a joy. Christmas Cobwebs by Pippa Goodhart and Ema Malyauka is, I think, the only book in which spiders are involved in Christmas celebrations. Old Bear is not happy that they’ve decorated her Christmas tree with cobwebs, until she sees it sparkling on a frosty Christmas morning. Real Christmas magic. New in paperback, Eight Nights, Eight Lights by Natalie Barnes and Andrea Stegmaier celebrates Chanukah highlighting, as all these books have, family, love and the reassuring quality of traditions.
Long nights and holidays call for new story collections. Nikita Gill’s retelling of stories from the Panchatantra, Animal Tales from India will prove very popular. Featuring quick-thinking jackals, clever mice, and a not-so-clever crocodile, the ten stories open with a direct address to listeners, drawing them in, and they conclude with suggestions for what children might learn from the stories and the animals’ behaviour. Gill gives a freshness and contemporary heft to these age-old stories; they read aloud beautifully and illustrations by Chaaya Prabhat are as warm and vivid as the narration. The stories in Where Magic Grows by Onjali Q, Raúf are all new but draw inspiration from old myths and fables, and have a shared intent to encourage kindness, tolerance and understanding in their readers. Settings range from magical lands to Cairo, Mumbai and the Amazon rainforest. It’s definitely worth adding Ten-Word Tiny Tales by Joseph Coelho and illustrator friends to the list too: ten stories, told in ten words and accompanying illustration, and an irresistible invitation to readers to continue the story. Unmissable too is The Shirley Hughes Treasury, a collection of nursery rhymes, poems, short stories and longer stories, Hughes’ unmistakable child characters jumping, spinning, toddling across the pages exactly as her readers do.
Alex T. Smith reserves himself prime place beneath the tree again this year. Following How Winston Delivered Christmas and its sequel, and The Grumpus, this year he delights us with an inventive, gorgeously illustrated retelling of The Nutcracker in The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’s Christmas Shenanigans. The Mouse King, self-styled ‘the Great Gorgonzola’, has plans – of course – to disrupt Christmas, and it falls to young Clara and Fritz Strudel, plus their new friend Walter the Nutcracker to stop him, the stakes being raised considerably when Fritz is turned into a mouse. In 24 ½ chapters it’s designed to be read Advent-calendar-like, one chapter a day, though it will be hard to resist calls for ‘just one more’, especially with titles as tempting as A Marzipan Mystery and The Battle of Marshmallow Mountain. We recommend Jacqueline Wilson’s The Magic Faraway Tree Christmas adventure elsewhere in this issue, another food-filled Christmas treat. In Eoin Colfer’s Juniper’s Christmas, 11-year-old Juniper needs Santa’s help to find her missing mother, the task made more complicated since poor Santa, grieving the death of his wife, has left the North Pole and is resolutely avoiding all children, though he is living in the park near her home. It’s a consummate piece of storytelling from Colfer, weaving themes of recovery, healing and forgiveness into a heart-warming adventure (and we find out how Santa manages to deliver all those presents in just one night).
Three icy adventures offer different but equally enticing reading experiences. In Finding Bear by Hannah Gold, April of the award-winning The Last Bear, returns to Svalbard in the depths of winter to help Bear, discovering that there is now a polar bear cub to be cared for too. Gold’s passion for polar bears and the environment drives the narrative, making this another vivid, memorable and moving adventure. The Ice Children by M.G. Leonard takes The Snow Queen as inspiration, as children, first one then more and more, are found frozen though still alive. Desperate to save her little brother Finn and her friends, Bianca risks her own life and enters the magical world where they are being held. Environmental themes are at the heart of this too, though readers will mainly relish the sense of magic, the magical world and the talking animals that protect the children there. In The Snow Girl by Sophie Anderson, lonely Tasha makes a snow girl who becomes a real, living girl, a friend, though a secret one. But spring must come, and what will happen then? The story is beautifully told, an investigation of friendship, family and the power of old tales.
Ghost stories and the supernatural
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without ghost stories to share. Daniel Morden’s Strange Tales from Firefly is a collection of supernatural tales, uncanny and unsettling, and likely to haunt you long after you’ve finished the book. Tales of the Damned by Matt Ralphs with illustrations by Taylor Dolan contains eight classic horror stories retold, from Red Riding Hood to Frankenstein to The Monkey’s Paw. There are pages of background information throughout, so there’s something of an information book about it too though, NB, it’s definitely not one for the young or easily scared. Dolan herself has a new book in the delightfully quirky Ghost Scouts series, Mayhem at Camp Croak!, which I can just about slip into this section and are highly recommended for young fans of the Gothic. Mermedusa concludes Thomas Taylor’s Eerie-on-Sea mysteries. Set in a seaside town, surprisingly creepy and with a wonderful cast of eccentric characters and mournful monsters, the books are full of imaginative twists and turns and the conclusion is everything you’d want.
Classics and old favourites
‘The greatest thing that children’s books – maybe any art – can do is teach us how to be happy’, says Frank Cottrell-Boyce in his introduction to Oxford’s 65th Anniversary edition of Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, adding, ‘Above all, Tom’s Midnight Garden is a book about learning how to be happy.’ With a cover by Levi Pinfold this handsome new edition, with its unmissable foreword, is happiness guaranteed. While we’re talking timeslip stories, Faber have a shiny new edition of Alison Uttley’s masterpiece A Traveller in Time with striking black and white illustrations by John Broadley. It’s 65 years since A Bear Called Paddington was first published too, and HarperCollins have a lovely new hardback featuring Peggy Fortnum’s original illustrations now ‘in glorious colour’ thanks to Mark Burgess. Paddington of course, always deserves a warm welcome. Anniversaries are coming thick and fast and the 20th Anniversary Edition of How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell also features a sparkling cover but contains an exclusive new story too. This year also sees publication of a paperback edition of Pippi Longstocking with Lauren Child’s glorious, distinctive illustrations, originally published in 2016, while Templar have brought out a new paperback edition of Michael Foreman’s illustrated WW1 story The Amazing Tale of Ali Pasha. Look out too for the paperback edition of Tyger by S.F. Said, first published only in 2022 but already acquiring the status of a classic. Finally, Paws, Claws, Tails & Roars presents Brian Wildsmith’s animal illustrations in a beautiful, new, contemporary way, freshly written, lyrical text accompanying each portrait. The images have been remastered and the colours blaze from the page, breathtaking in their boldness and movement. A must have, whatever your age.
Books that defy categorisation
Finally, two books that can’t be categorised but demand your attention. Island of Whispers by Frances Hardinge and Emily Gravett is a ghost story, a folk tale, a chase, a lament for the dead, a tribute to the power of stories and a reflection on fate. Full of powerful images – in text and illustration – it should be read and reread. Begin Again by Oliver Jeffers asks questions of all of us about the state of our world and what we want for it. It positions each of us in history, celebrating the slow passing of stories to and from each other. Images, layout, composition and colour keep pace with the vastness of his subject but leave us feeling hopeful and calm.
Happy Christmas reading.