Books for stockings, books wrapped up and placed under the tree … What could be nicer than choosing something wonderful for the children in your life!
Books for Keeps asks leading children’s book experts to choose the old favourite and the recently published title that they would most want to give to their special child at Christmas.
Jenny Morris of the Lion and Unicorn Bookshop, Richmond-upon-Thames, chooses novelty titles:
The Jolly Postman, or Other People’s Letters
Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Heinemann, 0 434 92515 2, £10.99 hbk
Novelty books tend to come and go without reaching classic status, with this rare exception which is still delighting new generations of three-year-olds and upwards who will be drawn back long after infancy to re-read its jaunty verses and pore lovingly over its absorbing, pint-sized illustrations. In this small masterpiece the comic figure of the bicycling postman combined with a play on well-known fairy tales set new standards of inventiveness which others have followed, though never with quite the same sure, comic touch. Long may ‘the Jolly P.’ bicycle on!
The Secret Fairy Handbook or How to be a Little Fairy
Penny Dann, Orchard, 1 86039 384 5, £9.99 hbk
A fairy ‘postie’ is the bringer of glad tidings to the fairy kingdom in this unashamedly pink, girlie and irresistible to five- to seven-year-olds novelty book. Readers join Blossom in her preparations for the Queen’s May Ball, finding in secret pockets or hidden under leafy flaps all the adornments an honorary fairy must have – daisy chain bracelet, raindrop pendant and best of all, silver fairy wings! Soft padded covers held by a clasp keep all its fairy surprises hidden from the prying eyes of unbelievers – I cannot wait to share this one with my granddaughter!
Lesley Agnew of The Children’s Bookshop, Muswell Hill, London, chooses picture books:
Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Viking, 0 670 80344 8, £10.99 hbk, 0 670 87176 1, £4.99 board, Picture Puffin, 0 14 050384 6, £4.99 pbk
My ‘old favourite’ is this baby-centred view of a 1940s domestic world created through soft, warm pictures full of detail and accompanied by gentle, rhyming text. All the highlights of daily routine are observed from the baby’s various vantage points – cot, bath, sister’s arms and mother’s arms. The very young reader can watch with the baby and accompany him through a peep-hole cut in the pages. For the slightly older reader, the rhyming language and simple repetitions continue to keep this an accessible and satisfying book for early reading alone. The busy, lovingly depicted illustrations of cluttered, chaotic family life become more intriguing as the child reader starts to draw comparisons with his or her own present day surroundings. A lovely book for sharing and especially at bed-time. Available as a picture book or board book.
Willy the Dreamer
Anthony Browne, Walker, 0 7445 4972 8, £9.99 hbk
A whimsical exploration of the contrary world of dreams, perfectly suited to Browne’s gloriously imaginative surrealist style which pays subtle homage to pivotal modern artists – Willy dreams he is an explorer in a Rousseau forest, lost in a strange Dali landscape, and even that he is Magritte himself. In dreams he can become a ballet dancer, a scuba-diver, a giant, a beggar, and a king. Nothing is ever quite what it seems, encouraging discussion of the confusing experiences of dreams and nightmares. The youngest child can explore the vivid, magical pictures, spotting unexpected bananas on every page; the older child may also recognize the familiar characters peopling Willy’s dream-world.
Poetry expert Fiona Waters chooses poetry anthologies:
The Macmillan Treasury of Poetry for Children
Illustrated by Diz Wallis, Macmillan, 0 333 71264 1, £25.00 hbk
Bursting with over two hundred and fifty poems, this handsome and comprehensive anthology should be top of the shopping list this Christmas. The poems selected are an excellent mix of the timeless and the very new, and there is a wise and interesting foreword from Charles Causley. There are full colour illustrations on every spread and the format is pleasingly chunky. The bibliographical detail is of the best – there is not only an index of first lines, an index of poets and of titles but also each poet is set in a time context with the date of birth given after every poem.
