Christmas books for the young, the very, very young
and that lost generation, the ever youthful old

 

Click on cover images for more info

We live in dark and desperate times, we often remind ourselves. And we seem determined, wherever our minds, souls, or ideas may lie, to do our mightiest in order to cast off the hex that has been put upon us. Yet every prayer, white spell and incantation, every righteous deliberation or bombastically heroic pronouncement seems to fail miserably, totally, dishearteningly, rather flatly and anticlimactically – catastrophically and very truly dramatically. We seem to be stuck, to put it bluntly, with nowhere to go.

Here’s a thought: what if the answer to our putrefying state of maturity lay in our state of immature innocence, namely our childhood? What if the books, the stories, the narrative paradigms and stimuli for thoughts and dreams that we encountered when our eyes were still clear and our minds fertile, could provide us with the qualities of hope, humanity and vision we now seem to need and anxiously yearn for?

There can’t have been a time in human history when there were so very many books that claim to be for children. So here’s the rub: how to find the ones that should make the cut, that will be cherished, that can be guides, accomplices, companions to both happiness and wisdom, Velveteen Rabbits whose hold on both the heart and the imagination, the mettle of one’s conscience, grows stronger as their actual material presence falls apart?

This is the question Katherine Rundell puts to herself as young reader and adult writer, in a bright revolutionary-red vademecum that is also a feisty manifesto on the crucial value of reading as children, of reading for children, of children’s books, unequivocally entitled Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise (Bloomsbury). As you venture on the adventurous, perilous quest for books and stories for children (or not) this holiday season, perhaps Rundell’s words might help you find your way:

I have been writing children’s fiction for more than ten years now, and still I would hesitate to define it. But I do know, with more certainty than I usually feel about anything, what it is not: it’s not exclusively for children. When I write, I write for two people: myself, age twelve, and myself, now, and the book has to satisfy two distinct but connected appetites. My twelve-year-old self wanted autonomy, peril, justice, food, and above all a kind of density of atmosphere into which I could step and be engulfed. My adult self wants all those things, and also: acknowledgements of fear, love, failure; of the rat that lives within the human heart. So what I try for when I write – failing often, but trying – is to put down in as few words as I can the things that I most urgently and desperately want children to know and adults to remember.

 

Don’t let the Grinch steal their Christmas – books for little minds with great visions

 

Hummingbird by Nicola Davies
Illustrated by
Jane Ray
(Walker Books)

Little minds need above all to feel that little can be marvellous, mesmerising, mystical, utterly magnificent. A beautiful picture book about the tiniest feathered creatures that will enchant and thrill in equal measure.

 

Billy and the Beast & Billy and the Dragon by Nadia Shireen
(Jonathan Cape)

No doubt your house will be full of beasts this holiday season, fantastic or otherwise, so here are two real crackers for your most domesticated species. They will chuckle and groan, learn mischief, friendship, true gentleness and much, much more.

 

B is for Baby by Atinuke
Illustrated by Angela Brooksbank

(Candlewick Press)

If you ever had a sibling (or if you are the parent of more than one child) then this is definitely one for you. Babies are cute, babies are mischievous, babies can do absolutely everything they put their minds to. A glorious romp of a story for young bookworms that will take them on journeys far beyond and very close by.

 

Nell and the Circus of Dreams by Nell Gifford
Illustrated by Briony May Smith

(Oxford University Press)

Children love to huddle and to cuddle but they also yearn for wonder and Wanderlust. Nell’s story is complex and ravishing, full perhaps of danger and certainly full of wisdom. A book that will take a very long time to read, because it will give rise to more stories than it contains.

 

Boot: Small Robot, Big Adventure by Shane Hegarty
Illustrated by Ben Mantle

(Hachette Children’s)

Once again, being dainty and small-proportioned (think 1:16 cellos or even violins) does not mean you need to miss out on the best things in life. An absolutely rollicking fun-filled book, to browse through, read aloud, share not so very quietly with others like you.

 

The Climbers by Ali Standish
Illustrated by
Alette Straathof
(Little Tiger Press)

Adventures are always better when shared with a friend, and this is a beautiful book about friendship, wild places and gentle wisdom. You will find yourselves lost in a jungle of both dreams and colours.

 

A Planet Full of Plastic by Neal Layton
(Wren & Rook)

This might get you in trouble – in a good way. A book to nurture both conscience and consciousness, to start that very long discussion of what can be done about our world, and about who should be the ones to take action.

 

Grumpycorn by Sarah McIntyre
(Scholastic)

Rainbows sometimes are no good. No good at all. And Christmas is all about sulking, no? A book that coaxes the demons out of little imps and encourages that magic little phrase, “I can’t! Not yet…”

 

Chocolate Cake by Michael Rosen
Illustrated by Kevin Waldron
(Puffin)

Michael Rosen’s love for chocolate cake could not possibly be underestimated. His love for words and for stories could not possibly be overstated. Need we say more? Move over Christmas Pudding, here comes… Chocolate Cake!

