The easy way round buying books for children at Christmas is just to get them the latest David Walliams and have done with it. And indeed, Grandpa’s Great Escape (Harper Collins, £12.99), about the sympathetic friendship of a grandfather and grandson, is funny, productive of intergenerational goodwill and spikily illustrated by Tony Ross, though, as my son observed, it’s a pity so many nice people in Walliams’s books end up dead at the end.
Or else you could get any of these: Jacqueline Wilson’s Katy (Puffin, £12.99), a take on What Katy Did, which my daughter liked because the heroine is a tomboy; the latest ‘Tom Gates’ from Liz Pichon (Scholastic, £10.99), which is like O-type blood, universally acceptable; or the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School by Jeff Kinney (Puffin, £12.99), as usual, deadpan hilarious. You can’t go far wrong with any of them. Or indeed with the new Legomanual — Awesome Ideas (DK, £16.99) — which is full of good stuff.
The trouble is, aficionados of Walliams, Wilson et al have probably got hold of their own copies by now. But it’s possible that they haven’t yet got round to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Greek Heroes (Puffin, £12.99). Riordan’s ‘Percy Jackson’ series, about the contemporary American offspring of the Greek gods, was just genius — sort of Mary Beard meets South Park — even though it ended on a dud note. Now he’s turned his attention to the hero stories: Hercules, Theseus, Perseus, the works. It’s right up there with Enid Blyton’s Tales of Long Ago as a way of introducing contemporary youth to the sex and violence of classical mythology (including Pasiphae and the bull — to which Percy’s considered response is: ‘Eeuww!!’) Here, ‘laugh-out-loud-funny’ isn’t a figure of speech.
Another good bet is Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co: The Hollow Boy (Corgi, £7.99, or £14.99 in hardback, with an extra story). It’s based in a London in which hauntings are an unsettling problem, a spectral outbreak on a par with terrorism or rats. Only children can see ghosts and act as ghost-hunters; so, enter Anthony Lockwood and his assistants Lucy and George, whom the haunted employ to sort out ghosts the way Sherlock Holmes was commissioned to sort out murders. In this latest story, there’s emotional complication when Lockwood employs a pretty young assistant, thereby upsetting the dynamic of the threesome. Brilliant as ever.
Another engaging book for practically any age is Meet at the Ark at Eight by Ulrich Hub (Pushkin, £6.99), illustrated with comic brio by Jörg Mühle. It’s about God allowing only two of each animal into Noah’s Ark — which is awkward for our three penguin heroes. But friendship and ingenuity conquer all, though the whole thing prompts disobliging reflections on God. I suppose you could read blasphemy and transgressive, cross-species love into this funny little book; then again, you could just enjoy it.
Heartsong (Orchard, £9.99) is a lovely curiosity, based on the poignant records of the Venetian foundling hospital, which mention one little foundling, Laura. This is Kevin Crossley-Holland’s take on her story, with poignant, detailed drawings by Jane Ray (above). It also features Antonio Vivaldi, who was music master to the orphanage, and who has rarely been so affectionately depicted.
It’s always tricky to join a series midway through, but in the case of Michelle Paver’s The Crocodile Tomb (Puffin, £7.99), fourth in the ‘Gods and Warriors’ series set in Bronze Age Greece, you can simply pitch in. This one is set in Egypt c. 2,500 bc, and it’s as good an imaginative take on that world as you’ll get. Paver has an extraordinary capacity to people the gaps in ancient history with credible characters — her ‘Wolf Brother’ series was an astonishing feat — and she adds background notes to put it all in context.
From the moment you open Nicholas Gannon’s The Doldrums (Harper Collins, £12.99), you know you’re in for a treat: this is the adventures of a put-upon only child — whose explorer grandparents disappear on an iceberg in Antarctica — and who lives in a house full of stuffed animals. Obviously he runs away; and obviously things don’t go as planned. Whimsical, with delightful illustrations.
For children who find reading difficult, the publisher Barrington Stoke designs books with easy-to-read sentences and spacious layout. The best is Ted Rules the World (£6.99) by the ever-brilliant Frank Cotterell Boyce, about ‘the most average boy in Britain’ — whose birthday coincides with the election and who finds that the Prime Minister makes his every wish law.
For smaller children, Tomi Ungerer’s captivating ‘Mellops’ books concern a family of pigs with a boundless appetite for adventure, apparently unlimited parental resources and a mother who makes the best cream cakes. The Mellops Go Spelunking (Phaidon, £9.95) is about their potholing adventures and, as ever, the illustrations, with their vivacious, bold, clear lines, in just four colours, are the best bit. Check out Christmas Eve at the Mellops too: charming.
Another picture book that made me laugh was The Prince and the Porker by Peter Bently and David Roberts (Ander-sen, £11.99): a clever, rhyming take on the story of the Prince and the Pauper, with a greedy pig as the royal double. But for poems, Arthur Robins’s illustrations for T.S. Eliot’s Skimbleshanks in a big, bold edition (Faber, £6.99) are the best way to get children to engage with Old Possum. There’s a wonderful Macavity too.
Charlotte Voake has an unusually delicate, sweet style as illustrator, and in Melissa’s Octopus and Other Unsuitable Pets (Walker, £6.99) she shows she has a funny side as well: think Hilaire Belloc’s The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts.
Children need reminding that books are to be written as well as read, and there are some good guides about. For younger writers, Usborne’s My First Story Writing Book (Usborne, £7.99) gives them all the prompts they need to turn readers into writers.
I know this is meant to be a choice of new books, but let me sneak in two that have been around a bit but never fail. Jan Pienkowski’s In the Beginning (Walker, £12.99) is a fabulous, simple collection of Old Testament stories with bold, brilliant pictures by an extraordinary illustrator. And Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun by Joshua Glen and Elizabeth Foy Larsen (Bloomsbury, £18.99) is a parental lifesaver.