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A survey of this year’s children’s books sets the cat among the pigeons

Judith Kerr’s cat Katinka has a magical tail, while Enid Marx’s carrier pigeons help win the second world war

2 December 2017

9:00 AM

2 December 2017

9:00 AM

Back in 1990, Roald Dahl wrote a book called The Minpins, which was illustrated by Patrick Benson, a very good artist. By now we regard Dahl (when writing for children) to be inescapably linked with Quentin Blake, to the point where any other combination seems fundamentally unsatisfactory, like trying to decouple Goscinny and Uderzo in the Asterix books, or Kenneth Grahame and Ernest Shepard for The Wind in the Willows. The whole is somehow bigger than both halves. So it’s a matter of pure delight that Blake has now illustrated the book (Puffin, £10.99). At a stroke, the atmosphere of the story has changed from menacing to spirited and intrepid. The Midas touch of QB has worked again. As he says, it ‘felt almost like a new Roald Dahl book that I had never read before’. And what could be better than that?

Sometimes, you just want to go back to your own childhood, for which purpose I warmly recommend a lovely collector’s edition of Tove Jansson’s four early Moomin books (Sort of Books, £10.99 each). They are things of joy. There is also The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree (Sort of Books, £4.99) — two stories from Tales from Moominvalley, sold in aid of Oxfam. And to round off the Moomin orgy, there’s a whopping, beautifully illustrated guide to The World of Moominvalley (Macmillan, £35) by one of its fans, Philip Ardagh, with an additional eulogy by Frank Cottrell Boyce.

Judith Kerr is another inimitable illustrator, whose kindly view of the world emerges from every drawing she does, from The Tiger who Came to Tea to her latest book, Katinka’s Tail (Harper Collins, £12.99) — about her cat and its tail, which does quite remarkable things at night. We are used to children going on night-time adventures, but now it’s the turn of a 93-year-old lady. The line of Kerr’s drawings has softened with age but is no less assured. These are wonderful pictures. Make her a dame, for goodness sake.

Oliver Jeffers’s style as an illustrator is jauntily naive. Here We Are (Harper Collins, £14.99) is a guidebook for his new child to the world and its creatures, ourselves included, starting with the galaxy and working inwards. It concludes with the impeccable sentiment: ‘Well, that is Planet Earth. Make sure you look after it, as it’s all we’ve got.’

From The Little White Bear, written and illustrated by Enid Marx (Unicorn Press)
From The Little White Bear, written and illustrated by Enid Marx (Unicorn Press)

Unicorn Press has come up with two interesting curiosities by the versatile artist Enid Marx, originally published in the 1940s. The Little White Bear (£10) — about a polar bear cub befriended by sailors whose boat was blown up by a mine after delivering tanks to the Russians — is a combination of war propaganda and animal story, though obviously it skates over the reality that any normal polar bear would eat the sailors. But the bear pales by comparison with the patriotic birds in The Pigeon Ace, which can’t wait to see action. Marx’s contemporary at art school was Eric Ravilous. You can tell.

Another bird book, by Jenny McCartney, who is familiar to Spectator readers, is The Stone Bird (Anderson, £11.99), about a little girl who finds a stone on the beach shaped like an egg. And, just as she expects, it does what eggs do. Grave and reflective, it is engagingly illustrated by Patrick Benson.

Katherine Rundell is a cracking children’s author. The Explorer, about a group of children stranded in the Amazon who meet an explorer, is a kind of cross between Indiana Jones and the film Up and is one of the most captivating books of the year. Rundell’s book for younger children, One Christmas Wish (Bloomsbury, £14.99), charmingly illustrated by Emily Sutton, about a lonely little boy who wishes on a falling star, is engaging and poignant: the Christmas spirit in 64 pages.

The Pigeon Ace, written and illustrated by Enid Marx (Unicorn Press)
From The Little White Bear, written and illustrated by Enid Marx (Unicorn Press)

It’s all too rare that you come across a novel in which the heroine is an anthropoid ape who can not only understand human speech but is a handy engineer and who can, moreover, type, but The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius (Pushkin, £16.99), fills that very gap. It’s about a sea captain who is unjustly accused of murder but whose faithful ape travels to the ends of the earth to rescue him — well, to India at least. It is evocatively illustrated by the author and translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves.

What most people don’t realise about E.Nesbit is that she wrote many more books than The Railway Children. Vintage has continued its welcome new editions of her finest, the latest being The Phoenix and the Carpet – the same cast as Five Children and It – and The Enchanted Castle, one of her second-rank stories but still enormously enjoyable (£5.99 each). The covers have been modernised — but any chance of the original illustrations inside… pretty please?

Dorling Kindersley’s nature and science books are always good, and the Explanatorium of Nature (£20) is an ambitious blockbuster that describes the workings of nature, from carnivorous plants to evolution. Hefty, and handsome.

For dinosaur fans (and frankly, who isn’t?) Big Picture Press’s Dinosaurium (£20), a visit to a book museum of dinosaurs, is a lavishly illustrated succession of the beasts, described by Lily Murray with wonderful pictures by Chris Wormell. Quite fabulous.


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