Which books, from any currently in print, would you give as a Christmas gift to your favourite toddler, in-between and teenager if you could guarantee they’d never set eyes on a particular title before?
This is the question we put to a selection of authors and illustrators – and don’t think we weren’t nervous about it. Would they all choose Where the Wild Things Are, The Wind in the Willows and Treasure Island? And even if they didn’t, were we just setting up an annotated booklist. Future Curriculum. Planners for the Use of’? Perish the thought. On the other hand, would none of them mention the classics we know and love, thereby perpetrating mere up-to-date-ness? Perish that thought, too.
In the event, we needn’t have worried. Though we gave a completely free hand to each contributor, there were no duplications whatsoever. Better still, the mix of old-to-new was pretty nearly perfect – from the classics mentioned above (all of which got a mention) to a couple of books still hot from the press. Even poetry. thanks to our precautionary measure of including a couple of poets, got a look-in.
Altogether, Santa seemed to have called early on Books for Keeps. His present was confirmation of what we’d hoped would be the case – that quality will out and that choosing is personal, there being no necessary contradiction between the two. So, having laid out this bonanza of Absolute Favourites for everyone’s enjoyment, what next? Obvious, of course. We contact:
a) The Publishers to solicit complimentary copies for a Good Cause
b) Santa to deliver them.
The first turned out to be easy. The publishers concerned were as generous as we’d expected and soon a consignment of all the above titles will be arriving at Booth Hall Children’s Hospital, Manchester. We’d like some help with the second, though. If necessary, we are prepared to resort to the good old GPO but does anyone know where we can get hold of Santa?
Three books chosen mainly for the pictures. I’m not sure that they fit properly into the age groups; in fact, I really only know that a 55-year-old likes them.
First, Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline: partly because it was first published 50 years ago next year, and still comes up smiling. It doesn’t come up quite so smiley in the Puffin paperback, which is too small; the hardback shows off the charm and its format and gives Bemelmans room to push the paint about.
The words are beautifully judged and the drawings have a sort of enthusiasm and cageiness for place and moment. The rain is swishing down over Notre Dame, but Bemelmans also characteristically notices the crank on Madeline’s bed.
Second, Little Sophie and Lanky Flop by Els Pelgrom, because this is one of the only books translated into English which has illustrations by The Tjong Khing, who is very good indeed. He has a natural and sympathetic sense of humour, but though these drawings are fun they are also atmospheric and full of humanity. There is a richness of light and texture about them, unusual in black and white drawings, that makes you want to go back and look at them again.
I’d really like my third choice to be an illustrated novel of history. It may just he that I don’t know enough about this kind of thing, but it seems to me that with a few exceptions – Keeping,. Ambrus and some others – this is a neglected art. Possibly publishers aren’t willing to pay for it any more: possibly children with lots of films and television in their diet don’t really want it. While I’m searching for the right book I’ll give instead one of the Little Nicholas titles. Children know the author (Goscinny) because he’s the writer of Asterix – though this is a different world altogether, the everyday world of a French schoolboy. It’s very funny and well observed and. enormously in its favour, has illustrations by the incomparable Serape, who is one of the best cartoonists in France or any other country. Or – since our young recipient as a good European is already well advanced in French – why not the original Le Petit Nicholas, from which can he learnt useful phrases such as ‘le chou-chou de la maitresse’ -‘completement dingue’. On va se rigoler.
My Christmas choice for the teenagers would be James Berry’s A Thief in the Village, which evokes a strong atmosphere of his rural Jamaica. The stories are rich with character and adventure, and strong on authenticity of detail that lingers, like the coconut drink spiced with pimento berries. I’m struck by how often characters in the book yearn for simple things. The girl Becky would like a bicycle; Delroy would like a mouth-organ; Gustus is planning to sell his bunch of bananas to buy shoes so he can go on school outings. These yearnings for ordinary things are made all the more touching. when we consider how children in richer countries take material gifts for granted. Told in James Berry’s individual prose style that bears echoes of his poetry, the book was awarded last year’s Smarties prize.
The feeling of the tropics is carried over into my next choice, Come on into my Tropical Garden, a collection of poems by Grace Nichols, a winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. In this, her first collection for children, she writes with an affectionate fascination for the hinterland of her native Guyana – the parakeets. the howler monkeys, the rain forest hugging deep secrets. An eerie beauty pervades some of the poems as in
and the red crabs dance
their scuttle-foot dance
on the mud-packed beach.
