If you're still struggling to find a present for the inscrutable toddlers and children in your life, fear not for behold we bring you good tidings of great joy: Juliet Townsend's annual selection of the best children's books on the market, published in the Spectator a few weeks back.
My 20-month-old granddaughter totters into the room. Her eyes are shining with the fervour of St Bernadette. She has caught a glimpse of the divine. Two small stuffed pigs are clasped in her arms. Clearly she has been in heaven. Actually she has just returned from a visit to Peppa Pig World, the most exciting experience of her short life.
Anyone who has contact with very small children today will be all too familiar with Peppa, the toddlers’ Harry Potter in her universal appeal. There are two new Peppa books out this Christmas, both published by Ladybird at £4.99. Peppa’s Christmas Wish is a robust board book for the rougher young reader. Peppa Meets the Queen is a soft-back with an amusing story and lively pictures, especially those of the Queen knitting on her throne and jumping up and down in muddy puddles.
A charming book for children of 3-5 is Bear and Bird by Gwen Millward (Egmont, £6.99.) It is the story of an improbable friendship between big bumbling Bear and brave little Bird, who comes to the rescue when Bear gets lost in a blizzard. It is a cosy bedtime read for winter evenings.
I rather pride myself on being one of the first to spot the quality of Jane Hissey’s Old Bear books when they appeared over 20 years ago. Now a collected edition of five of them, Old Bear Stories, has been issued by Scribblers Books at £16.99. The minutely detailed illustrations and the endearing personalities of the toys are reminiscent of the Josephine and Her Dolls series of the 1920s and will give much pleasure to very young children.
The ever reliable team of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler has produced another sure-fire success with Superworm (Scholastic, £10.99), very much in the tradition of their earlier titles, Stick Man and Tiddler. Superworm is a somewhat improbable superhero:
Superworm is super-long
Superworm is super-strong
Watch him wiggle! See him squirm!
Hip, Hip, Hooray for SUPERWORM!
When Superworm falls into the clutches of the evil Wizard Lizard and his sinister servant, crow (‘black and grim’), it needs the combined effort of all the garden creatures, from the toads to the ladybirds, to rescue him.
Richard Curtis gives a humorous slant to Christmas in The Empty Stocking (Puffin, £6.99), the story of twin sisters, Sam, who is very good and Charlie, who is ‘not really bad, but, you know, very naughty’. The question is, will Charlie’s stocking be filled, because ‘sometimes Santa has to get tough, and this year was one of the get tough times’. Rebecca Cobb’s anarchic illustrations and a text with more italics than Queen Victoria’s journal make this what used to be called a rattling good read.
Barefoot Books have produced two handsome companion volumes for children of 7-12 on classical themes. The Adventures of Achilles and The Adventures of Odysseus written by Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden, and vividly illustrated by Christina Balit and Carole Hénaff respectively, provide an enticing introduction to these great stories, reinforced by CDs of the text, good for whiling away long Christmas car journeys.
Eva Ibbotson, author of many outstanding children’s books, including Journey to the River Sea and The Star of Kazan, is, alas, no longer with us, but one final treat has been found among her papers. The Abominables (Scholastic, £10.99) tells the story of a charming family of yetis. The young explorer, Lady Agatha Farlingham, is asleep in her tent in the Himalayas when she is kidnapped by an Abominable Snowman. At first alarmed by his huge size, hairy body and backwards facing feet, she soon comes to realise that he and his children are gentle creatures, and very receptive to her lessons on English language and manners.
All is idyllic until the outside world reaches their secret valley. The yetis must escape to Lady Agatha’s ancestral estate in England, but even there they are not safe from the dastardly Colonel Bagwackerly and the MacDermot-Duff, leading lights of the merciless Hunters’ Club. The book is touching, exciting and funny, much enhanced by Sharon Rentta’s witty illustrations. It will be enjoyed by children of 7-11.
The same age group should be captivated by Jacqueline Wilson’s Four Children and It (Puffin, £12.99.) Rosalind, the narrator, loves E. Nesbit’s famous story, Five Children and It, as indeed does Jacqueline Wilson, who admires the author’s bohemian lifestyle and wrote the book as a tribute to her.
Four Children and It is set in the present day, a century after its illustrious predecessor, and the children inhabit a typical Jacqueline Wilson world of divorced parents and awkward step-relationships. What promises to be a disastrous holiday of warring step-children is redeemed by their rediscovery of the Psammead, the ‘It’ of both titles, that perennially grumpy sand fairy, with its furry coat, eyes on stalks and the disturbing ability to grant wishes which invariably end in disaster. This is an amusing but serious book, but make sure the recipient has read E. Nesbit’s version first, or many of the allusions will be missed.
Finally, if your child is a doer rather than a reader, Usborne has several excellent sticker books, including The Winter Wonderland Sticker Book (£5.99) for younger children, and The Christmas Carols Sticker Book (£6.99) produced with the National Gallery for older ones, who will enjoy the many classic paintings. Dorling Kindersley has a book and large cardboard dinosaur kit for the model maker in T. Rex (£14.99). It is good value, as is their Optical Illusions (£15.99), which is guaranteed to make the hardest head spin after the Christmas lunch.