Every autumn brings a new batch of books linked in some way or another with Christmas. For those keen to add something new to their collection of seasonal standbys we review this year’s offerings.
Best of the bunch by about a million miles is Merry Christmas, Ernest and Celestine, Gabrielle Vincent, Julia MacRae Books, 0 86203 146 X, £4.95
This is the fifth book about the little mouse, Celestine, and Ernest the bear who looks after her; a point at which you might expect to find signs that invention was wearing thin. On the contrary Gabrielle Vincent’s depiction of the adult/child relationship is richer and more subtle than ever. Pleading, insisting, cajoling and finally using the ultimate weapon, `But you promised’, Celestine convinces Ernest that you don’t need money to give a party. Led by her enthusiasm, and on minimum resources they have a party that not even supercilious older cousin Max can spoil. The pictures show so much, so beautifully, you hardly need the text. (There is no credit for the translation but whoever produced it has done a good job.)
Next Christmas this will be in paperback for sure. But if you wait till then you’ll be missing a treat which is worth every penny of the asking price.
Two books have Christmas trees at their centres.
The Cobweb Christmas,
Shirley Climo, ill. Joe Lasker, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11053 X, £4.50
In the style of a traditional German tale a little old woman moves through her ritual preparations for Christmas. She shares her decorated tree with the village children and the animals, falls asleep and wakes to find that Christkindel has worked some special magic just for her. What happened might explain why today we hang tinsel on our Christmas trees. Attractive illustrations; a good story for reading aloud.
In A Happy Christmas,
Harold Jones, Deutsch, 0 233 97606 X, £3.95
Magnet, 0 416 46260 X, £1.25 (pb)
Santa Claus works some more Christmas tree magic. This time at the request of toy rabbit, Bunby, who gets his wish `to see my forest friends have a real Christmas tree of their own’. Harold Jones who has been illustrating children’s books since the 1930’s (he did the classic Nursery Rhyme collection Lavender’s Blue) is now 79. The home and family in these pictures have a decidedly pre-war feel (as do the elves, Santa’s helpers) which may recommend it to nostalgic adults. Young children will simply enjoy it as a fantasy, a seasonal adventure for a very special appealing and expressive toy.
Another toy to go flying through the Christmas Eve skies is Ted in Mary’s Christmas Present. Jan Mogensen, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11014 9. £4.75
This is Jan Mogensen’s third book about Ted, Mary’s toy bear. So far I’ve remained immune to the charms of this particular teddy; but Mary’s Christmas Present has a stronger storyline and more substance than its predecessors. Ted saves the life of an exhausted large black bird. In return the bird, with Ted on his back, flies to find a very special present for Mary. The illustrations – flying over snow-covered fields, a snowstorm, the bird’s nest inside a hollow tree – are full of interest and exactly complement the text.
Leo’s Christmas Surprise,
Niki Daly, Gollancz, 0 575 03274 X, £4.50
This is also about a present and Christmas Eve. Leo’s family – Mum, Dad, and Gran are busy preparing for Christmas; but Grandpa Bob is up to something mysterious, collecting an empty tin from the dust bin, Gran’s rolling pin, the bathroom plug, and other strange things, and disappearing into his workshop. Leo has to wait until Christmas morning to solve the mystery. But the reader can guess and there are clues to be found in the pictures. Niki Daly’s portrayal of family life is warmly realistic and full of nicely observed detail.
Spot’s First Christmas,
Eric Hill, Heinemann, 0 434 94298 7, £4.95
Spot Book No. 4, and well up to form. The text is readable, the pictures bright; this time the flap-lifting involves all the excitements of Christmas.
The Bunnies’ Christmas Eve,
Wendy Watson, Methuen, 0 416 45680 4, £5.95
This is described as a Peep Through Pop-up. It folds round to make four standup 3D scenes with tabs to pull for action. The two versions of the story that goes with it are told in that limp, patronising prose that some’ adults think is the way to address children. It is not easy to see what is happening at the back of each scene, and the action which results from pulling the tabs is pretty uninventive by current pop-up standards. Not worth the money.
Songs and Poems are offered in a variety of forms
The Night Before Christmas,
pictures by Peter Stevenson, Hodder and Stoughton, 0 340 33048 1, £4.95
Yet another picture book version of Clement C. Moore’s famous American poem. Peter Stevenson uses the between-the-wars style of illustration and design (so successful in his pictures for Edna O’Brien’s stories about The Dazzle). Clean lines, crowded detail – St Nick’s sleigh is packed high and overflowing with toys – and touches of humour produce the sort of pictures that children pore over for ages. If you want a version of this poem, you could do worse.
We Wish You a Merry Christmas,
pictures by Tracey Campbell Pearson, Bodley Head, 0 370 30975 8, £4.50
Reversing the process, here is an American artist illustrating a traditional West Country carol – and we’ve come off worst. Eight cute, muppet-like carol-singing kiddies terrorise an elderly couple, demanding figgy pudding. Wobbly cartoon drawings. Not funny. The blurb says the children `evoke the very spirit of Christmas’. If they do, it’s a nasty thought.
For a wider choice of songs and carols turn to the timely paperback edition of
The Faber Book of Carols and Christmas Songs,
arranged by Eric Rosebery, Faber, 0 571 13189 1, £2.50
Words and music, some scored for different voices, some with percussion accompaniment. A well-recommended standard.
The Oxford Book of Christmas Poems,
ed Michael Harrison and Christopher Smart-Clark, OUP, 0 19 276051 3, £6.95
This book could well become an indispensable and classic standby for the time of year. Well over a hundred poems reflecting all facets of Christmas: the religious, the secular, the traditional, the up-to-date. Such variety of tone, form, length and style that there is something for every mood, purpose and person (of whatever age). Illustrated in colour and black and white by 24 artists.
Round the Christmas Tree,
ed Sara and Stephen Corrin, Faber, 0 571 13151 4, £4.50
This is a collection of sixteen stories for the under-nines, specially chosen for reading aloud. Much of the material may be already familiar: Bobby Brewster, My Naughty Little Sister, Mrs Pepperpot, Lotta, all appear along with the classic Alison Uttley tale, The Little Fir Tree. But there is Wag-by-Wall a little known story by Beatrix Potter, and it’s nice to have V.H. Drummond’s delightful Miss Anna Truly and the Christmas Lights so readily to hand.