That kind of endearing evocation of things tropical makes one think of the kind of joyous feelings Charles Causley brings to things Cornish.
Now for my third choice, which is for the youngest age group, and the most difficult to choose for. There are so many attractive picture books around, that quite honestly I don’t know which one to choose. Instead, I opted for Julius Lester’s retelling of 48 Brer Rabbit tales.
Like nursery rhymes, which follow us into adulthood, these are stories that children can return to as they grow older. To begin with, parents can choose one to read as a bedtime story, as most of them are quite short and Lester’s prose has a strong oral sound-quality. Try saying this, for instance: ‘He diggy, diggy, diggy, diggy, but no meat there. He diggy, diggy, diggy, diggy, but no meat there.’
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Yorkshire mum or a Brummy dad, try reading the stories with your own regional accent, as Lester advises – ‘if you love the tales, and tell it with love, the tale will communicate.’ In English literature the rabbit is seen as a cute, innocuous creature. I think a child will be intrigued, even consoled, that the little rabbit can also be an indefatigable trickster.
So don’t blame me, if Brer Rabbit jumps out of your Christmas stocking.
Not Now, Bernard by David McKee
Given the sheer wealth of picture books in print, this was the toughest choice of the lot. In the end, though, I opted for an old favourite. It’s a book that brings matching ear-to-ear grins to every grown-up and child-in-the-lap as Bernard gets the brush-off from both Mum and Dad. A brilliant image of parent-child relationships laid out in words and pictures of an eye-opening simplicity, Not Now, Bernard shows David McKee’s droll, deadpan humour at its very best – and that’s as good as droll, deadpan humour can get.
The BFG by Roald Dahl
Like all Dahl’s best work this is a script-for-the-voice, best appreciated in performance. I’ll never forget reading it to 250 entranced Juniors – the younger ones booked on the atmosphere and incident, the older ones on the language: snozzcumbers, whizzpoppers and all. It’s gloriously funny (the BFG’s attempt at a whizzpopper in the presence of H M The Queen had two youngsters wetting themselves with mirth) and strangely moving since the title character is simultaneously gigantic and a runt-of-the-litter. As usual, Dahl has it both ways. Even some critics agreed with the instant verdict of the kids: it’s a classic.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
For me, this section was no contest. Treasure Island is the best adventure story for older children ever written. Once encountered, who can forget Blind Pew or Jim in the apple-barrel or Israel Hands climbing the mast or … well, pick your own recorded highlight. My own daughter spent days singing ‘Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum’ after we’d read alternate chapters together – and, just like me when I was her age, was transfixed by the realisation that a character like Long John Silver can be both evil and infinitely glamorous. Being very much a book of its time, furthermore, Treasure Island is also racist, classist, sexist and God-knows-what-ist which gives you a handy excuse to proceed at once to the perfect antidote, Bob Leeson’s brilliant sequel, Silver’s Revenge.
I’ve come a year late to the book I’d most like to give an Infant this Christmas – Animalia by Graeme Base – but catching up with it has been a great pleasure. An important attribute for a book in this age group is being big enough for two laps, for sharing: and if the sharing is to be genuine the book has to have something other than reflected pleasure in it for the adult. Animalia will be grabbed by both parties – with its alliterative artwork, its pages and double spreads of invention in a variety of styles, and its game of I-Spy leading to what the dreaded SRA people would be tempted to call ‘word power boosting potential’. The real point is that after looking through this book the world is seen through new eyes – of the closely observing kind.
I was never an Alice in Wonderland fan, it was all too whimsical and clever for me. Yet not to know it is to have a vital piece of culture missing – like not knowing The Lord’s Prayer at Christian weddings and funerals. Now here’s a marvellous way for Juniors to drink from the labelled bottle: by receiving the Anthony Browne-illustrated edition. The Junior mind may not understand Browne’s allusions all the time any more than it will understand Carroll’s, but it will be somehow aware of being in the presence of an artist it will never forget.
