Pity poor old Santa Claus; in another boom year for children’s books there’s a vast array of potential Christmas gift books – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, treasuries and more, by talented new writers as well as well-known favourites. Without the help of a single elf, Andrea Reece has picked out the books you’ll enjoy giving most, and that they’ll enjoy receiving.
Do what they say on the tin books
It’s a bold move to pin your colours to the Christmas mast by setting stories on Christmas Day or including Christmas in the title, but these are all good enough to conjure up the Christmas magic long after the last mince pie has been eaten. In Pip and Posy and the Christmas Tree by Axel Scheffler, our two friends are decorating the tree with edible treats, but it’s all too tempting for Pip: with the tree bare and Pip feeling sick, Posy makes things right again in a story that’s full of humorous details as well as a bit of early maths, and big on friendship and forgiveness. The Christmas Extravaganza Hotel by Tracey Cordery and Tony Neal is another heart-warming Christmas-set story. Bear is settling down for a nice quiet festive season when he’s interrupted by the arrival of Frog, ready for a 5 star Christmas experience – the trouble is, he’s read the map wrong and is hundreds of miles from his hotel. Kind-hearted Bear invites Frog to stay, and then sets out to create the Christmas his new friend dreamed of. Funny and surprising, this delivers the true Christmas message.
You really should start reading How Winston Delivered Christmas on 1st December: an advent story in a book, it tells how little mouse Winston delivers a lost letter to Father Christmas, finding himself a cosy new home in the process. It would be great fun to follow Winston’s adventures as they unfold day by day and Alex T Smith’s illustrations add to the drama of it all. Cleverly, chapters are interspersed with Christmas craft activities too. Last Stop on the Reindeer Express also hinges on delivery of a letter but this time it’s to an absent parent as Mia travels by reindeer magically to visit her daddy far away. Peep-through cut-outs and flaps to lift heighten the sense of magic as does Karl James Mountford’s folk-art style illustrations. For digger devotees, Construction Site on Christmas Night is an absolute must-have: Excavator, Bulldozer, Crane, Dump Truck and Cement Mixer are finishing a very special Christmas build, and each of them finds a present as they turn off their engines when the work is complete. The text is delivered in lively rhyme and the vehicles are realistic and characterful. Finally, for the very young, The Twinkly Twinkly Christmas Tree by Sam Taplin and Alison Friend is irresistible – a very sweet story lit up by real lights on every scene, gasps of surprise guaranteed with each page turn.
Stories that keep on giving
Christmas is a time for returning to old favourites, particularly those that make bedtime reading the best part of the day. Walker have reissued Kevin Crossley-Holland’s masterly collection of British and Irish folk-tales Between the Worlds, with new illustrations by Frances Castle. It includes 50 different stories, some dark and eerie, others joyful and life-affirming; each one is perfectly told and this is a must-own. Certain readers will also enjoy Laurence Housman’s esoteric versions of Sindbad the Sailor and Other Stories from the Arabian Nights. As Marina Warner says in her introduction, these are stories that ‘wonder at the inequities of existence and pose open questions.’ They have been reissued by the Bodleian Library with Edmund Dulac’s heady, sumptuous illustrations.
Christmas favourite Peter Pan is retold in verse by Caryl Hart and with glorious full-colour illustrations by Sarah Warburton in a new version that does proper justice to Barrie’s original: spritely verse speeds us through the story, while still including all the plot twists and turns, and the strange otherness of Pan is still there in illustrations and text if you choose to look for it. This year too, Katherine Rundell revisits Kipling’s jungle to tell new stories of Mowgli and his wild family. Into the Jungle explains the events that made Bagheera, Baloo, Shere Khan and Kaa who they are, in exciting adventures that put the emphasis on loyalty and community. Rundell’s new stories seem to grow out of the originals and to enhance them. This handsome book also features beautiful full colour illustrations by Kristjana S Williams.
John Yeoman’s fantastical story The Boy Who Sprouted Antlers is also newly available. The story of a boy who, yes, grows antlers – in response to a school friend’s challenge, in turn prompted by a teacher – it is just as fascinating and as joyful as when it was first published, though as its illustrator Quentin Blake points out in the introduction, with its shorts-wearing protagonists, something of a period piece.
