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11 December 2016

The best new children’s books for Christmas

From a goat with a mobile phone to a poor chimney sweep, here are the new stories to look out for this winter.

By Amanda Craig

If keeping your spirits up in the past month has been difficult, the best children’s books may be a present to yourself. I am emerging from under the duvet much as Moses came down from the mountaintop, to say that there is a world in which bullies and liars do not triumph.

A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston (Walker, £12.99, for readers over five) is one of those deceptively simple books about books that can become fey unless it is as magical and passionate as this is. A girl floats on the boat of her imagination, on an evocative typographic sea of words created by Winston. She invites a boy to join her on an adventure, in which extracts from classic fiction become waves, mountains and castles.

For readers over four, An Artist’s ­Alphabet by Norman Messenger (Walker, £15) is a surreal book whose graphic brilliance includes arching caterpillars forming the letter B for butterfly, twisted twine for T and other clever mnemonics marrying shape with sound. Children will look at it for hours.

The more factually inclined will love the Atlas of Animal Adventures (Wide Eyed, £20), which is stuffed with illustrations and information about seven continents of creatures whose migrations and behaviour, accompanied by brilliantly coloured images, should induce a sense of joyous inquiry. A First Book of Animals by Nicola Davies (Walker, £14.99) complements her award-winning First Book of Nature. Its poetic text and ravishing illustrations by Petr Horaček encourage children to understand animals as sentient beings – dreamy, hungry, competitive and wonderful. Both are for readers aged five and older.

Do turkeys vote for Christmas? Only in the United States, but the idea that animals can’t always be pets is an important one that Helen Peters’s A Piglet Called Truffle (Nosy Crow, £5.99), illustrated by Ellie Snowdon, explores with charm, humour and honesty. Jasmine, a farmer’s daughter, struggles to protect a piglet in secret through the winter. A lovely book for seven-plus readers.

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For the same age, and inspired by a true story, is The White Fox by Jackie Morris (Barrington Stoke, £10.99). Its Inuit hero is Sol, a boy whose father works on the Seattle docks. The lonely Sol befriends the fox, only to be horrified when other dockers trap it. The story of how he returns it to the Arctic is elegantly told and powerful.

Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross tackle internet bullying with Troll Stinks (Andersen Press, £11.99). A goat finds a mobile phone, hides it from his parents and – as in the tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff – thinks that he can tackle a troll. But there’s a twist. Wise and funny; for ages six and older.

Lucy Strange’s The Secret of Nightingale Wood (Chicken House, £6.99) is a gripping novel in Secret Garden mode. Its heroine has an ill mother, an absent father, a baby brother and only books and a mysterious witchy friend to help. Bliss for passionate readers aged nine and older.

Some books become lifelong treasures and A Poem for Every Night of the Year (Macmillan, £16.99), edited by Allie Esiri, will be one of them. A handsome collection, it contains not just classics by T S Eliot and Eleanor Farjeon but modern poems by Maya Angelou and Tony Mitton. It is the best book of its kind since Charles Causley’s,
and a must-have for nine-plus readers.

Vikings continue to inspire children’s authors. The Dragon’s Hoard by Lari Don (Frances Lincoln, £14.99, nine-plus), illus­trated by Cate James, tells 11 stories that the Vikings told themselves – about gods, grudges and quarrels that make Christmas Day arguments seem trivial. On the heels of Francesca Simon’s comedy about dysfunctional Norse gods in The Monstrous Child (Faber & Faber, £9.99, 12-plus) comes Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants, illustrated by Chris Riddell (Bloomsbury, £14.99). The mischievous magic between author and artist is abundant as the fatherless Odd finds himself in the company of a fox, a bear and an eagle. They are Loki, Thor and Odin; how Odd helps them win back their home and save the goddess Freya makes for a thrilling read for those between ages nine and 12.

In Matt Haig’s The Girl Who Saved Christmas (Canongate, £12.99), Amelia is a poor chimney sweep who asks Father Christmas to make her mother better. She is orphaned, however. Haig’s understanding of grief, cruelty and the need for hope turns a comedy about threatened elves and malfunctioning magic into a classic. A hanky for every eye and a copy in every stocking for eight-plus readers, please.

Many classics are being reissued, including The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Alma Classics, £7.99). The appalling Mary Lennox turns from a “tyrannical and selfish . . . little pig” into a much nicer child, thanks to the robust working classes of Yorkshire, and learns to garden. One of the best books ever written for the nine-plus age group – its journey from winter to summer makes it a perfect, cheering read. 

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This article appears in the 06 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump