The Christmas story and stories about the traditions of Christmas are so familiar and yet, as these books demonstrate, writers, poets and illustrators continue to find new ways to write about the same events, representing them to us with freshness, originality, beauty, drama and wit. Rosemary Stones selects ten of the best Christmas titles including both new publications and old favourites.
Baby’s First Christmas
Edited by Fiona Watt, ill. Chiara Bordoni, Usborne, 10pp, 978 0 7460 8778 7, £9.99 board + CD
This sturdy board book has a Christmas scene depicted on each double page spread – a snowman and a robin; a decorated Christmas tree; angels singing; Santa’s arrival; stockings crammed with presents – all delightfully illustrated with detailed collage pictures made from felt, knitting, ribbons, buttons, lace and twinkly foil. A baby will find it easy to turn the pages using the robust die-cut tabs on each page. The accompanying CD has the music for 16 carols.
6 months and upwards
My Very First Christmas Carols
Lois Rock, ill. Alex Ayliffe, Lion, 32pp, 978 0 7459 6034 0, 32pp, £7.99 pbk + CD
The Christmas story is told in this cheerful picture book via ten well known carols (‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, ‘The First Nowell’, ‘We Three Kings’ etc) with a linking narrative. A traditional Welsh prayer is found at the end. This is an ideal book to teach small children Christmas carols as not only are the words and music included but there is a CD that can be played while you sing. Ayliffe’s bright, homely illustrations show the holy family as adults but also feature children dressed as shepherds or angels as though in a nativity play. A charming and accessible first carol book.
2 years and upwards
Veronica Heley, ill. Francesca Crespi, Frances Lincoln, 14pp, 1 84507 343 5, £12.99 hbk novelty
The story of the nativity from the Annunciation to the arrival of the Three Wise Men is told via six jewel-like 3-D tableaux which unfold as each page is opened. Like miniature theatre sets, some of the scenes are framed behind a proscenium of columns or stable doors which open to exquisitely stylised figures reminiscent of the work of the Sienese artist Francesco di Giorgio. Landscape scenes with their distant hills and trees recall such bucolic glimpses in Renaissance portraits. A beautifully designed and accessible book that young readers will treasure.
3 years and upwards
The Night Before Christmas
Clement Clarke Moore, ill. Robert Sabuda, Simon & Schuster, 14pp, 0 689 83899 9, £19.99 hbk novelty
There have been many illustrative interpretations since its first publication in 1822 of Moore’s rollicking set of verses about the dramatic arrival of St Nicholas on a flying sledge pulled by a team of reindeer that includes the unforgettable Dasher and Dancer not to speak of Donder and Blitzen. This elegant pop-up version of the poem by illustrator and paper engineer Robert Sabuda features a mouse family. Coloured backgrounds on thick paper offset Sabuda’s starkly white pop-ups – of a clock, the mice children in bed, St Nicholas coming down the chimney etc. The arrival of the reindeer is particularly dramatic – as the page is turned they surge forward towards the reader. Flaps throughout provide additional pop-up surprises when opened. Stylish fun.
3 years and upwards
Olivia helps with Christmas
Ian Falconer, Simon & Schuster, 40pp, 978 1 41690 430 4, £12.99 hbk novelty, 978 1 84738 272 6, £6.99 pbk novelty
In this, the latest Olivia picture book, the endearingly impatient little pig takes charge of family preparations for Christmas – setting the table, dressing the tree. Always so keen to help out (often with disastrous consequences), Olivia’s energy is exhausting – even when finally asleep her dream has her on stage as a prima ballerina. This is a well observed, witty, very New York family story from a consummate draughtsman who is also well known from his contributions to The New Yorker magazine. Falconer’s minimalist style – crinkly line, confident dashes of shade and crisp white space is given a seasonal touch in this Christmas tale with vibrant spots of green as well as his trademark red. Well placed gatefolds open to reveal the unexpected consequences of Olivia’s enthusiasm.
3-7 year olds
Leah’s Christmas Story
Margaret Bateson-Hill, ill. Karin Littlewood, Lion, 32pp, 0 7459 4997 0, £9.99 hbk
How hard it is to retell the Christmas story with freshness and immediacy! This picture book version of the tale manages to do both. Events are seen through the eyes of the innkeeper’s daughter, Leah, who helps Mary and Joseph find a place of shelter in her father’s stable. For Leah, whose mother died at her birth, the arrival of this new baby is already laden with meaning. Both author and illustrator present us with a very human young couple for whom the birth of their first child is both a real and a miraculous event. Karin Littlewood uses watercolour with tremendous skill and economy to convey the dramatic events of the night with all their emotional intensity.
4 years and upwards
Raymond Briggs, Puffin, 32pp, 978 0 14 050125 4, £6.99 pbk
With its cartoon strips, speech bubbles and cutaways of buildings, Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas (first published in 1973) was revolutionary – and not just for its design. Affectionately based on his memories of his milkman father and the solitary, cold, unsociable nature of his job, Briggs’s Santa is a grumpy, endearing character who complains about chimneys, soot, the cold but who is also affectionate towards his pets and reindeer and relishes his Christmas dinner. The great children’s classic of Christmas – not to be missed.
5 years and upwards
A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens, ill. Quentin Blake, Pavilion, 144pp, 978 1 84365 121 5, £12.99 hbk
‘…every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart,’ famously declares Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’s novella (here unabridged) first published in 1843. How Scrooge is redeemed by the spirits of Christmas has lost none of its power to move the reader and this sumptuous large format edition of the story with its ‘scuffed leather’ cover, head and tail bands and ribbon marker is a volume that will be treasured forever. It is introduced by its illustrator, Quentin Blake, whose line and wash illustrations, monochrome at moments of desolation and despair, full colour at recollections of joy and kindness, capture consummately the terror, emotional turmoil and hope of Scrooge’s journey from bleakness to the warmth of Christmas.
8 years and upwards
The Gift of the Magi
O Henry, ill. P J Lynch, Walker, 40pp, 978 1 84428 038 4, £10.99 hbk
First published in 1909, this Edwardian Christmas story by the celebrated American short story writer tells of a young married couple, Della and Jim, whose only two possessions of any value are her beautiful long hair and his gold watch inherited from his father. Della has painstakingly saved up for Jim’s Christmas present but when the day comes she has only $1.87 – nowhere near enough for the watch chain she longs to give him. Selling her hair is her only option but what will Jim think of her shorn locks? As ever with O Henry, there is a twist to the denouement of this tender, warmly told story about self sacrifice and love. The candid description of the couple’s poverty and their shabby flat is well depicted in this small format picture book version of the tale by P J Lynch’s realistic, painterly illustrations with their subdued palette of browns, grey and green. An enriching read.
9 years and upwards
The Young Oxford Book of Christmas Poems
Edited by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark, Oxford, 160pp, 978 0 19 276342 6, £8.99 pbk
From Wendy’s Cope’s evocative ‘The Christmas Life’ to Charles Causley’s hauntingly beautiful ‘The Animals’ Carol’ to John Mole’s sardonic ‘Under the tree’, this expert anthology covers poetry in different moods and styles on themes from Advent to Christmas to New Year from traditional and contemporary poets. With artwork from 16 different illustrators, this well designed collection is challenging, thought provoking and moving.
9 years and upwards
Rosemary Stones is Editor of Books for Keeps.