A jump to the top end of the age group for the Secondary gift book. Linda Hoy’s Kiss has the sort of relevance to growing up and to the way society is run that would seem to exclude any possibility of it being a good read. But try putting it down. Unusually organised with twin narrators and a creative line in typography, it’s a one-session book: not short, but drawing an internal power from the perceptive way in which identity and sexuality are painfully explored, yet compulsively exposed to the reader. Beautifully constructed; satisfying; a male book in many respects, but don’t let any young person you know grow up without reading it.
For me, it’s only a question of which Beatrix Potter. To the very youngest infant, I’d give The Story of Miss Moppet. It’s so elegantly simple: mouse teases kitten and, unwary, is caught; then kitten teases mouse and, unwary, allows him to escape. This is for reading aloud, letting the few words and ravishing pictures speak for themselves. No worrying, please, about what the listener will not worry about: what is a bell-rope’? why should a supposed neuralgic tie her face up in a blue duster (with a hole in it – never forget the hole). A Potter for beginners.
The Iron Man was Ted Hughes’ bedtime story for his children: ‘a story in five nights’. It’s easy to read aloud; also easy to read to oneself. On the first night the Iron Man is scattered in broken parts along a sea-shore.
An iron hand manages to pick up an iron eye: ‘Now the hand could see … Slowly the hand crept over the stones, searching.’ I know nothing more impossible, nothing more credible than the Iron Man’s bit-by-bit re-assembly of himself. Then comes the boy Hogarth, who tempts the Iron Man’s appetite for metal and enlists his aid against a hostile Space-Being. And we end with the music of the spheres.
I used to catch my bus to work in London on the site of a thrilling moonlight meeting: ‘There, in the middle of the broad, bright high road- there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from heaven – stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments …’ To anyone over, say, twelve, who could sink teeth into a big book as a dog does with a meaty bone, I’d give The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, a friend of Dickens. It’s one of the earliest and best of detective mysteries.
Ben’s Baby by Michael Foreman
Young Ben wants a baby for his birthday. And though his parents seem a little astonished at his request, they are, as it happens, about to oblige him. It’s a long wait, but the months pass as softly as Michael Foreman’s colours, in his big double page, all-embracing pictures. Ben’s life is full of small reassuring things, like listening to the baby in Mum’s turn. By the last page there’s the baby and Ben’s taken charge. It’s the kind of book which the child who gets it may still be hanging on to when they’re grown.
Harriet and the Flying Teachers by Martin Waddell
At Slow Street Primary there is barbed wire round the staff room – a desperate attempt to create a Harriet-free-zone. Harriet Smith is the terror of both teachers and pupils alike, in a funny way, one hastens to add. Her foes among the pupils rally into an anti-Harriet League, with the double aim of destroying her and the teachers as well by putting up the idea that Harriet shall do the refreshments for the Grand Feast at term end. How Harriet responds makes a very affectionate and entertaining picture of life at a matey school.
My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy
A story of love to make most ‘love stories’ seem like pale imitations. It is Rosa Guy’s translation (I think that must be the word) of the story of the Mermaid, into the world and imagery of a Caribbean island, where Desiree the peasant girl saves the life of a young man, pleading with the jealous gods for him. They have their revenge, for she is granted her wish, is taken into the palatial home, becomes his ‘love’ and then loses him again and is excluded from her own paradise. The uncrossable divide between other-world creature and human in the fairy story, is given flesh and blood reality in our own divided world. A present for a serious teenager.
The book I would give any infant is Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. This is the perfect picture book, a superb combination of words, pictures and, vital in a picture book, the gap in-between. This gap, to be completed by the child reader, is the understanding that the Wild Things are Max’s own creation, and that he has the power to control them. The subtle use of clues in the book – the creature hanging from the washing line, Max’s own drawing of a Wild Thing, wait for children to discover them on subsequent readings and thereby discover new and deeper meanings to the story.
I would give to a junior school child The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg. Allsburg is hardly known in this country, and is, I think, one of the very best picture book artists. This book purports to be a series of illustrations to 14 stories left at a children’s book publisher by the mysterious Harris Burdick. All that is left of the stories are the titles and one enigmatic line from each. The artwork, as always with Allsburg, is brilliant and strange, and the crucial gap between the pictures and the text is enormous but irresistible.
