Juliet Townsend selects the best of this year’s reading for toddlers through to teenagers
In these straitened times one can only be grateful for the excellent value offered by picture books for young children, which have remained at the same price for several years. Since the migration of their production to the Far East, some have become ever more elaborate, with pop-up versions accompanied by sound effects, resulting in something which is more a toy than a book. There are, however, many excellent writers and illustrators represented this Christmas.
For the youngest children, Christmas Time by Alison Jay (Templar, £10.99) with minimal text and colourful and original pictures, takes us on a seasonal journey, full of reindeer, carol singers, polar bears and snowmen. Children will enjoy finding the visual links between each page.
The tragic tale of the accidental destruction of the very last dodo egg is told in amusing verse by Kaye Umansky in Dodo doo-doo (Hodder, £10.99,) and the all too vivid illustrations by Korky Paul will appeal to any child going through the ‘I love poo’ stage.
Julia Donaldson is another author whose verse is always fun to read aloud. In Cave Baby (Macmillan, £10.99) she teams up for the first time with the illustrator Emily Gravett to produce a wonderfully dramatic account of the cave baby graffiti artist and his friends the mammoths. In Three by the Sea, the author/illustrator Mini Grey (so named because she was born in a Mini) tells the story of three friends, the Dog, the Cat and the Mouse, who live happily together in their beach hut until the arrival of a sinister stranger, the vulpine salesman for the Winds of Change Trading Company, (everything ABSOLUTELY FREE.) Soon they begin to feel discontented with their lot, until Mouse’s brush with death by drowning shows them who their true friends are.
Ahmed and the Feather Girl by Jane Ray (Frances Lincoln, £11.99) owes much to folk tales. Ahmed finds a mysterious golden egg in the forest and takes it back to the circus, where he slaves for the cruel Madame Saleem. When a little girl hatches out of the egg she becomes a money-spinner for the circus, especially when she begins to sprout wings and a coat of beautiful silky feathers. Madame Saleem thinks her fortune is made, but Ahmed has other ideas. The colourful dramatic pictures will appeal to children of 5-7.
The General (Templar, £10.99) by Janet Charters first appeared 50 years ago and marked the debut as an illustrator of Michael Foreman, then still an art student. It was certainly forward-looking in its artwork and emphasis on the environment, but very much a product of its time in its anxious search for peace. General Jodhpur, like Ferdinand the Bull in the previous generation, does not want to fight, but prefers to lie down and smell the flowers.
It is interesting to see Michael Foreman’s work 50 years on, in two books for older children by Michael Morpurgo and based, like his Warhorse, on the relationship between people and animals. Not Bad for a Bad Lad (Templar, £9.99), told by the bad lad himself, is also the story of a boy and his horse. It is set in the real-life 1950s borstal at Hollesley Bay in Suffolk, which had a famous stud of Suffolk Punches, looked after by the inmates. How the bad lad becomes a comparatively good lad through his love for Dombey, the problem horse (illustrated above), is a heartening story and casts light on a little known corner of penal history.
In An Elephant in the Garden (Harper Collins £12.99) we see the war from an unfamiliar angle, the viewpoint of a German girl living in Dresden at the time of the bombing. Lizzie’s mother works at the zoo, and when she is told that the animals will have to be shot if there is a raid, she takes the young elephant, Marlene, to live in their garden. When the bombers come, Lizzie and her family escape from the city and take Marlene with them. Their long and perilous journey to the safety of the American lines makes for exciting reading.
The Longest Whale Song (Doubleday £12.99) is also about a child’s rapport with animals, but at a distance. The heroine of Jacqueline Wilson’s latest story is Ella, whose fascination with whales helps her to cope with life while her mother is in a coma and she is wrestling with tricky relationships at school and with her stepfather at home. Can the eerie whale song help bring her mother back to life? No one is better than Jacqueline Wilson at entering into the daily ups and downs of childhood, while being sympathetic but not sentimental.
Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (Bloomsbury, £10.99,) is a gripping if gritty read for teenagers, veering between the New York of the spoilt children of the rich to the Paris of the Revolution. Andi is a brilliant musician, traumatised by the death of her young brother, which has led to her mother having a breakdown and her father virtually abandoning them. The first section is entitled ‘Hell, and to a place where nothing shines’, which sets the sombre tone all too accurately. Andi lives in an empty world of spoilt brats who pop pills, indulge in casual sex and are entirely self-centred. Only her friend, Vijay, and her guitar hold her back from suicide.
Then, on a visit to Paris, she comes across the diary of Alexandrine, a young actress hired to amuse the little Dauphin at Versailles, who gets caught up in the full horror of the Revolution. Andi becomes more and more involved in Alex’s efforts to rescue the Dauphin after the execution of the King and Queen — a story which we know is not going to have a happy ending. Eventually she crosses the time divide and experiences for herself the full force of the Terror.
This book is not for the very young nor the fainthearted: the description of the headless suppurating corpses piled in the Paris catacombs is particularly gruesome: but it is powerful, beautifully written and all absorbing, and on the way the reader learns a great deal about the Revolution.
Christmas is a good time to introduce children to some of one’s own old favourites. Orion have produced a high quality facsimile edition of Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes (£10.99) and Frances Lincoln have a delightful boxed set of Edward Ardizzone’s Little Tim Stories, The Little Tim Collection. It costs £49.99, but that includes six hardback books and a CD read by Stephen Fry. It would make an excellent present for anyone aged between 4 and 7.
There are also many old friends to be met in By Sun and Candlelight (Hodder, £12.99,) an anthology of verse and prose for all ages, much enhanced by Shirley Hughes’ illustrations. She also drew the pictures for Bogwoppit by Ursula Moray Williams (£7.99) the latest in the ever-reliable Jane Nissen Books paperback series of neglected children’s classics. The Bogwoppit is an idiosyncratic creature slightly reminiscent of the Psammead in E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It. One of Nesbit’s less read books, The Magic City (£7.99) is also on the Nissen list. If the worst comes to the worst over Christmas, and all the toys’ batteries run down, you can always pass an afternoon building a Nesbit Magic City with all the chessmen and dominoes and mixing bowls in the house.
If fact appeals more than fiction, The Life and Times of William Shakespeare, by Kristen McDermott and Ari Berk (Templar £16.99) is much more enjoyable than it sounds, taking the form of a folder with plenty of detachable ephemera — tickets, pamphlets, letters, maps — imparting a lot of information in a painless way.
For years people have been complaining that there is no up to date equivalent to Our Island Story, and that their children do not seem to study any history at school apart from Roman Britain (usually several times), the Tudors and Hitler, with occasional excursions into the life of the medieval peasant or the child worker in the Industrial Revolu
tion. Patrick Dillan has answered this need admirably with The Story of Britain (Walker Books, £18.99). It is a straightforward and vivid account, well produced, and with pleasantly traditional illustrations by P. J. Lynch, and deserves a place in any child’s bookcase.