Classic Poems to Read Aloud
Selected by James Berry, ill. James Mayhew, Kingfisher, 1 85697 253 4, £10.99 hbk, 0 75340 120 7, £5.99 pbk
My ‘old favourite’ is this enduring and excellent anthology aimed at all ages from seven to fourteen. There are sufficient of the great and familiar favourites to justify the definitive title and to make the reader feel comfortable, but there are also new voices from widely differing cultures that provide an inspired and thought provoking selection. These are poems to read aloud, the cadences and the voices sing off the pages. Illustrated with Mayhew’s excellent line drawings, full of mystery, laughter and sadness, and with colour plates by a variety of artists. First published in 1995.
The Times children’s book consultant Brian Alderson chooses classic gifts:
The Midnight Folk
Illustrated by Rowland Hilder, 0 7497 1285 6
The Box of Delights
Illustrated by Judith Masefield, 0 7497 1286 4
John Masefield, Mammoth, £4.50 each pbk
The most successful Christmas storytelling our lot ever had started somewhere round about October. Sir Theopompus began it with his letter on the first page of The Midnight Folk and we finished on Christmas Eve with the bells of Tatchester Cathedral ringing out at the end of The Box of Delights. It is a bit late to start that 600-page manoeuvre now, but any time is good enough for these two marvellous books.
The Tailor of Gloucester
Beatrix Potter, Frederick Warne, 0 7232 3462 0, £4.50 standard hbk, 0 7232 4094 9, £11.99 de luxe hbk
No scrimping on Christmas Eve at the tailor of Gloucester’s, which you can even buy in a celebration de luxe edition bound in cloth gilt copying the fancy edition of 1904. Like Masefield, Beatrix Potter gives you words, phrases, and sentences as rich as plum-pudding – and who cares what ‘paduasoy and taffeta’ or ‘green worsted chenille’ may mean. Admittedly Miss Potter’s favourite bits, in what was her favourite book – the nursery rhymes – do not fit in very well, but you can just convert that part into a sing-song intermezzo.
Angela Macpherson of Bags of Books, Lewes, chooses books on tape:
Complete Chronicles of Narnia
C S Lewis, seven tapes dramatised by the BBC, 0 563 38109 4, £49.99 inc. VAT
Spoken word makes an excellent choice if you are buying a ‘book’ gift for a child whose reading ability is unknown, or who just loves listening to a good story. Usually my preference is for an unabridged reading of a text. However, the BBC are masters at dramatisation and their full gift set of the seven double tape packs at £49.99 makes a wonderful present. These are classics that no child should miss.
The Iron Man
Ted Hughes, one tape read by the author, Penguin, 0 14 086673 6, £5.99 inc.VAT
During the past few years I have had innumerable requests for a recording of this brilliant story. I was therefore thrilled when Penguin released a recording of Hughes reading his own work. His well paced reading has the listener hooked from the start and the exciting, gravelly texture of his voice suits the story very well. Any child over six will be enthralled.
Children’s book consultant Wendy Cooling chooses titles for younger readers:
The Very Quiet Cricket
Eric Carle, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13785 3, £4.99 novelty board
The Very Quiet Cricket was first published as a picture book in 1990. This board book version (with chirp) of the story of the little cricket’s search for someone to talk to is perfect; the lyrical text illustrated in Carle’s individual and immediately recognisable style, moves to a moment of pure astonishment that touches every young reader. Onomatopoeic words such as scraping, crunching, munching, slurping and screeching offer children a sense of the wonder of words as a praying mantis, spittlebug, dragon fly, luna moth and others almost fly from the pages. The Cricket makes a perfect gift, it has the same classic quality as The Very Hungry Caterpillar and, if my copy is anything to go by, his chirp lasts for ever!
A Year Full of Stories
Georgie Adams and Selina Young, Orion, 1 85881 182 1, £20.00 hbk
I remember the big book of ‘stories for boys and girls’ I owned as a child and now, at last, there is a perfect replacement in A Year Full of Stories. The large format, chunky squareness of the book is irresistible, and, with 366 exuberantly illustrated stories and poems, you have a book that must be picked up. It is ideal for bedtime – children will demand the poem or story of the day, and as many more as they can negotiate! Characters popping up throughout the book and poems with vocabulary as appealing as those muddy words, squeedgy, squidgy, squelch and splatter, offer real pleasure. This handsome book is too big for the stocking but will do well under the tree and stand many readings.
