Cold, magic, adventure, family, comedy, fires in the dark – we all know what makes for a wonderful Christmas story. The bulging sack of children’s books could cause Santa’s sleigh to sink.
Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton’s deliciously droll Emily Brown and Father Christmas (Hodder, £12.99), has just this problem, and a running joke about the inefficacy of modern technology compared to the “old ways” of magic, flying reindeer and star maps that will be thoroughly appreciated by robust children of 4+. Though the old ways are not always best, as Chris Riddell’s quirkily elegant Once Upon a Wild Wood (Macmillan, £12.99) shows in a postmodern take on classic fairy tales for 5+. Smart, sensible and clearly a future New Statesman subscriber, Little Green Raincape turns down helpful wolves and silly fashion choices and helps distressed creatures.
Mini Grey also reinterprets the story with Little Red going off to catch a wolf with her popgun. But when she finds a wolf – with a lynx and bear – it’s not as expected. Witty, elegant and desperately sad about “the good old days”, The Last Wolf (Jonathan Cape, £11.99) carries a strong eco message for 4+.
What Do Animals Do All Day? (Wide Eyed, £14.99) is also about habitat, and, with 100 different creatures, it’s perfect for inquiring minds of 5+. Wendy Hunt’s prose and Muti’s pictures are vivid and engaging. Poetically inclined readers of 6+ will love I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree (Nosy Crow, £25), Fiona Waters’s outstanding collection of nature poems for every day of the year, gorgeously illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon. It’s too heavy for small hands but ideal for bedtime.
Journeys are a seasonal favourite and Richard Johnson’s Once Upon a Snowstorm (Faber & Faber, £6.99, 4+) is a ravishing story, told entirely in pictures, about a boy who loses his dad in a snowy wood and gets found by a bear. It’s outstanding, not least in being a rare book about the love between children and fathers.
There are several wonderful books for readers aged 7+. Maps of the United Kingdom (Wide Eyed, £16.99) by Rachel Dixon and Livi Gosling has a fascinating double-page spread for the flora, fauna, famous people and buildings of each county. The terrific Heroes (Faber & Faber, £18.99), David Long and Kerry Hyndman’s well-told true stories of courageous dogs, horses, pigeons and cats aiding humans at home and abroad, will thrill children and have parents in floods of guilty tears. Nicola Davies’s The Dog That Saved Christmas (Barrington Stoke, £6.99) is about a lonely boy for whom any disruption is terrifying. His bond with a sympathetic dog is heart-warming and deceptively simple. Jakob Wegelius’s The Legend of Sally Jones (Pushkin, £12.99), a prequel to his prize-winning The Murderer’s Ape, describes a gorilla’s journey from the Congolese jungle to Istanbul and London and is written and illustrated with a surreal strangeness that is particularly appealing.
My picture book of the year is Katherine Rundell’s Into the Jungle (Macmillan, £16.99, 7+), a prequel to The Jungle Book, with luscious illustrations by Kristjana S Williams that complement Rundell’s prodigious prose. Wolf Mother, Bagheera, Baloo and Kaa all entertain Mowgli with tales of how they became themselves by outwitting enemies. It’s exciting, funny, and a complete treat.
Rescued from 1930s magazines, Noel Streatfeild’s Christmas Stories (Virago, £12.99) is for anyone aged 7+ under the immortal spell of Ballet Shoes. Her tales of young actors, skaters and even princesses are conventional, but for those aged 8+ Jessie Burton’s reinterpretation of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Restless Girls (Bloomsbury, £14.99), goes deeper. Overprotected by their anxious father, the power of the princesses’ imaginations opens not just magical ballrooms but life and freedom. It’s a glorious, passionate, joyous book by a marvellous storyteller, with lyrical illustrations by Angela Barrett.
Defiance is also key in Candy Gourlay’s Bone Talk (David Fickling, £10.99), drawing on her Filipina roots to tell a tale about a boy who wants to become a man – while threatened by war with America. Meanwhile, a snowy odyssey powered by sibling love, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Way Past Winter (Chicken House, £10.99), features three dauntless sisters in pursuit of their kidnapped brother through unending winter. Each is gripping and beautifully written for 10+. Garth Nix and Sean Williams’s Have Sword, Will Travel (Piccadilly Press, £6.99) is a lovely comic adventure that has dragons, knights, a quest and all that adventure-lovers of 9+ would love.
Piers Torday’s The Lost Magician (Quer-cus, £12.99, 10+) is artistically daring, channelling The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in having four children survive the Blitz to step into an enchanted library where magical stories are at war. It is as much about storytelling as about creating an enjoyable story, yet such is Torday’s talent that when Evie tells the robotic Jana that “You don’t know me… the real me, inside my head”, you want to cheer.
Not enough classic fiction is being published for actual children (rather than their parents), while soul-sapping slush for teenagers is being dumped on us. So all hail two new masterpieces for 7-11. Catherine Fisher is an author of dazzling magical adventures. In her novel The Clockwork Crow (Firefly, £6.99), orphaned Seren is given a parcel when on her way to a new life in Victorian Wales. Alas, the happy Christmas she hopes for is impossible: the house is grief-stricken and the parcel contains a talking clockwork bird that leads her into another world. Like Joan Aiken and Eva Ibbotson before her, Fisher’s crystalline prose shimmers with shivery magic that will entice even a reluctant reader.
Following Kate Saunders’s sequel to E Nesbit’s Five Children and It, Hilary McKay channels the horror and pity of the First World War. Always first-rate about families, she shows how love triumphs over indifference – in this case, that of both Clarry and Peter’s indolent father and the Edwardian upper classes. The siblings live for their summers in Cornwall, and their charismatic cousin Rupert. But when he and his best friend enlist, the picture darkens. The Skylarks’ War (Macmillan, £12.99, 11+) rings with common sense, humour, honesty and hope; it may even encourage the young to write letters after Christmas is over.
Amanda Craig’s most recent novel is “The Lie of the Land” (Abacus)
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special