Whether it snows or not at Christmas time, Christmas books continue to present the season in the nostalgically ‘traditional’ way. Stephanie Nettell looks for titles with that touch of magic that will give lasting pleasure.
A ‘real’ Christmas for most of us would include richness of colour and celebration, nostalgically traditional songs and stories, and, above all, the wide-eyed pleasure of a child. Barefoot Books have captured all of them in three gorgeous picture books.
Beautiful picture books
The richest is Rachel Griffin’s Twelve Days of Christmas, a tribute to what joyful creativity and sympathetic publishing can produce. In truth, it may not immediately evoke that wide-eyed pleasure in a small child as it did in me, for it probably demands an accompanying adult to pore over its exquisite pages, pointing out the details and the way they’ve been achieved. I can’t imagine how long it took Rachel Griffin to gather her astonishing range of materials – scraps of fabric and special papers, buttons, braids, embroidery, sequins, shells – and then to stick and sew and draw them into these witty, imaginative images. Each spread is one day: the left page has one panel for the number, and another for the text, where the counting of the days is in different cheerful fonts, with the main illustration on the right page, and all three have their own deep-colour background. Just turning the pages makes you feel good! More pragmatically, it will surely be an inspiration for teachers and young artists. Finally, tucked into the back is a CD of the song, charmingly and rhythmically arranged to appeal to the smallest listener – and make endless playings tolerable. Twelve Days is going straight into my grandchild-hoard.
Babushka is, presumably, a traditional tale from somewhere in Russia, about a little old lady who was ‘as round and kindly as a warm plum pudding’, but who ‘didn’t stop sweeping, dusting and polishing from sunrise to starshine’. Sandra Ann Horn’s retelling of how her love and generosity overcome her house-proud instincts, when she sets out to look for the poor baby born in a scruffy stable, has a delicious goose-pimply climax. The text is set into the engaging acrylics of French artist Sophie Fatus, a stylised blend of naif folk-art, humour and Russian dolls, where a scarlet-scarfed, bell-shaped Babushka trots through a landscape of soft blues and greens. A sweet, irresistible book.
New Zealander Tanya Robyn Batt travels worldwide as a storyteller, and is, we’re told, one of the world’s few professional faeries. This may explain her factual tone when describing Faeryland and its inhabitants, which might be alarming for very young listeners. ‘Human babies are stolen because they are usually much stronger and healthier than faery babies’; ‘Human children often find it easier to see faery folk than adults do’; ‘Some people are kidnapped by the faeries and taken to Faeryland’; ‘You can protect yourself from faery magic by wearing your clothes inside out’ (a good excuse!) – a spot of reassurance might help little ones unaware of storytelling conventions. The four traditional tales in A Child’s Book of Faeries are robust and fun, and are interleaved with a few 19th-century poems and her own folklore. Gail Newey’s illustrations surround and decorate each page’s framed text, vivid and inviting examples of her ‘passion for colour’, and although I can’t see the confessed inspiration of Rossetti (except an occasional head of hair) in her designedly stiff, almost medieval, figures, they do lend a bright other-worldiness to the book.
Deborah Inkpen’s watercolours are much softer, even in her evocatively pine-dark tree, as she introduces her adventurous hamster to Christmas in Harriet and the Little Fat Fairy. She tells the story of Harriet’s explorations among the hamster-sized decorations of the big Christmas tree with quiet simplicity, and the little cameos of Harriet are, as always, adorable. It looks as if Harriet is lost for ever, but not she – and when both Mum and Father Christmas come to the rescue, Christmas morning finds three hamsters in the cage. A gentle, satisfying story for around-fives. (But I’m anxious about those three hamsters getting on together…) Similar traditional Christmas symbols are introduced one by one to toddlers and a midnight mouse in an American board book, Mouse’s First Christmas, by Lauren Thompson, and illustrated with firelight warmth and shadows by Buket Erdogan. Not all of them will be familiar, but repeated readings of each chanting spread – description on one side, answer on the other – will soon make them so.
Herbie’s Secret Santa, by Petra Mathers, is a moral little tale, told with that peculiarly American affectionate humour in narrative pictures with caption text. Herbie (a white duck) and Lottie (a white hen) are full of Christmas jollity until Herbie sort-of-steals a Santa biscuit from his friend Ali’s bakery. It, or his conscience, sits stonily in his stomach, spoiling everything, until he returns in terror next day to confess. Then Christmas can really begin. Nothing to do with Christmas, except for the snow (why do we persist in linking Christmas and snow?), is Jan Fearnley’s rumbustiously jolly A Perfect Day For It. For what, we don’t discover until the literal unfolding of the wild ending. As Bear, full of a mysterious expectant happiness, tramps determinedly up the mountain, he’s followed by Badger, Fox, Squirrel and Mole, full of curiosity and their own greedy dreams. It’s a big picture book designed to be read by adult and child together, with clean-cut, lively illustrations to scale, and expressive typesetting to help the telling and the joke along.