My choice for a secondary school child would be The Nature of the Beast by Janni Howker. This is a very strong, rich and complex novel only partly about the effects of the closure of a mill in a Northern town and the subsequent unemployment. It is also partly about a dark beast roaming the countryside killing livestock and terrorising the community. In the end the beast seems to he inside the angry, frustrated Billy, and the last lines of the book, ‘I’m going to take over where the Beast left off. They’ve seen nothing yet!’, had me shivering.
Crusher is Coming by Bob Graham
This is a brand new delight and so shunts out of the limelight some of my old favourites like David McKee and Anthony Browne.
Peter tells Mum that Crusher is coming home for tea, so he doesn’t want to be kissed and he doesn’t want toddler Claire hanging around. He clears out all his little soft animals. When Crusher arrives, football boots round his neck and plaster on his forehead, it’s baby Claire he’s more interested in mucking in with. People think that non-sexist books means books about girls; this is a non-sexist book about boys.
The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter
I’ve assumed we could choose favourite books from our childhood. Looking at my old battered copy brings back memories of how I felt when I was read this. As with a lot of Beatrix Potter there’s a kernel of terror that those evil Ladybird people are trying to excise. Get the original. The children might like it too.
Sandburg Treasury: Prose and Poetry for Young People
Anyone over the age of 13 and beginning to get really hooked on poetry would find lots here to get stuck into. For me he’s the finest poet of the cities. He wrote about buildings in cities, people in cities, and attempted huge montage pieces of what people say.
When you’re learning the business of reading, pictures in books are tremendously important, and funny pictures catch the eye. Few people draw funny pictures better than Tony Ross.
The idea behind Oscar Got the Blame is, like all the best ideas, a simple one. Everything that goes wrong in Oscar’s house is actually the fault (Oscar feels sure) of his friend Billy. When I was about five, I had an imaginary friend called Paddy, with whom I held long intellectual conversations, but it never occurred to me to make him a scapegoat. Fat lot of good it would have been anyway, judging by Oscar’s lack of success. Oscar always gets the blame, and Tony Ross gets the praise for a picture book to make everyone smile. My friend Katy Ross (and her imaginary friend Mandy) made the end papers.
The first story in Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf sums them both up beautifully. The wolf – a literal fellow – wants to eat Polly, but she – a resourceful child – persuades him to have three helpings of pie for starters, and he is then too full. A week later, six slices of chocolate cake do the trick, and later still the stupid creature is invited to sample some toffee in the making which burns his mouth.
Catherine Storr pits Polly against the wolf in round after round of this contest, but Polly is always ahead on points. We leave the poor wolf pulling the petals from daisies (with difficulty – his paws are not ideal for the job) and, instead of ‘She loves me, she loves me not’, reciting ‘I get her, I don’t get her.’ There are thousands of daisies on her lawn, clever Polly tells him with satisfaction, and hundreds of thousands more when he’s finished there.
My third choice is also the story of a wolf, but it is set a far howl from Polly’s cosy suburban streets. This is Jack London’s classic White Fang, first published in 1907, that begins in the pitiless frozen North and ends in the sunshine of California. My own copy – of 1933 (even then a 32nd edition) – is still, just, in one piece after the attentions of myself, my children and my senior grandchildren. Between those battered covers lies the saga of one heroic beast and the general inhumanity of humans towards him.
It is not a story for the squeamish, for White Fang is cruelly misused, but at the nadir of his fortunes, at the end of the great fight with the bulldog Cherokee, at last one good man comes to his aid. In due course White Fang repays the debt, almost losing his own life in so doing. Almost, but not quite. I do like happy endings, don’t you?
Mr Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham
The best picture books, like onions, are simple in shape, easy to hold and hide their layers of skill in a satisfyingly unified whole.
John Burningham encompasses all this with effortless ease. Mr Gumpy’s progress, in an increasingly crowded boat, is a classic one; the language contemporary. A beautifully balanced layout, designed by Jan Pienkowski, offsets large coloured plates against smaller hatched sepia drawings which act as a commentary. Children who are not yet talking can join in with animal noises, older ones can learn to pick out the words. The build-up to the big splash ends, as is proper, with a lovely tea.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
In this pre-1914 arcadia it is the characters who inspire permanent affection. We admire Rat’s gentlemanly decency but, deep down, it is with the timid Mole that we most readily identify, or even at times Toad himself. The story touches powerful chords: the desire to run off, to be a gypsy or a wayfarer, which all children need to do in their imagination, and the equally strong pull towards home, to having a cosy little place all kitted out as you would like it.
