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Children’s books for Christmas

One brave mouse, two feisty girls, three bad monkeys — and a coming-of-age novel reminiscent of To Kill a Mocking Bird — make for captivating stories this year

3 December 2016

9:00 AM

3 December 2016

9:00 AM

Maurice Sendak, no mean judge, observed that William Nicholson’s Clever Bill was ‘among the few perfect picture books for children’. I’d go along with that if I didn’t think Nicholson’s other picture book, The Pirate Twins, even better, with its lovely opening, ‘One evening, on the sands, Mary found the pirate twins.’

Now Clever Bill (Egmont, £9.99) is back in print, 90 years after it was first published, so you can see for yourself what a genius little book it is. Nicholson (better known as the illustrator of The Velveteen Rabbit) wrote very few words, but what a tremendous narrative it is. Mary is invited to visit her aunt, and in the rush leaves behind her friend, the toy soldier clever Bill Davis. He sets off in pursuit. The pictures use a limited palette but, within bold rectangular or oval frames, they are masterly in their vigour. You could regard this as a feminist text, given Mary’s terrific authority; then again, you could just see it as a charming story.

Another feisty little girl features in Charlotte Voake’s illustrations for Eleanor Farjeon’s Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep (Walker, £9.99), about Elsie, who liberates her village through her skipping. These are delicate, haunting pictures, perfect for an odd, captivating story.

Quentin Blake and Emma Chichester Clarke are splendid illustrators, and in their joint work, Three Little Monkeys (Harper Collins, £12.99), Blake goes in for cross-dressing, providing the text for Chichester Clarke’s spirited but elegant pictures. The two combine splendidly in this story about three bad monkeys whose saucer-eyed looks belie their capacity for trouble.

An unlikely recent success was Drew Daywalt’s brilliantly funny The Day the Crayons Quit, a series of letters of complaint from a child’s crayons to their owner. Now it is followed by The Day the Crayons Came Home (Harper Collins, £7.99), which, with deadpan pictures by Oliver Jeffers, is similarly weird and funny.


It’s a waste of time reviewing David Walliams’s latest, because his child fans will have pounced on it already, but for what it’s worth, There’s a Snake in My School (Harper Collins, £12.99) is richly comic, with a Bellocian twist, for which Tony Ross’s anarchic illustrations are just right. It’s about a little girl who brings her pet python, Penelope, to school, only to be stymied by a horrid headmistress. You can see where this is going, can’t you?

In a way, Mabel Lucie Atwell wasn’t at all the right illustrator for Peter Pan and Wendy, the young children’s version of the original story, though she had J.M. Barrie’s blessing; her adorable pictures don’t catch the dark and amoral aspect of Peter Pan. But it’s the version (now republished by Macmillan, £14.99) that my mother had, and I used to love it, so maybe other children will too.

Tomi Ungerer, still happily with us, is one of the greats among authors and illustrators. (Check out his delightful Christmas at the Mellops, about a family of philanthropic pigs.) Now Phaidon have produced a handsome edition of his best known stories, sadly sans pigs: Tomi Ungerer: A Treasury of 8 Books (£35). The stories are wonderfully simple, but it’s the captivating pictures which carry it off.

Practically anything published in the New York Review Children’s Collection imprint is a treat; Edward Gorey’s Fletcher and Zenobia (£9.99), illustrated with eccentric panache by Victoria Chess, is a story of immense charm and uncompromisingly rich vocabulary about a cat and a doll who get stuck up a tree and have a party.

The Amazing Adventures of Freddie Whitemouse (Mantle, £9.99) is the only children’s book written by Elizabeth Jane Howard, and it was apparently her last wish that it should be published. It’s a delight — about a mouse, resident at 16, Skirting Board West, who wants to be a more interesting animal, and a useful toad sorceror who lets him have his wish. This theme of identity-affirming is a familiar one in children’s books, but Howard does it beautifully.

The Gift Giving (Virago, £6.99) is a lovely collection of Joan Aiken’s short stories: whimsical, curious and magical. What a wonderful writer she was.

I was initially sceptical about The Unofficial Bible for Minecrafters (Lion Hudson, £12.99) — a collection of Bible stories in Minecraft format. But my daughter pounced on it as, frankly, she doesn’t on the Bible in other formats. Whatever it takes.

Tonke Dragt’s The Letter for the King was a sensation two years ago when it was finally translated from the Dutch after 50 years. Now Pushkin publishes her 1967 book, The Song of Seven, translated by Laura Watkinson (£12.99). It’s a magical, strange, gripping tale about a teacher and his class who help a boy, kept virtual prisoner by his wicked uncle, to find treasure, friends and liberation.

Wolf Hollow (Corgi, £6.99), Lauren Wolk’s American coming-of-age tale, has had rave reviews, some a bit hyperbolically comparing Wolk with Harper Lee. But it’s certainly a cracking story, beautifully written, about a young girl whose life on a farm in Pennsylvania during the war changes when an unscrupulous, manipulative city girl arrives. It’s a devastating account of bullying (the victims include a harmless   loner) and of how societies choose their scapegoats.

One of the brilliant things about How Super Cool Stuff Works (DK, £19.99) is that it looks like a laptop. The subjects it explains include a 3-D printer, e-reader and an ice hotel. Super cool.


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