Everything about the Christmas story is found in the best children’s books. Dangerous quests, sympathetic animals, supernatural beings, love and death are what under-13s lap up in between feasts of seasonal food and film.
Godfather Death by Sally Nicholls (Andersen, £12.99) is an outstanding reworking of an old tale about a poor fisherman in search of a godfather for his baby son. Searching for “an honest man”, he rejects Father God for not treating all men fairly, and the Devil for being wicked. But because Death treats all men the same, the fisherman accepts him. Only, there’s a catch… Funny, thought-provoking, and elegantly illustrated by Júlia Sardà, this is a gem for 5+ and my picture book of the year.
[See also: The best children’s books for spring 2023]
Jon Klassen illustrates Mac Barnett’s How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney? (Walker, £12.99). Does Santa wear night goggles? Does he flatten himself out and slide under the door? Irresistibly funny but logical questions are amplified by the pictures of a glum but resolute Santa and his irritated reindeer coping with a mission impossible, delivering a seasonal gem for 3+. Animal Tales from India (Nosy Crow, £16.99) also has a good-hearted exuberance in Nikita Gill’s cheerful tales of animal friends and rescuers. Chaaya Prabhat’s glowing pictures will enchant 2-5s. So will A World of Dogs by Carlie Sorosiak and Luisa Uribe (Nosy Crow, £16.99, 7-9). A lavish celebration of our canine companions, it’s packed with facts and real-life stories to remind us that a dog is not just for Christmas.
A different pet is at the centre of Helen Cooper’s story The Taming of the Cat (Faber & Faber, £14.99). A fabulous cheese shop is guarded by Gorgonzola, a “fearsome cat” who likes to murder mice. Only outcast Brie is brave enough to distract her, and this crafty Scheherazade of rodents keeps the enemy focused on his tale while the other mice steal enormous quantities of cheese. It’s a story about stories, for Brie learns how to flatter the cat’s vanities as he frantically invents a tale of a princess and a magical cat who becomes big enough to ride on. As Brie becomes better at his job, and Gorgonzola gets worse at hers, readers or listeners will laugh aloud. Helen Cooper is best known for her classic picture book Pumpkin Soup; The Taming of the Cat is my children’s book of the year, and a new classic for 5-8.
Frances Hardinge’s Island of Whispers (Two Hoots, £14.99) is a creepy tale for 12+. On Merlank Island, the Dead must not be allowed to linger, though the island’s mists prevent them from moving on. When Milo unexpectedly inherits his father’s job of Ferryman, he must take a perilous journey across the sea, pursued by lords, magicians and a shipload of ghosts. A story about bereavement and coming of age, written by one of our most gifted children’s authors and lavishly illustrated by the great Emily Gravett, it deserves prizes.
Sophie Anderson’s The Snow Girl (Usborne, £12.99) is also based on folklore. A lonely, traumatised girl, whose parents have come to live with her ailing grandfather, makes a snow girl and wishes she were alive. Fans of Disney’s Frozen will like this delicately told tale for 8+. MG Leonard’s The Ice Children (Macmillan, £12.99, 8-11) channels more robust excitement. Bianca finds her brother Finn has frozen in the city park, though his heart is beating. A mysterious book found deep in a sinister winter wonderland has something to do with it. Responding to children’s worries about global warming, and alluding to classics from The Snow Queen to The Selfish Giant, it’s good, freezing fun.
For those aged 9-12, the last book in Anthony Horowitz’s terrific Alex Rider series, Nightshade Revenge (Walker, £14.99), is a must-read. Our hero’s best friend is kidnapped, and a child assassin escapes MI5 to set in motion a murderous plot involving a new gaming system. Only Alex, hampered by having mock GCSEs, can stop it. A thrilling ride to both triumph and tragedy, it’s a fitting farewell to the teenaged spy. And Lauren St John’s Finding Wonder (Faber & Faber, £7.99) is a sympathetic story about a girl’s bond with horses. When Roo goes to live with her eccentric aunt, she falls in love with a showjumper, Wonder Boy – only to go in hot pursuit of her horse when he is stolen. St John’s passionate sensitivity to animals and outcasts produces a suspenseful and compassionate blend for 9-12s.
Long after the batteries die and the sweets are eaten, these books will stay in a child’s memory. After all, they are made from the stuff that has lasted over 2,000 years.
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special