Published in association with the National Trust, I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree is a truly beautiful book, an ambitious project perfectly realised. It features a nature poem for every day of the year, selected by Fiona Waters and illustrated over glorious full-colour pages by Frann Preston-Gannon. The poems have been chosen with real care, a huge range of poets represented, and each one will capture young readers’ imaginations. This deserves to become a classic, and should do what its creators intend and inspire a lifelong love of poetry in readers. There is of course no reason why poetry should be confined to the page and congratulations to poetry champions Macmillan who have released a CD audiobook of Allie Esiri’s superb anthology A Poem for Every Day of the Year. Read by Helena Bonham Carter and Simon Russell Beale, don’t go on a Christmas car journey without it, spellbinding listening for all the family. For older readers, Ana Sampson’s anthology She is Fierce is highly recommended. An outstanding collection of 150 poems by women poets – something that is rarer than you’d hope – it features brilliant contemporary poets including Liz Berry, Jackie Kay and Imtiaz Dharker alongside suffragette Laura Gray, renaissance poet Vittoria Colonna and pioneering WW1 journalist and campaigner Winifred Holtby. Sampson includes biographical notes on each woman at the back of the book.
Finally, T S Eliot always intended to follow up Old Possum’s Book of Cats with a companion book Consequential Dogs, but never managed it. Christopher Reid however has risen elegantly to the challenge and written up a ‘rowdy assembly of dogs as counterparts to Eliot’s mogs’. Young readers might miss some of the literary allusions, but they’ll love meeting the dogs – Dobson, the dog detective; Lola, who runs away to join the circus; Flo, the philosophical Foxhound; and Benbow, the ghost of an old seadog who haunts the Ship Inn. The wit of the verses is matched in Elliot Elam’s illustrations, and this is another book to make bedtime reading an absolute shared pleasure.
Non-fiction and information books
After a surfeit of stories about old men improbably delivering presents to all the world’s youth in one night, readers are probably more than ready for non-fiction at Christmas and this year has seen publication of many handsome, well designed information books. Peter Frankopan has carefully adapted his acclaimed history book The Silk Roads for young readers. Condensed into 128 pages, and with stunning new illustrations by Neil Packer, this version makes clear the interconnectedness of the world, not just today, but throughout history, showing how east and west have always been joined via trade, people, war, religion. It’s an important message and the book will leave children inspired as well as informed.
In a very different way, over 300+ pages in Absolutely Everything, Christopher Lloyd, creator of the ingenious What On Earth timeline books, also shows how history, from the dinosaurs to the modern day, is a process of one thing leading to another, with the world a much more connected place than you’d think from studying chunks of British history. This is a book to dip into, return to and one that will also inspire readers to discover more themselves.
For specialists, Dictionary of Dinosaurs is a comprehensive alphabetical guide that is sure to keep would-be palaeontologists happy for hours, dinosaur portraits and diagrams created by illustrator Dieter Braun. How Does a Lighthouse Work? by Roman Belyaev takes readers into lighthouses explaining how and why they work, how they are built, and their history, all over stylishly illustrated colour pages. Rivers by Peter Goes is another huge book, just right for poring over on the floor, and beautifully illustrated. It details the world’s major rivers, and shows that by understanding them, we can understand the people who live beside them and journey along them. Usborne’s Lift-the-Flap Engineering is an interactive, eye-opening and again inspiring volume that explains how behind practically everything in our world is an engineer, from bridges, roads and airports to planes and spacecraft, to medical equipment. Fun and informative, and the world needs engineers, male and female.
Silly stories, novelty books and stocking fillers
And finally, a selection of books to stick in a stocking: Santa’s Wonderful Workshop is a typically funny, irreverent and ingenious picture book by Elys Dolan and its not-quite punchline: ‘The children are happy, the penguins are happy, and no-one got eaten by a bear’ justifies the cover price alone; similarly Super Frozen Magic Forest by Matty Dolan is super inventive and super silly, with more frosty in-jokes than you can shake a shovel at; while The Funniest Book Ever, seven favourite stories from the Phoenix Comic in one volume guarantees giggles or your money back. Danny Wallace is on cracking form in Hamish and the Terrible Terrible Christmas which serves up three self-contained stories starring Hamish, Elliott and Alice, stars of his Worldstopper series, and provides a first-class helping of comedy and excitement.
The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle, a brilliantly realised and original fantasy adventure full of danger, excitement, and family love, will keep them rapt, even on Christmas morning while Have Sword Will Travel by Garth Nix and Sean Williams is another bit of fabulous fantasy for those aged 9+ and very funny to boot. For younger fans of fantasy adventures, The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club delivers the kind of excitement that will last into the New Year, especially now the sequel Explorers on Witch Mountain is out. First published twenty years ago, Henrietta Branford’s story of the peasants’ revolt as witnessed by a dog, Fire, Bed and Bone deserves to be recognised as a modern classic and is as vital as it ever was, and even more topical.
