Chris Powling looks at new hardbacks with a Christmas theme.
Reviewers of Christmas books for children had better beware: their longing for something different may be at odds with the very sameness that attracts youngsters. After all, the whole kerfuffle won’t have gone sour for them – not while they’re still constructing the sort of idealised set-up that for us is Just Like the One We Used to Know, ho-ho. The cleverness of Sammy s Christmas Workshop (Andre, Deutsch, 0 590 54077 7, £7.99) is that it manages to exploit this gap between child and adult perception without violating it on either side. Behind Sammy’s frantic attempts to pass the time before Santa’s arrival, we see grown-ups struggling to fit everything in – captured with special wit by Amanda Welch in her pictures at the market and outside the local corner shop. When Sammy finally gets lucky and wins unanimous approval in Odette Elliott’s warmhearted and completely credible addition to her tales about this mixed-race family, it’s both appropriate and satisfying that Christmas seems to have arrived early.
In Philippe Dupasquier’s Paul’s Present (Andersen, 0 86264 374 0, £6.99) it’s already gone. This is a post-mortem story, set on the first day of the Spring term, when children engage in the time-honoured activity of comparing-the-spoils. Paul’s present, a hamster, is up against Jenny’s rollerskates, Mark’s skateboard, Kevin’s transformer, Stanislas’s telescope, the twins’ walkie-talkies, Arthur’s Dracula costume, Dimitri’s drums and even the ‘giant train set with thirty carriages, four engines, 40 metres of track, bridges, tunnels and a modern station which lit up in the dark’ that’s been given, naturally, to Christopher Smart. Oh yeah, do I hear you sniff? Well, Philippe Dupasquier gets there first and in a neat bit of narrative table-turning restores our faith in his wonderful ability to explore, in word and image, the sheer anarchy of children’s values.
Of course, the gift Christopher Smart should really have gone for is an Austin Clifton Healey 12/4, circa 1926 … yes, Gumdrop himself. Gumdrop’s Merry Christmas (Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 56714 7, £7.99) is the thirty-fifth in the series, but you’d never believe it. Val Biro’s vibrant drawing and droll, mannerly storyline about the year Gumdrop took over from Santa’s sleigh seem as fresh as ever. Clearly this is a narrative vehicle which, handled so expertly, will run and run … vintage, you might say.
The verse in Jill Bennett’s anthology, Poems for Christmas (Andre Deutsch, 0 590 54062 9, £8.99), is also built to last. Younger readers are the book’s target and, backed up by Ian Beck’s bright and deceptively simple illustrations, its appeal to infants is guaranteed, ranging as it does from ‘Little Jack Horner’ to Adrian Mitchell’s mysterious manikin, or womanikin, who
‘…liked to swoop around the hall With a silver paper soccer ball
And I think I was four but maybe some
When I named her Mrs Christmas.’
As always, whether for four-year-olds or maybe some more-year-olds, Jill Bennett’s choice is unerring in quality and variety. The best poem of the lot, though, is Charles Causley’s ‘High in the Heaven’, which augurs well for the poet’s own collection Bring In the Holly (Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 0668 6, £8.99). This offers six old favourites such as ‘The Animal’s Carol’ and ‘Ballad of the Bread Man’ mixed with half-a-dozen new poems I can only describe as about-to-be-favourites. All are illustrated by Lisa Kopper at the top of her form … and she needs to be when her skills must match verse like this:
‘Angels, under elm and lotus
On St Vincent Square
Adjust a drifted wing, a halo.
Fix their gold hair.’
Could a pageant, in a particular place, be ‘fixed’ more succinctly? What makes Charles Causley so impressive a writer for children lies partly in the sense he always gives of ‘language on tiptoe’, Edith Sitwell’s definition of poetry, and partly in his uncanny ability to surpass other first-rate talents on their terms rather than his. ‘Parson’s Lea’ out-Mitchell’s Adrian Mitchell, for instance, and ‘Driving Home’ out-Nicholls Judith Nicholls. This, truly, is a wonderful book.
So, quite literally, is The First Christmas (Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 0784 4, £9.99) which in spread after spread lays out for us just what Jan Pienkowski and Jane Ray were trying to surpass (see pages 3-4 of this issue). Here, the King James Version of the Nativity is illustrated by paintings from the National Gallery, London – not so much a picture book as a book of pictures, in fact. Sensibly, whether full plates on the right-hand page or exquisiste vignettes on the left, these are interleaved, unidentified, with the text. We must turn to the key at the back of the book to discover we’ve been looking at a roll-call of the world’s greatest painters between the mid-fifteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries from Fra Angelico to Pierre Patel.
Could there be better confirmation of the proposition that picture-books are for all ages and are about Art as much as Literacy?
Finally, Ann Thwaite’s The Brilliant Career of Winnie-the-Pooh (Methuen, 0 413 66710 3, £14.99), an account of A A Milne and his writing for children, is a spin-off from her much praised biography published two years ago. It’s a glorious scrapbook of photographs, theatre programmes, newspaper cuttings, certificates, menus, cigarette cards and miscellaneous other material linked by a sharp, scholarly text which never attempts to compete with the full-length version. What’s that? How can I justify mentioning it here? Well, for a start, there’s the Shepard Christmas card, reproduced on page 6, which was sold at Christie’s for £5,380 in 1990 … and, for a finish, it’s the book that, if I hadn’t got it already, I’d most want to unwrap on December 25th. So there.