Christmas tends to bring out a ‘born again’ impulse in publishers. Or an uncharacteristic belief that if a book’s worth issuing once it’s worth issuing twice (or more), especially in another guise. Evans have extracted Anita Ganeri’s simple account of the birth of Jesus from their earlier Christian Stories, dressed up with some realistic and glowingly lit paintings by Rachael Phillips, for The Christmas Story: aimed at small children, both text and illustrations are conventional – would Middle Eastern shepherds have seen their ‘beautiful’ angels as curly-locked blonds? – and slightly boring like its recipe (‘Christmas’ biscuits if you use the right cutters). Not stopping there, however, they also offer it in huge format, The Christmas Story Big Book, perfect for nursery and reception classes were it not for its equally huge price (cheap at 20 viewers a copy?) Dipping back almost 40 years, Egmont reissue Dick Bruna’s retelling of the same story, The Christmas Book, in a nicely produced paperback (15cms deep by 29 wide) with, of course, his own inimitable illustrations straight out of an infant-school nativity play. But because of the little press-out cast and stable it’s not suitable for under-threes, we’re told – exactly its audience, I would have thought. Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar and Father Christmas is 20 years older even than that, and has been reissued several times, but its story of King Babar’s adventurous search for Father Christmas and giving him a rest-cure in the sun is as jovial as ever. It’s in the splendid large format of the original, although I doubt its ‘joined up’ handwritten text will be as appealing to today’s children.
Going in the other direction – with mini-hardback editions – are some welcome reissues of more recent favourites. In a brilliant partnership of writer and artist, Hilary McKay and Amanda Harvey tell of the bewilderment, disappointment, building excitement and eventual joy as two three-year-olds (Bella and her cat Black Jack) gradually get the hang of the first Christmas they’re properly aware of. Touching, witty and astute, Was That Christmas? is a lovingly realistic portrait of a first family Christmas (but, again, I wish it wasn’t compulsory to make snow fall in fictional Christmases).
Mick Inkpen, every toddler’s comfort and friend, returns with Kipper’s Christmas Eve in small format, giving his readers that great feeling of knowing superiority when Kipper’s baby cousin Arnold is the only one to spot the Christmas Tree Mouse. Clean, fresh drawings, simple, funny story: works every time. The Christmas Mystery, by Jostein Gaarder of Sophie’s World fame and translated by Elizabeth Rokkan, is smaller in the sense of being abridged, and may well be the better for it. Sarah Gibb delicately decorates it with semi-silhouettes, reminiscent of Pieñkowski, which echo the advent calendar motif and the repetitive accumulation of characters as each day’s door opens. Its simple, pure style and 24 tiny chapters belie the typically intricate and puzzling story within a story within a story, and there’s an undeniable didacticism about it, but the overall effect remains of a fairytale enchantment shining in a modern world. Wistfully captivating.
And finally there’s The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey in smaller format, trailing its multitudinous awards. The name Susan Wojciechowski may not be as familiar as P J Lynch, but her story is cunningly told, with its distant New England setting, its repetitions, its slow thawing of an almost-Scrooge figure, its use of the traditional nativity picture, its lovably perky wee boy. And its satisfyingly predictable glorious ending. It forms the essential basis for Lynch’s visual narrative, told in his formidable style of heightened photographic realism, with its light and shadows, rich in colour and expression. Here is the classic Christmas book, the very same lump-in-the-throat pleasure, no matter how often you read it or how hard you try to dismiss it as sentimental emotion-tweaking, as Dickens gave us.
Stephanie Nettell is a critic, author and journalist on children’s books.
Twelve Days of Christmas, Rachel Griffin, Barefoot, 1 84148 938 7, £10.99 hbk inc. CD
Babushka, retold by Sandra Ann Horn, ill. Sophie Fatus, Barefoot, 1 84148 352 4, £10.99 hbk
A Child’s Book of Faeries, collected and retold by Tanya Robyn Batt, ill. Gail Newey, Barefoot, 1 84148 953 0, £12.99 hbk
Harriet and the Little Fat Fairy, Deborah Inkpen, Hodder, 0 340 85417 0, £9.99 hbk, 0 340 85418 9, £4.99 pbk
Mouse’s First Christmas, Lauren Thompson, ill. Buket Erdogan, Simon & Schuster, 0 689 83690 2, £5.99 board
Herbie’s Secret Santa, Petra Mathers, Simon & Schuster, 0 689 83615 5, £8.99 hbk
A Perfect Day For It, Jan Fearnley, Egmont, 0 434 80786 9, £9.99 hbk, 1 4052 0176 2, £4.99 pbk
The Christmas Story, Anita Ganeri, ill. Rachael Phillips, Evans, 0 237 52468 6, £4.99
The Christmas Story Big Book, Anita Ganeri, ill. Rachael Phillips, Evans, 0 237 52359 0, £17.99 pbk
The Christmas Book, Dick Bruna, Egmont, 0 7497 3821 9, £4.99 pbk
Babar and Father Christmas, Jean de Brunhoff, Methuen, 0 416 15392 5, £15.99 hbk
Was That Christmas?, Hilary McKay, ill. Amanda Harvey, Hodder, 0 340 86626 8, £6.99 hbk
Kipper’s Christmas Eve, Mick Inkpen, Hodder, 0 340 86627 6, £6.99 hbk
The Christmas Mystery, Jostein Gaarder, trans. Elizabeth Rokkan, ill. Sarah Gibb, Orion, 1 84255 050 0, £12.99 hbk
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, Susan Wojciechowski, ill. P J Lynch, Walker, 0 7445 4007 0, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 5402 0, £5.99 pbk, 0 7445 9631 9, £7.99 small format gift edition