 

Small in the City by Sydney Smith
(Walker Books)

We cannot stress this enough: Small is Beautiful, Small is Big, Small is Strong. This is a beautifully inspirational story about little fears and great courage, about confidence and fragility, loss and revelations.

 

The Misadventures of Frederick by Ben Manley
Illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark

(Two Hoots)

It is this simple: boys are quiet, philosophical, indoorsy types, girls are magnificent, resilient decision-makers and adventurers. Anyone who might like to disagree (or to wholeheartedly cheer Hurrah!) will not fail to be utterly captivated by both the story’s words and the world of images they conjure.

 

A Mouse Called Julian by Joe Todd-Stanton
(Flying Eye Books)

This is an indispensable book so that you may be prepared for any eventuality in life – such as finding yourself staring at a fox whose head is now stuck through your very own front door. Perfect for Boxing Day.

 

 

 

I am not little any more, but I am still not very big
– there are books for that as well

 

The Paninis of Pompeii by Andy Stanton
Illustrated by Sholto Walker

(Egmont)

This is bordering on the irreverent, but you will be hard pressed to debunk the scholarship behind the bacchanalia. Paninis have a prominent place in Virgil’s Aeneid, as do pernickety teenagers who point out that to eat a Roman panini is the same as eating one’s plate, so don’t be too quick to turn up your noses. The names are a treat: in this first instalment we meet Caecilius, his wife Vesuvius (I can hear you say it should be Vesuvia…), his son Filius and the dog Barkus Wooferinicum. The publishers promise that The Paninis will not disappoint aficionados of Minimus and the Circus Maximus. Read on, and certainly read further and beyond.

 

Dancing the Charleston by Jacqueline Wilson
Illustrated by Nick Sharratt

(Doubleday Children’s)

When does thrill become a thriller? When does loneliness become strength? When does pain become memory? A quirky, flamboyant story from a weathered storyteller.

 

The Secret Starling by Judith Eagle
Illustrated by Kim Geyer

(Faber & Faber)

Nothing in life seems to be all or anything at all that you’d think it would be. Meet Clara, whose world of uncles and stately homes, money and its power is turned upside down only to be reclaimed thanks to a boy called Peter, and above all his cat, especially by everything we see but never look at. An adventure, a rite of passage, rather a treat.

 

This Book is Not Rubbish by Isabel Thomas
Illustrated by Alex Paterson

(Wren & Rook)

You’d think it’s obvious common sense that we are leading a life of excess, of useless surplus and needless cornucopias. A thoughtful, hands-on, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer kind of book to get the next generation on its feet and beyond our current crisis.

 

Armadillo and Hare by Jeremy Strong
Illustrated by Rebecca Bagley

(David Fickling Books)

The famous story of the Christmas Armadillo this is not, yet it is a gentle and engrossing yarn of friendship, oddness, the simple serendipity of things that makes life magical and all that it is.

 

 

I now have a corner I can hide in – please, can I have a book as well as a room of my own?

 

Nevertell by Katharine Orton
(Walker Books)
There is something archetypal about stories, they seem to seep into and inhabit one another in a way that creates almost a human DNA of narratives shared across time and the manifold experiences of mankind. This is a tale that is gripping, stark, dark and gentle in turns, hopeful and desperate, menacing and promising. Think Russian folktales and Siberia, Soviet shadows and the crisp freedom of young minds.

 

And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness
Illustrated by Rovina Kai

(Walker Books)

This is in the tradition of A Polar Bear named Fran and Tarka the Otter – epic tales of man and his world, of the world in the hands of mankind. From the author of A Monster Calls.

 

The House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall Follett
Illustrated and with an introduction by Jackie Morris

(Hamish Hamilton)

A little-remembered gem in the Brendon Chase and The Little Grey Men tradition, first published when the author was just 13, this is a story that tackles the centrifugal and the centripetal longings of ripe childhood. When is escape a going forth? When is running away a hastening towards? A thrilling, chilling, utterly engrossing and engaging tale from the early 20th century, enchantingly illuminated by the co-creator of The Lost Words.

 

Station Jim by Louis de Bernières
Illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark

(Harvill Secker)

This will be a bit of a bone of contention: should you give it to your nearest and dearest, or  keep it for yourself? A sort of double-take of a book, it will capture the hearts and minds of both young and old. The story of a famous stray puppy that would make Slough railway station into a national landmark in the early 19th century, as reimagined by a master mythmaker. Moving, poignant, endearing.

