It was the second week of term and my grandson’s birthday. He had just started at primary school and the only alternative to social suicide seemed to be to invite the whole class to his party. With a few old friends that made a total of 30. They ran yelling in various enjoyably noisy games up and down the church hall, then they departed, and my daughter was left confronting a table groaning with 30 presents, some of them embarrassingly expensive. How do you give 30 presents to one five-year-old?
The same problem comes up every Christmas, and the answer, it seems to me, is books. It may not be good for a child to receive simultaneously 30 remote controlled cars or rockets or complicated electric toys whose batteries rapidly expire, but it never did anyone any harm to be given 30 books. This Christmas there is a good selection for all ages.
A delightful choice for a three-to-five-year-old is The Big Snuggle-up by Brian Patten with beautiful illustrations by the ever reliable Nicola Bayley (Andersen Press, £10.99). This is the story of all the animals who arrive with the scarecrow to take refuge in the narrator’s house during a bitter winter storm. The beautiful and detailed pictures and the rhyming repetitive text will make this a pleasure to read aloud to a small child.
Another book with original and striking illustrations, this time by Levi Pinfold, who also wrote the book, is Black Dog (Templar, £12.99). Everyone in the Hope family is terrified by the gigantic Black Dog, glimpsed out the window in the wintry garden: everyone, that is, except the youngest child, aptly named Small. The pictures of Small in her yellow winter coat confronting the monstrous black hairy hound are particularly good. Stuck, written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins, £10.99) is the idiosyncratic tale of what happened when Floyd’s kite got stuck up a tree. Obviously he needed to throw something at it to try and bring it down, but did he really have to include an orang-utan, the kitchen sink, a whale, a fire engine, complete with firemen, and a lighthouse, to name but a few? Children of four to seven will revel in the anarchic sense of humour, and it would be more fun than most for the adult reader.
Three attractive books this year are set in museums. Christmas at the Toy Museum, written and illustrated by David Lucas (Walker Books, £11.99,) describes Christmas Eve in the museum, when the toys realise that they have no presents under the tree. How Bunting, the toy cat, solves the problem is the theme of this colourful book, a comforting bedtime read.
Clara Button and the Magical Hat Day by Amy de la Haye, and good value at £10.99, is the V&A’s first attempt at producing a children’s book set in the museum, and it is hoped that it will be the first in a whole new series. Emily Sutton’s illustrations are a delight and the V&A certainly provides many opportunities for exotic adventures for Clara the hat-lover.
The Sleeping Army (illustrated by Adam Stower, Faber, £9.99) marks a new departure for Francesca Simon, author of the ever popular Horrid Henry books. This time the story starts in the British Museum, where Freya’s father is a guard. Accompanying him to work after hours, Freya makes the big mistake of blowing the ceremonial horn next to the Lewis chessmen. This proves a fatal combination. Freya and four of the chessmen, including the aptly named Snot the Berserk, are swept away to Asgard, land of the Viking gods, where they have all kinds of thrilling and gruesome adventures, before finally reviving the moribund deity, who appeared to be in terminal decline. The amusing twist to this story is that the author envisages a world in which, as she ponders in the frontispiece, ‘What if Christianity didn’t exist? What if people still worshipped the old Norse and Anglo-Saxon gods?’ She has a lot of fun with this:
Although the Queen was head of the Fane of England, and Britain was a Wodenic country, not everyone believed in the Gods any more. Baby-namings were still popular, and swearing on Thor’s sacred oath-ring of course, but apart from that the fanes weren’t exactly bursting at the seams.
We even have Richard Dawkins writing The Gods Delusion. This is an exciting and witty read for boys and girls aged nine upwards.
More old-fashioned enthusiasts would be glad to find The Yves Saint Laurent Colouring Book in their stocking. With sketches of his designs and samples of the fabrics, it could be both a pleasure and an inspiration to an aspiring teenage designer (Walker Books, £5.99).
Those who were raised in the shadow of the benevolent Dr Seuss will be glad to hear that seven stories never before issued in book form appear for the first time in The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories (HarperCollins, £10.99). These have all the good doctor’s usual vim and brio. I particularly enjoyed ‘Gustav the Goldfish’. Suitable for children of six and over.
Two welcome reprints for the same age group are The Christmas Eve Ghost by Shirley Hughes (Walker Books, £7.99), set in the Liverpool of her 1930s childhood, and The Church Mice in Action by Graham Oakley (£11.99) in the beautifully presented Templar Modern Classics series. Also outstanding for its quality of text and illustrations is North: The Greatest Animal Journey on Earth by Nick Dowson (Walker Books, £12.99). Readers of all ages who feel the romance of a remote landscape could not fail to appreciate Patrick Benson’s eerie illustrations (see above), which convey the whole atmosphere of the High Arctic so brilliantly.
An easy introduction to those starting to read novels rather than picture books is the paperback Agatha Parrot and the Floating Head by Kjartan Poskitt, with line drawings by David Tazzyman (Egmont, £5.99). It is the kind of slangy, irreverent book set at school and largely devoted to outwitting the wretched teachers that children find so funny. ‘Miss P. has only been out of college a year, so she’s still bright-eyed and trusting, bless her.’
Also set at school, but altogether darker in tone, is The Dream Dealer by Marita Phillips. This privately published paper-back (order through Amazon or via www.thedreamdealer.co.uk at £4.99) is a great deal better than many conventionally published books I am sent. It is the story of the luckless Finn, who lives with his drunken father and yearns to find his long lost mother, who disappeared when he was a baby. An outcast at school, with no friend but his pet mouse, Hercules, Finn’s life takes a turn for the better with the arrival of the new girl, Delphi; but then the sinister Dream Dealer, with his yellow face and wrinkled skin, and his spiteful sidekick the Earth Imp, turns up at the school gate with his van to sell his seductive Ice Dreams, with disastrous results for those who taste his corrupting wares. The book is prefaced by reviews by child readers, and they all agreed, as I do, that it is a gripping page-turner.
Dorling Kindersley has two good non-fiction offerings for older children. How People Lived by Jim Pipe, illustrated by Zack McLaughlin and good value at £9.99, gives a vivid picture of communal life all over the world, from cave dwellings to the modern city. The Children’s Book of Mythical Beasts & Magical Monsters (£14.99) seems to have been a team effort, with editors and designers and one individual with the rather desirable title of ‘Myth Consultant’. It too roams the world and compares myths and legends and the weird creatures associated with them, from Aido-Hwedo of West Africa to Lobishomen, the Portuguese werewolf. Slightly younger children will have fun with See Inside Inventions by Alex Frith (Usborne, £9.99) with lively illustrations by Colin King with flaps to lift to make further discoveries.
Lastly, admirers of Noel Streatfield will be delighted that Jane Nissen Books has reissued the autobiography of her childhood, A Vicarage Family (£7.99). Her own character here known as Victoria, is one we are familiar with in several of her books: the difficult, unappreciated but doughty middle child who will fight against the odds but will eventually make her way in the world. Julia Donaldson, in a perceptive introduction, points out that while Streatfield wrote books for children and for adults this story inhabits a borderland which enables it to be enjoyed by readers of all ages.