More from Books

Animal magic: children’s books for Christmas

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

J.K. Rowling has written a book for children — and you know what? It’s a charmer. The Ickabod(Hachette, £20) was created for her own children between the Harry Potter books (how does she do it?) and was stashed away until the arrival of Covid, when she found that children were stuck indoors without much to do. So she published it online initially and invited illustrations from her young readers. Now it’s a proper book, with some of those pictures.

It’s not a bit like HP. It has some of the elements, including fabulous eatables, but it’s more of a fairy story. Think A.A. Milne’s Once Upon a Time crossed with Eva Ibbotson’s The Abominables with a bit of Fattipuffs and Thinnifers and you’re there. There’s a terrifically vain king, Fred, abominable courtiers, feisty child heroes, Bert and Daisy, and a monster who is, well, I can’t really say, can I?

For small children, Honey for You, Honey for Me (Walker, £14.99) is Michael Rosen’s take on nursery rhymes, written to be chanted aloud, with adorable pictures by Chris Riddell. Some are tweaked for contemporary sensibilities, but children won’t mind. Riddell is an illustrator with an exquisitely fine line and a strongly individual style, who turns from political cartoons to story books with astonishing ease.

He has now taken on the big challenge: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Macmillan, £25). As with all his pictures of children, Alice is huge-eyed and delicate, but his cartoonist’s eye means he does a lovely Gryphon and Mock Turtle. This is quite a hefty hardback. Actually I think the unabridged Alice is best for older children. For young readers, a good bet is Lewis Carroll’s own shorter version with Tenniel’s pictures, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: The Little Folks’ Edition (Macmillan, £9.99).

Tiger Tiger Burning Bright (Nosy Crow, £25) is a pleasing anthology — ‘an animal poem for every day of the year’, illustrated with bold, evocative images by Britta Teckentrup, and chosen with an eye for brevity by Fiona Waters. But it’s heavy to hold.

For very small readers, board books are ideal, and few better than the sturdy edition of Mog’s Christmas (HarperCollins, £6.99) by the much-missed Judith Kerr. Another lovely board book that opens out into a globe is Our World: A First Book of Geography(Phaidon, £12.95) by Sue Lowell Gallion, with pictures of penguins and mountains by Lisk Feng. If you prefer marine life, Helen Ahpornsiri’s idiosyncratic images of seahorses and turtles make Beneath the Waves by Lily Murray (Big Picture Press, £9.99) a very good introduction.

The inimitable Shirley Hughes, still in cracking form at 93, has produced a sequel to her wonderful picture book, Dogger, about a little boy and his toy dog. Dogger’s Christmas (Bodley Head, £12.99) revisits the family 40 years on, and I’m glad to say little has changed.

I’m in two minds about Non Stop (Phaidon, £12.95), the final dystopian book of the master storyteller Tomi Ungerer, who died last year. In a series of disturbing images, a boy called Vasco and his shadow make their way through a world collapsing around them. This is a powerful, bleak story. Personally, I’d stick with his sublime work Christmas Eve at the Mellops (Phaidon, £6.95), about a family of civilised pigs who know the true meaning of Christmas.

A Train Journey, a captivating pop-up book of images of rail travel over time by Gerard Lo Monaco (Thames & Hudson, £19.95), is one you might end up looking at yourself; win-win, I say. If engines generally are a child’s thing, they’ll get pleasure from The World’s Most Magnificent Machines, David Long’s account of everything from the Titanic to a rocket-carrier, with bold 1930s-style pictures by Simon Tyler.

Jon Klassen is one of my favourite illustrators. Now he illustrates Amy Timberlake’s Skunk and Badger (Scholastic, £12.99),a preposterous but heartwarming story about a badger who really, really doesn’t want to share his aunt’s house with a chatty skunk and his entourage of chickens.

Michael Morpurgo’s latest, The Puffin Keeper (Puffin, £12.99), is a simple story about a young boy who strikes up a friendship with a brave lighthouse keeper. Together they rescue a puffin. What makes the book are the charming pastel images by Benji Davies, who, like our hero, spent time in Cornwall. And the theme of raising a wild bird is also at the heart of Katya Balen’s October, October (Bloomsbury, £12.99), in which a feral girl finds and protects a baby barn owl. Only it’s about more than that: about the gap between life in the wild woods and in London, where October is saved by mudlarking, and friendship with a boy called Yusuf. Interestingly, the story also shows how a man can do a very good job of raising a child. Angela Harding’s little owl linocuts are intriguing.

Norse Tales (Walker, £16.99) by the distinguished storyteller Kevin Crossley Holland, is a choice collection of creepy stories, made even scarier by Jeffrey Alan Love’s massive dark images.

Children with dyslexia often get short shrift, but the publisher Barrington Stokes offers easy-to-read books by distinguished contemporary authors and illustrators. Chris Riddell (him again) has done a lovely job illustrating Brian Patten’s take on Beowulf: Monster Slayer (£6.99).The publisher also does super-readable editions of classics, including Of Mice and Men and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (£7.99 each).

It’s interesting to see how in children’s books environmental awareness has replaced a broadly Christian view of morality. Tania Unsworth’s The Time Traveller and the Tiger (Zephyr, £12.99) is an engaging story about a girl who goes back in time to prevent her great-uncle from shooting a tiger. Here, big game hunting is self-evident shorthand for evil. Richard Lambert’s The Wolf Road (Everything with Words, £8.99) shares the same view: that bad people shoot wild animals. But it’s also a sensitive exploration of grief, loss and displacement, and what happens when you take an orphan boy from Somerset to live with his politically active, non-cuddly grandmother in the Lake District.

There is so much tripe in children’s fiction now it makes you sit up to read Dear Justyce by Nic Stone (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), an electrifying story of how an African-American boy in Atlanta tries to make good, but is brought down by his rubbish mother, absent father and a world weighted against him. In this book, written in the narrator’s vernacular, the young boy is rescued by kindly liberal friends. In reality, the author observes, the chances of someone like him finding people to fight his corner are slim.

Slightly Foxed publishes lovely editions of undeservedly neglected authors, including Rosemary Sutcliffe’s great Roman Britain series for children, which started with The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch and continues with Frontier Wolf(£17), bringing one close to something like the spirit of that perilous time. Going even further back, to the Stone Age, we’re in the world of Michele Paver’s Wolf Brother series, and its latest instalment, Viper’s Daughter (Zephyr, £12.99). Wolf companions, demons, hidden people, human friendship — they’re all here in this adventure story, with a vanished world resurrected astonishingly to life.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments