Rosemary Stones suggests titles with a Christmas theme with appeal to younger readers.
Usborne can be relied on to produce delightful books for the very young and Baby’s Very First Touch-Feely Christmas Book is no exception. A small format board book, each page presents a clear representation of a festive object (a Christmas tree, a present, a snowman, a stocking etc) against a plain background. There are lots of opportunities for talking with your baby about these exciting and evocative things in the run-up to Christmas and pleasure is enhanced by the touchy-feely element within each illustration – feel the shiny paper on the present, stroke the reindeer’s squashy nose, run your fingers over the prickly Christmas tree.
Brian Wildsmith’s A Christmas Journey, now available in paperback, is a beautifully pitched nativity story for under-fives. Mary and Joseph ask a neighbour to look after their dog and cat when they leave for Bethlehem but the animals escape and set off to find them, bringing with them other animals – a fox, a goat, a bear – that they have rescued on the way. Their journey ends when they find the stable and Mary welcomes them all to meet new baby Jesus. The figures in Wildsmith’s artwork are portrayed with a calm dignity in formalised poses reminiscent of the work of Piero della Francesca yet this picture book is also full of warmth and tenderness.
In her long and distinguished career as a picture book maker I wonder if Shirley Hughes’s The Christmas Eve Ghost isn’t her finest achievement. A picture book story for older readers of about 5-8 set in the Liverpool of the 1930s, it draws on Shirley’s childhood memories of the cramped back streets where life was hard for many families. Bronwen and Dylan’s mam has been recently widowed and she struggles to make ends meet by taking in washing. There are wonderful details of the copper being lit and the children (in those pre health and safety days) helping to turn the handle of the mangle, careful not to trap their fingers. On Sundays the little family go to Chapel but Bronwen is intrigued that their neighbours, the O’Rileys, go to another church with statues and stained glass windows. Mam cold-shoulders these Catholics but, as Christmas approaches and she is forced to leave the children alone while she goes shopping, it is Mrs O’Riley who comes to the rescue when something frightens them. Although it is never spelt out, this is then a story of prejudice overcome and the possibility that kindness can be accepted from those who are different – marked as such divisions were between Catholics and Protestants at that time in Liverpool. The book captures wonderfully a particular historical moment while events are always seen from a child’s perspective. Children will be intrigued and fascinated by every detail of this richly told tale with its full colour spreads, vignettes and action sequences.
Originally published in 1980, The Church Mice at Christmas has been reissued in a handsome new edition. The mice are planning a Christmas party and one way to raise the necessary money is to raffle Sampson, the church cat. When that doesn’t work out, another plan is needed… As ever, young readers will enjoy seeing through Arthur and Humphrey’s wild schemes and the inadvertent way things turn out for the best. Sampson’s long suffering expressions add to the humour. Great fun for 5-8 year-olds.
Baby’s Very First Touch-Feely Christmas Book, ill. Stella Baggott, designed by Katrina Fearn, Usborne, 978 1 4095 1697 2, £5.99 novelty board
A Christmas Journey by Brian Wildsmith, Oxford, 978 0 19 278980 8, £5.99 pbk
The Christmas Eve Ghost by Shirley Hughes, Walker, 978 1 4063 2063 3, £12.99 hbk
The Church Mice at Christmas by Graham Oakley, Templar, 978 1 84877 065 2, ££10.99 hbk
Rosemary Stones is Editor of Books for Keeps.