Books for Keeps editor Rosemary Stones chooses anthologies:
The Swan’s Stories
Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Brian Alderson, ill. Chris Riddell, Walker, 0 7445 3298 1, £12.99 hbk
‘Once upon a time there was a darning-needle who was so altogether fine that she fancied she was a sewing needle …’ Thus begins one of the 12 sparkily translated Andersen stories about inanimate objects (a collar, a snowman, a tin soldier) that make up this handsome volume full of humour and pathos. Stylishly and moodily illustrated with strongly imaginative colour plates and Riddell’s expressive black and white line.
The Roald Dahl Treasury
Illustrated by Quentin Blake et al, Cape, 0 224 04691 8, £19.99 hbk
This extensive, fully illustrated volume (448pp) brings together complete stories, extracts from key works, poems, recipes and letters from the Dahl oeuvre, both the canon and quirky ephemera, which give an insight into the process of his giant-sized, child-centred imagination. ‘I was a dream-blowing giant … I is scuddling away to other places to blow dreams into the bedrooms of sleeping children.’ says the BFG – Dahl could equally well have been talking about himself.
The Guardian children’s books editor Julia Eccleshare chooses fiction for older readers:
Goodnight Mr Tom
Michelle Magorian, Puffin Modern Classics, 0 14 037233 4, £5.99 pbk, Puffin, 0 14 031541 1, £4.99 pbk
Within a story, and without in any way being an ‘issues’ book, this not-to-be-missed novel explores a wide range of problems amid an amazing welter of emotions. This is particularly important and striking because the emotions relate to a boy and a man. Evacuee Will is able to put his tragic background behind him and his resulting low self esteem is given room to grow under Tom’s gruff but kind nurture. Meanwhile, Tom’s own unhappiness and emotional frustration is at least partially abated by the happiness he gets from Will’s adjustment. And that is just for starters. Death, burgeoning romance and all the trappings of a successful World War 2 novel are thrown in for good measure.
Clockwork or All Wound Up
Philip Pullman, Doubleday, 0 385 40755 6, £9.99 hbk, Corgi, 0 440 86343 0, £3.99 pbk
For the sheer energy of the writing, the surprises it springs and the chilling feeling you are left with, Clockwork is a book to savour. In fact, it is impossible not to savour it since it sticks so indelibly in the memory. Told as a story within a story, mirroring the mechanism of the clockwork of the title, both stories move along at a breakneck speed, hurtling the reader towards the grim ending.
Author and consultant John Farndon chooses non-fiction that will be treasured:
Oxford Children’s Encyclopedia
Nine-volume boxed set illustrated in full colour, 0 19 910173 6, £150 (also available on CD-Rom, 0 19 268340 3, £51.06 plus £8.93 VAT)
Earlier this year, Oxford launched a completely revamped edition of their nine-volume Children’s Encyclopedia. The result is a wonderful treasurehouse of knowledge which would be an asset to any child and make a wonderful present. By no means cheap, it is worth the investment – it is surprisingly compact and endlessly informative. The Encyclopedia is arranged predominantly in an A-Z format – sensibly, there is a separate biography volume – and every major topic, from aborigines to zoos, is introduced with a clearly written article. Moreover, it is attractive enough to encourage browsing as well as serious reference. I wish I had had one.
Stephen Biesty’s Cross-Sections Man-of-War
Stephen Biesty, Dorling Kindersley, 0 7513 5045 1, £12.00 hbk
Biesty has a remarkable ability to create illustrations that you actually want to linger over – whether you are a child or an adult. They are always full of the fascinating detail that draws a child’s eye, and he has a way of presenting subjects in a view that is often so original that it is genuinely exciting. His first great success was Incredible Cross-Sections, but this handsome, large format book focuses his talent to create an extraordinarily fascinating view of an 18th-century warship and what life was like for its crew.