Ernest Shepard’s line illustrations, so deceptively slight, get nearer than any others to the lyrical heart of the book. No-one could handle this kind of anthropomorphicism as well as he.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
From the terror of the opening graveyard scene Dickens’ narrative power commands completely. In one paragraph he can turn from high comedy to the dark undertow of the plot. Brilliant characterisation apart, this is a novel of graphically evoked places: the forge on the edge of the marshes; Miss Havisham’s fusty, shuttered room with its rotting wedding cake; the rickety stairs and courts of Barnard’s Inn; Mr Wemmick’s castle. Pictures in strong chiaroscuro which stay in the mind forever. Edit it as you read aloud if you choose. Rosemary Manning’s abridged version from Collins but sadly out of print] is excellent if you can get hold of it. No older child should he allowed to miss this story.
Details of books chosen
Animalia, Graeme Base, Macmillan, 0 333 45444 8, £7.50
Ben’s Baby, Michael Foreman, Andersen, 0 86264 175 6, £5.95
Crusher is Coming, Bob Graham, Collins, 0 00 195602 7, £5.95
Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans, Deutsch, 0 233 95545 3, £4.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.198 3, £l .95 pbk
Mr Gumpy’s Outing, John Burningham, Cape, 0 224 61909 8, £5.50; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.254 8, £1.95 pbk
Not Now, Bernard, David McKee, Andersen, 0 905478 71 1, £5.95; Beaver, 0 09 924050 5, £2.50 pbk (also available in Bengali, Gujarati and Urdu dual-language versions from Ingham Yates, £5.95 each)
Oscar Got the Blame, Tony Ross, Andersen, 0 86264 180 2, £4.95
The Story of Miss Moppet, Beatrix Potter, Warne, 0 7232 3480 9, £3.50
The Tales of Uncle Remus and Adventures of Brer Rabbit, Julius Lester, ill. Jerry Pinkney, Bodley Head, 0 370 31089 6, £9.95
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, Bodley Head, 0 370 00772 7, £7.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.031 6, £2.95 pbk
Alice‘s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, ill. Anthony Browne, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 324 1, £12.95
The BFG, Roald Dahl, ill. Quentin Blake, Cape, 0 224 02040 4, £7.95; Puffin, 0 14 03.1597 7, £2.50 pbk
Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, Catherine Storr, Young Puffin, 0 14 03.0312 X, £1.75 pbk
Come on into my Tropical Garden, Grace Nichols, ill. Caroline Binch, A & C Black, 0 7136 2989 4, £5.95
Harriet and the Flying Teachers, Martin Waddell, ill. Mark Burgess, Blackie, 0 216 92239 9, £6.95
The Iron Man, Ted Hughes, ill. Andrew Davidson, Faber, 0 571 13675 3, £7.95; 0 571 13677 X, £1.95 pbk
Little Sophie and Lanky Flop, Els Pelgrom, ill. The Tjong Khing, Cape, 0 224 02512 0, £7.95
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, Chris Van Allsburg, Andersen, 0 86264 1012, £5.95
The Tailor of Gloucester, Beatrix Potter, Warne, 0 7232 3462 0, £3.50
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame, ill. Ernest Shepard, various versions in hardback and paperback from Methuen
FOR OLDER READERS
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, various publishers
Kiss, Linda Hoy, Walker, 0 7445 0826 6, £8.95
My Love, My Love, Rosa Guy, Virago, 0 86068 804 6, £2.95 pbk
The Nature of the Beast, Janni Howker, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 194 X, £6.95; Lions, 0 00 672582 1, £1.95 pbk
Nicholas and the Gang Again, 0 09 939740 4
Nicholas at Large, 0 09 939730 7
Nicholas on Holiday, 0 09 939750 1
Rene Goscinny and J J Sempe, Beaver, 95p each pbk
Sandburg Treasury: Prose and Poetry for Young People, Carl Sandburg, Harcourt Brace, 0 15 270180 X, £12.50
A Thief in the Village, James Berry, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 12011 X, £6.95
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, various publishers
White Fang, Jack London, Puffin Classics, 0 14 033.045 4, £2.25 pbk
The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins, Penguin Classics, 0 14 043.096 2, £2.95 pbk