 

Eight Princesses and a Magic Mirror by Natasha Farrant
Illustrated by Lydia Corry

(Zephyr)

Rumour has it that the infamous question, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” hails back to Elizabeth I. A princess herself and a queen, she set a mighty precedent. No fewer than eight timely and timeless young female royals pick up the tale’s thread of dauntless independence and many more leads and trails of older and newer narratives, and the results are unpredictable, exuberant, fascinating. For girls with a mind of their own and for boys who might want to understand why girls are different, and so very much just like themselves.

 

Koshka’s Tales: Stories from Russia by James Mayhew
(Graffeg)

If your child grew up on the deliciously exquisite, absolutely formidable Katie books, this will be a real godsend. Unequivocally ravishing and utterly unmissable. Buy it even for yet unborn grandchildren, or for grown-up offspring longing for a walk down memory lane.

 

New year’s resolutions and solutions for our world

 

The Questioneers Collection: Iggy Peck, Ada Twist and Rosie Revere by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
(Abrams)

Before you can find answers you need to ask questions. Before you can ask questions, you need to learn how and why to be curious. The Questioneers are a treat, a bee-in-your-bonnet series for burgeoning young minds.

 

A History of Pictures for Children by David Hockney and Martin Gayford
Illustrated by Rose Blake
(Thames & Hudson)

A maverick history of art, told through conversations between the artist and the author, that is nevertheless thoroughly grounded in traditional scholarship and discernment. Masterpieces and Old Master paintings are translated as pictures for children, training the mind and tempting the soul. Because art too can save the world.

 

A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals by Millie Marotta
(Particular Books)

Make this book obsolete, please, by doing everything you can to take every animal on its pages off the endangered species’ list. Urgent, evocative, gripping in every way that matters.

 

Anatomicum: Welcome to the Museum
Curated by Katie Wiedemann and Jennifer Z. Paxton

(Wellcome Collection)
Anatomy by Hélène & Jean-Claude Druvert
(Thames & Hudson)

Knowing your body is part of the path towards knowing yourself, your place in the world. Insightful, sparklingly inventive, immersively absorbing, these two guides will thrill, perplex, enthral in turn.

 

Here We Are: Notes on Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers
(HarperCollins Children’s Books)

The #1 New York Times bestseller and #1 TIME Best Book of the Year for 2017, this remains a vital feature on any gift list. The twist in the title is that unless we heed the advice in this deceptively simple volume, we might not be here for long. A beautiful balance between the tragedy of our own making and the power in our very hands.

 

Holiday stories and classic masterpieces

 

There used to be a special shelf or tabletop space in bookstores in the long-gone days of yore, full of literary anthologies for children (or adults), collections of season-appropriate essays, musings, stories, poems, games. Some might even remember the famous Rainy Day books with considerable nostalgia.

Timidly yet not reluctantly, perhaps even audaciously, a new cohort of books especially for passing the time during long breaks from set routines and the preoccupations of everyday life seems to be making its presence felt. More than a way of spending the hours of leisure, these books are a thrilling way to discover the delight in sitting and staring, in wallowing in words, the echoes of tales, the twinkle of thoughts…

 

Noel Streatfield’s Holiday Stories
Illustrated by Peter Bailey

(Virago Modern Classics)

You will meet old friends in Noel Streatfield’s collection and make new ones, as well as travel back in time and further ahead into your own future dreams. Delectable, poised, rambunctious fun.

 

A Children’s Literary Christmas: An Anthology
E
dited by Anna Jones
(British Library)

A proper grandparent-gift-worthy festive volume, to cherish and to hold, to pass on, in whatever state of Rabbit Velveteenness, featuring timeless favourites from Charles Dickens, A.A. Milne, C.S. Lewis and Louisa May Alcott alongside contemporary voices such as Matt Haig, Swapna Haddow and Shirley Hughes. Beautifully illustrated from the collections of the Library and with original artwork.

 

Through the Water Curtain and Other Stories from Around the World selected and introduced by Cornelia Funke
(Pushkin Children’s)

A master-craftsman and master-storyteller will lead you to smaller and greater masterpieces of her trade and tradition. We do not come from nothing, and Funke reveals graciously and engrossingly all that she is made of.

 

Magical Myths and Legends
Chosen by Michael Morpurgo

(Oxford University Press)

Medieval knights, flying fathers and sons reaching for the sun, old heroes and brand-new heroines will lure you and enchant you, lull you and engross you.

 

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
Illustrated by MinaLima

(Harper Design Classics)

The latest in a stunning series whose caption alone should captivate you: “lavishly illustrated with interactive elements” by Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima, i.e. the rather famous or notorious MinaLima. The other books in the series are Peter Pan by Sir J.M. Barrie, The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, The Beauty and the Beast by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villenueve, The Little Mermaid and other Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. These retakes on classic children’s stories will woo even the most reluctant reveller in your household.