And to bring us back to where we started, for readers of 6 – 8 The First Christmas Jumper by Ryan Tubridy and Chris Judge, starring patchwork ewe Hillary who provides the wool for a very special sweater, is charming, silly and utterly joyful.
Happy Christmas reading, one and all.
Andrea Reece is managing editor of Books for Keeps.
Below is the list of the books we are recommending for Christmas giving 2018:
Pip and Posy and the Christmas Tree, Axel Scheffler, Nosy Crow, 978-1788000864, £8.99 board
The Christmas Extravaganza Hotel, Tracey Corderoy, illus Tony Neal, 978-1848699373, £10.99 hbk
How Winston Delivered Christmas, Alex T Smith, Macmillan Children’s Books, 978-1509851522, £14.99 hbk
Last Stop on the Reindeer Express, Maudie Powell-Tuck, illus Karl James Mountford, Little Tiger Press, 978-1848696945, £7.99 pbk
Construction Site on Christmas Night, Sherri Duskey Rinker, illus AG Ford, Chronicle Books, 978-1452139111, £12.99 hbk
The Twinkly, Twinkly Christmas Tree, Sam Taplin, illus Alison Friend, Usborne Publishing,
978-1474952606, £12.99 hbk
Between the Worlds, Kevin Crossley-Holland, illus Frances Castle, Walker Books, 978-1406381252, £15.00
Sindbad the Sailor and Other Stories from the Arabian Nights, Laurence Housman, illus Edmund Dulac, The Bodleian Library 978-1851245017, £30.00
Peter Pan, Caryl Hart, illus Sarah Warburton, Nosy Crow, 978-1788000079, £14.99 hbk
Into the Jungle, Katherine Rundell, illus Kristjana S Williams, Macmillan Children’s Books, 978-1509822317, £16.99 hbk
The Boy Who Sprouted Antlers, John Yeoman, illus Quentin Blake, Thames and Hudson Ltd,
I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree, edited Fiona Waters, illus Frann Preston-Gannon, Nosy Crow,
978-0857637703, £25.99 hbk
A Poem for Every Day of the Year, ed Allie Esiri, Macmillan Children’s Books, 978-1509886302, £19.99 audio CD
She is Fierce: Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women, ed Ana Sampson, Macmillan Children’s Books, 978-1509899425, £12.99 hbk
Old Toffer’s Book of Consequential Dogs, Christoper Reid, illus Elliot Elam, Faber & Faber, 978-0571334094, £14.99 hbk
The Silk Road: A New History of the World – illustrated edition, Peter Frankopans, illus Neil Packer, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 978-1408889930, £16.99 hbk
Absolutely Everything, Christopher Lloyd, What On Earth Publishing, 978-1999802820, £16.99 hbk
Dictionary of Dinosaurs, Dr Matthew G Baron, illus Dieter Braun, Wide Eyed Editions, 978-1786033284, £14.99
How Does a Lighthouse Work?, Roman Balyeav, b Small Publishing, 978-1911509240, £10.99 hbk
Rivers, Peter Goes, Gecko Press, 978-1776572168, £16.99
Lift the Flap Engineering, Rose Hall, Alex Frith, illu Lee Cosgrove, Usborne Publishing Ltd, 978-1474943659, £12.99 hbk
Santa’s Wonderful Workshop, Elys Dolan, Oxford, 978-0192746177, £6.99 hbk
Super Frozen Magic Forest, Matty Long, Oxford, 978-0192746177, £6.99 pbk
The Funniest Book Ever, David Fickling Books, 978-1788450133, £9.99 pbk
Hamish and the Terrible Terrible Christmas, Danny Wallace, ills Jamie Littler, Simon and Schuster, 978-1471176579, £6.99 pbk
The Storm Keeper’s Island, Catherine Doyle, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 978-1408896884, £6.99 pbk
Have Sword Will Travel, Garth Nix, Sean Williams, Piccadilly Press, 978-1848126527, £6.99 pbk
The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club, Alex Bell, illus Tomislav Tomic, Faber and Faber, 978-0571332540, £6.99 pbk
Explorers on Witch Mountain, Alex Bell, illus Tomislav Tomic, Faber and Faber, 978-0571332564, £6.99 pbk
Fire, Bed and Bone, Henrietta Branford, Walker Books, 978-1406379990, £5.99 pbk