If keeping your spirits up in the past month has been difficult, then the best children’s books may be a present to yourself. I am emerging from the duvet much as Moses came down from the mountain, to say there is a world in which bullies and liars do not triumph.
Oliver Jeffers’s A Child of Books (Walker £12.99, 5+) is one of those deceptively simple books about books which can become fey unless it’s as magical and passionate as this. A girl floats on the boat of her imagination, on an evocative typographic sea of words created by Sam Winston. She invites a boy to join her, away from where adults read dull, serious newspapers, on an adventure in which extracts from classic fiction become waves, mountains, castles and adventures. For 4+ Norman Messenger’s An Artist’s Alphabet (Walker £15) is a luscious, surreal alphabet whose graphic brilliance includes arching caterpillars forming the B for butterfly, twisted twine for T and other clever mnemonics marrying shape and sound. Clever children will look at it for hours.
The more factually-inclined will love Wide Eyed’s Atlas of Animal Adventures (£20), stuffed with facts and illustrations about seven continents of creatures, whose migrations and behaviour, married to brilliantly coloured images busily swooping, diving, nesting and foraging should induce a sense of joyous enquiry. A First Book of Animals by Nicola Davies (Walker £14.99) compliments her award-winning First Book of Nature with a poetic text and ravishing illustrations by Petr Horacek, which encourage a child to see animals as sentient beings – dreamy, hungry, competitive and wonderful. Both for 5+
Do turkeys vote for Christmas? Only in America, but the concept that animals can’t always be pets is an important one which Helen Peters’s A Piglet Called Truffle (Nosy Crow £5.99) explores with charm, humour and a degree of honesty. Jasmine, a farmer’s daughter, struggles to protect a tiny piglet in secret, through the depths of winter. A lovely book for 7+, but for the same age so is Jackie Morris’s The White Fox (Barrington Stoke £10.99). Inspired by a true story, its Inuit hero is a boy whose father works on the Seattle docks. Bored and lonely Sol befriends the white fox, only to be horrified when other dockers trap it. How he returns to fox to the Arctic makes for a powerful story, written and illustrated with compassion and elegance.
The inimitable Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross have tackled internet bullying with Troll Stinks. A little goat finds a mobile phone, hides it from his parents and – as in the Three Billy Goats Gruff – thinks he can tackle a troll. Only, there’s a twist. Wise and funny for 6+ (Andersen Press £11.99)
Some books become life-long treasures, and A Poem For Every Night of the Year, (Macmillan £16.99) edited by Allie Esiri, is exactly that. A handsome, gorgeously-jacketed collection it contains not just the usual classics by TS Eliot and Eleanor Farjeon but modern poems by Helen Dunmore, Maya Angelous and Tony Mitton, with a helpful little note about each. It’s the best collection of its kind since Charles Causley’s, and a must-have for 9+.
However, it’s the Vikings which continue to inspire children’s authors the most. The Dragon’s Hoard by Lari Don (Frances Lincoln £14.99, 9+) has eleven highly amusing Viking stories that the Vikings told themselves – not just about gods but feuds, grudges and quarrels which make Christmas Day fall-outs seem trivial. Hot on the heels of Francesca Simon’s outstanding re-imagining of Hel, reluctant Queen of the Norse Underworld as a blistering black comedy about dysfunctional families in The Monstrous Child (Faber £ 9.99 12+) comes Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants, illustrated by Chris Riddell (Bloomsbury £14.99). What a treat! As in The Sleeper and the Spindle, the sense of mischievous magic between author and artist is abundant. The cover has a Frost Giant peering through icicles, and the fun never stops as the crippled, fatherless Odd, leaves home in a prolonged winter and finds himself in the company of an unusual fox, bear and eagle. They are Loki, Thor and Odin, tricked into exile from Asgard; how Odd helps them win back their home and save the goddess Freya makes for a thrilling read for 9-12s. Yet it’s the emotional honesty with which Gaiman depicts Odd, as a boy who learns to relinquish what is most precious to him, that makes this a special present about giving.
Matt Haig’s sequel to A Boy Called Christmas is followed by The Girl Who Saved Christmas (Canongate £12.99) and deserves to be a huge best-seller too. Amelia is a poor chimneysweep who asks Father Christmas to make her mother better; she is orphaned, however, and it’s Haig’s understanding of grief, cruelty and the need for hope which raises a warm comedy about threatened elves and malfunctioning magic into classic status. Trapped in the workhouse and desperate to escape, Amelia’s favourite author is Dickens, and Haig’s verve and wit as he tells us how Santa comes to Amelia’s rescue has echoes of A Christmas Carol. A hanky for every eye and a copy in every stocking for 8+, please.
Tales of the Peculiar by Ransom Riggs (Penguin £12.99) isn’t for every 11+, but its weird and original fairy-tales, sumptuously illustrated, have a Lemony Snicketty feel to them. A princess with a forked tongue can’t find a husband, and a woman who befriends ghosts is one of many beguiling stories.
Many classics are being reissued for the new generation, including The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, now appealingly illustrated by Peter Bentley (Alma Books 7.99) is about the appalling Mary Lennox, orphaned in India, who turns from being a “tyrannical and selfish a little pig” to a much nicer child thanks to the robust working classes of Yorkshire, and learning to garden. One of the best books ever written for 9+, its journey from winter to summer makes it perfect to read – especially for anyone suffering from depression….