 

The Missing Bookshop by Katie Clapham
Illustrated by Kirsti Beautyman

(Little Tiger Press)

Another collection of stories, a recollection of cherished spaces, a guide to creating new tales and places of belonging.

 

The Fir Tree by Hans Christian Andersen
The Snow Queen
by Hans Christian Andersen
The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann
Illustrated by Sanna Annukka

(Hutchinson)

Published between 2012 and 2017, if you inadvertently missed these when they first came out, don’t miss them now. Mesmerising editions of timeless, invaluable stories you can only discover time and time again.

 

Pages & Co. 2: Tilly and the Lost Fairy Tales by Anna James
(HarperCollins Children’s Books)

Run. Do not stop until you find them, bring them back and hold onto them tight, so they don’t get lost ever again, those silly, senselessly lost, vital fairy tales. Tilly knows the way, and Oskar will make sure you keep up with this truly indefatigable, irresistible duo.

 

The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson
Illustrated by Kathrin Honesta

(Usborne Children’s Books)

Mowgli (see below) meets Nordic or Siberian nights in this wondrous tale that is a distillation of many yarns lost in the dunes of time. To be read in a husky voice, after dusk, in semi-darkness.

 

Into the Jungle by Katherine Rundell
Illustrated by Kristjana S. Williams

(Macmillan Children’s Books)

The new author’s introduction should suffice to buy or buy again this ravishingly gorgeous retelling of Kipling’s extraordinary tale, as well as the original and more: “I grew up loving The Jungle Book… when I read the book I loved its darker intensity, and Bagheera, especially for his sleek, fierce love of Mowgli. I longed passionately to talk to animals and to the Jungle Book animals in particular.” Rundell is a clear-sighted reader of Kipling, reminding us that “rather, there are many Kiplings” and that “it is possible that a written work can transcend the moment of its creation.”

 

Boy Giant: Son of Gulliver by Michael Morpurgo
Illustrated by Michael Foreman

(HarperCollins Children’s Books)

Morpurgo’s latest book is a magisterial gesture of both homage and defiance towards Swift’s own chef-d’oeuvre. He has conjured up our demons and our angels, our darkness and our light in a uniquely moving, powerful tale of daring, fragility, humanity. A very fine reminder of everything that Christmas used to be about.

 

Animal Farm: The Graphic Novel by George Orwell
Illustrated by Odyr

(Penguin Classics)

This is a Wild Sargasso Sea to Jane Eyre kind of catalyst, companion and defector to Orwell’s novel. A way to challenge and to engage, move and captivate.

 

And two for your own Christmas stocking too

 

Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury; see opening paragraph above) – because wisdom, true insight and real humanity starts from the very beginning of all our stories.

 

The Making of Her: Why School Matters by Clarissa Farr
(William Collins)

That’s not fair, I hear you say. Holidays are about not having to think about school. Not quite. In this perpetual calendar of parental (and headmasterly) wisdom, Farr argues for a culture of education beyond systems and classrooms – for a paideia that will nurture minds as well as souls. A piercing analysis of our perceptions of success and of our social paradigms, of our roles as guides and as agents, a thrilling encounter with someone for whom education, motherhood, culture, the story of who we are and the narrative of all that we can be are a lifelong passion.

 

Finally, books for every child, no matter where they are

 

It would be fair to say that David Risher was born with a book in his hand, and books have not left him since. Bookishness, a certain perception of culture and its power to transform people’s lives in every sense, are at the heart of who he is, all that he has done. An accumulation of wealth means a great many things to different people. To David, it meant an opportunity to write a history of philanthropy that will be a legacy for many generations to follow.

Primary schoolchildren in Asuboi, Ghana show off their Worldreader e-readers

Worldreader, which he co-founded with Colin McElwee in 2010, is more than an educational tool, it is a gift of the power of imagination, the potential of words, of stories and communication. It is based on the belief that if a child can express a thought, they can also realise a dream: “We provide a library of over 35,000 digital books so that anyone can be a reader. We combine digital technology with relevant content, smart programming and strong partnerships to make a lasting impact. Our goal is to cultivate reading around the globe and ultimately contribute to eliminating poverty, reducing inequality and improving prosperity.”

Worldreader provides students and their families with a free digital library on tablets, e-readers and mobile phones, complemented by a suite of reading programmes, and has reached more than 13 million people across 50 countries across the Global South – from East and West Africa to India, the Middle East and Latin America. A gift to Worldreader supports readers in schools, libraries and communities, giving young people the books they need to achieve educational success, increase their earning potential, and lead happier, healthier lives.

To find out more about how you can be part of this vision, visit worldreader.org

Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.

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