Christmas, like much else, is going to be very different this year, and for many, books have been even more of a life-line. All the more reason, therefore, to give children the best and most cheering kind.
For 4+, try The Song of the Nightingale by Tanya Landman and Laura Carlin (Walker, £12.99), a glorious hymn to creativity. At the dawn of the world, all is fresh and full of colour except the “dull and drab” animals. The “painter” calls all the animals together and decorates them with spots and stripes and washes – all but a tiny little bird, the nightingale. There are no colours left apart from one tiny drop of gold. Where to put it?
Where Snow Angels Go by Maggie O’Farrell (Walker, £14.99, 5+) is a gorgeous story about a child who finds she is protected by her snow angel. Longing to speak to him again, she puts herself in danger. Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini’s ravishing illustrations show us the consolations of imagination; echoes of The Snow Queen and The Snow Man add to the magic of a new classic.
[See also: Books of the year]
Fairy tales are undergoing revisions this year, with distinguished authors such as Kamila Shamsie and Malorie Blackman writing tough-minded feminist revisions to classic tales in Vintage’s quartet, A Fairy Tale Revolution, (£12.99 each, 11+). In Delightfully Different Fairy Tales (Pavilion, £12.99) David Roberts illustrates his sister Lynn Roberts-Maloney’s clever rewritings of the stories of Rapunzel, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. In Gender Swapped Fairy Tales (Faber & Faber, £20, 8+), Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Plackett have redrafted Andrew Lang’s classic stories so that Beauty becomes Handsome, Rapunzel grows a beard, and so on. The results are comically challenging and not unbearably woke.
Gift books, though expensive, are lifelong treasures. Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright! (Nosy Crow, £25, 6+) is Fiona Waters’s splendidly wide-ranging selection of an animal poem for every day of the year. Pieces ranging from John Bunyan’s “Upon a Snail” to Ted Hughes’s “Dog” are accompanied by glowing pictures by Britta Teckentrup that will inspire the most reluctant reader. The stunning 25th anniversary edition of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (Scholastic, £30, 9+) is another must-have. Chris Wormell’s illustrations have a menace and muscularity that capture the excitement of this children’s classic, and feel as integral as Pauline Baynes’s for Narnia, or John Tenniel’s for Alice in Wonderland. JK Rowling’s The Ickabog (Little, Brown, £20, 7+) will be top of most wish lists, however. A satirical fairy tale about how the happy kingdom of Cornucopia falls into misery because its foolish, greedy king believes the lies told by his two evil advisers, it’s wicked fun and actually has a happy ending. The illustrations are winning entries by children aged seven to 12 from the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and India. The author’s royalties will go to her charitable trust, Volant, which funds projects to help women, children, those in poverty and front-line workers.
Michael Morpurgo’s The Puffin Keeper (Puffin, £12.99) is guaranteed to charm readers aged 7+. One stormy night, a lighthouse keeper sees a ship going down, and saves 30 people by going out again and again in his rowing boat. The boy who narrates the story wants to repay his debt to the kind, lonely man. What follows, dramatically illustrated by Benji Davies, is masterly and moving.
My novel of the year for 7- to 11-year-olds is Tanya Landman’s Horse Boy (Walker, £6.99). A prehistoric adventure about how Oak, the lost and arrogant son of his clan chief, befriends an equally bewildered young horse, this is the most thrilling book of its kind since Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother. Landman writes with crisp, vivid prose and a deep sympathy for hero and horse as they battle to return to their tribe together. It contains real wisdom about accepting change, innovation and humility.
[See also: Unmasking Graham Greene]
In the year that the Black Lives Matter movement returned to international prominence, David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Short, Essential History (Macmillan, £6.99, 9+) is an eye-opening account about how there have been black Britons in the UK since Roman times. From Francis Drake’s sailors to one of Queen Victoria’s god-daughters, they are an integral part of our history, as the book’s paintings, photographs and lucid text make clear. Benjamin Zephaniah’s Windrush Child (Scholastic, £6.99, 9+) tells the story of a Jamaican child who adapts to life in racist 1950s Britain only to discover yet more injustice as an adult. It’s deeply affecting and absolutely enraging.
There hasn’t been a great time-travelling novel for many years, but Tania Unsworth’s The Time Traveller and the Tiger (Zephyr, £12.99) is just that. Stroppy Elsie tumbles back into 1940s India to meet her Uncle John as a boy on a tiger hunt. Can she save a life and change the future? Environmental, racial and social concerns are deftly woven into a gloriously warm, heart-stopping adventure that is my book of the year for 11+.
Addressing another difficult subject is Sally Nicholls’s The Silent Stars Go By (Andersen, £12.99), a seasonal story for 13+. Teenaged Margot, the vicar’s daughter, is madly in love with Harry, and he with her. But when he is reported missing on the Western Front, she has another, secret source of anguish that can’t be hidden for long. Beautifully written, paced and plotted, this bitter-sweet romance about pride, immaturity, kindness and sacrifice will touch many hearts with sorrow, joy and the hope of better years to come.
Amanda Craig’s most recent novel “The Golden Rule” is published by Little, Brown
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special