Everyone, everyone has a Christmas books special at this time of year, and as often as not it’s called something howlingly original like Christmas Crackers, a six-monthly round-up of the recently-published and keenly-promoted (the other one is Holiday Specials, in early July). Often it’s one of the rare occasions when children’s books receive any proper press coverage, even when tacked on after Cookery and Sport or See Part Two Next Week. This post will not be a Christmas Crackers – if you’re looking for recent children’s books that would make very satisfactory Christmas presents, may I refer you to last month’s post? – but it seemed a good moment to look at some lovely books with Christmas at their heart.
The shelves fairly groan with Christmas stories and indeed Christmas Stories, retold in all kinds of ways from the banal to the beautiful. I am naturally fond of Usborne’s two gift editions, cloth-bound and gold-blocked, nicely retold and beautifully illustrated in very different ways by Alessandra Roberti (soft, luminous pastel) and Elena Temporin (delicate, translucent line and wash).
Brian Wildsmith’s Christmas Story is also appealing, jewel-coloured and even gilded, telling the tale at a tangent from the point of view of a little girl and a donkey; there’s a poignant companion in The Easter Story, in which another donkey carries Jesus in triumph to Jerusalem, only to carry his body to the tomb five days later and witness his resurrection three days after that. In both there are some wonderful details: look out for angels, birds and tiny tigerish cats amongst the straw, the stones and the long grass.
More elegant still is Jeanette Winterson and Rosalind MacCurrach’s The Lion, the Unicorn and Me, also a donkey’s story and a book that begs to be read aloud with its mixture of matter-of-fact and rapt, sardonic and rhapsodic. Don’t be tempted to treat it as a young picture book (unless you know and can instantly explain what wormy purlins are), but enjoy the ranging and wheeling and beak-stabbing precision of Winterson’s language, and the illustrations that burst into bright starry gold with the birth of Jesus.
Moving away from the Christmas story itself, I sometimes wonder whether younger children are better served with Christmas reading than older ones; once they are of an age for chapter books and series fiction, there comes the inevitable “Christmas Special” which is often anything but. There are, however, some glorious Christmas picture books which will long outlast the wrapping paper and the wreckage of Christmas lunch: Harvey Slumpfenburger’s Christmas Present is one such, with Father Christmas’ arduous journey beautifully captured in John Burningham’s delicate and wistful pastels. Father Christmas has just finished his night’s work and is about to settle down to sleep when, to his horror, he sees one last undelivered present; but one of the reindeer is sick, and the rest are asleep already – how to make the long journey to the top of the Roly Poly Mountain where Harvey Slumfenburger lives? Don’t doubt that Father Christmas will get through, whatever it takes, and safely home again too.
Nicholas Allan has to some extent made Christmas his territory – I can resist the charms of Father Christmas Needs a Wee, but the much earlier Jesus’ Christmas Party is another engaging and oblique Christmas story, this time from the point of view of the increasingly grumpy innkeeper as his hard-earned sleep is interrupted by bright lights, angel choirs and a stream of visitors. Allen’s friendly pen-and-wash figures convey a huge amount of emotion, not least the innkeeper whose sudden change of mood, from righteous rage to delight, is in itself delicious.
Well before Nicholas Allan, Raymond Briggs really did make Christmas his territory, first with Father Christmas and then with the immortal, wordless Snowman (sorry: bad choice of words, of course the snowman in the end wasn’t immortal). The Snowman seems to be adored in its every version: book, animation, ballet… it’s hard to believe that at the time of publication, a whole book without words was a daring and challenging thing, not least for perennially words-minded publishers and booksellers. Of course, the animation put paid to that – and if you find yourself whistling We’re Walking in the Air for the next couple of hours, I suppose I should be a little bit sorry. For those who prefer a little wordy grit and wry humour with their Christmas sparkle, Father Christmas will likely be more up your chimney, as the world’s favourite and most famous deliveryman grumbles his way and cajoles his reindeer through the busiest night of the year.
Some ninety years ago, three children in North Oxford began writing, as so many do, to Father Christmas. John, Michael, Christopher and Priscilla Tolkien were luckier than most children in receiving shakily handwritten replies to their letters, filled out over the years with pictures, anecdotes and the bickering exchanges of the North Polar Bear and Father Christmas’ secretarial elf Ilbereth. Over twenty-three years, the letters cover the North Polar Bear’s many mishaps and more serious skirmishes with marauding goblins, as well as spectacular cave discoveries and cheery visiting penguins. The letters and pictures are delightful, gossipy and eventful, and the ones which are reproduced in facsimile, with their quavery red and green ink and flourishes of pattern and ornament, are particularly enchanting.
Rather more recently, a little girl asked her mother who filled Santa’s stocking when he was a child himself. As luck would have it, her mother was the children’s writer Lucy Jago; and so began the story of Nickolai of the North, the elf-baby who survived a shocking and brutal coup in his homeland, rescued by a flying reindeer and raised by human parents until he comes of age to challenge the evil Queen Magda and her minions. A rollicking tale of great imagination and vivid description, neatly threading together all the familiar elements – the red fur-lined tunic, the reindeer, the toymaking, the sleigh – through twist upon twist until courage, determination and friendship are put to the final test.
Not everyone finds Christmas wholly enchanting. For every child tearing the wrapping off unfeasibly complicated Lego or excessively wardrobed Barbie, there is a frazzled mum or a frustrated and resentful cat in the background. Anne Fine speaks for both: finding “killer cat” Tufty stretched to the limits of his patience and forbearance in The Killer Cat’s Christmas, and happily turning over the horrors of the Family Christmas, with a whole gallery of ghastly relatives descending on the Mountfields and bringing out the hilarious worst in each other, in The More The Merrier. A welcome and very funny antidote to Christmas pieties and schmaltz.
Pushing my sardonic nature aside, though, I am so delighted to see that OUP has republished Jenny Overton’s The Thirteen Days of Christmas, one of my favourite childhood books and as bright, funny and readable as ever. Prudence (Prue), at the heart of the story, is as sensible as her name, whilst her sister Annaple is pretty, flighty and – in her family’s opinion – more than ready to be married. How, then, to persuade her to accept the devoted (and reassuringly rich) Francis, whom she considers staid? Her siblings’ well-intentioned romantic advice results in a stream of unconventional presents: the partridge, turtle doves, hens and calling birds are well enough received, but the gold rings strike the wrong note entirely, and from then on the gifts become something of a liability: how can Francis possibly redeem himself? Between the familiar lines of the carol, Overton weaves in a deep knowledge and love of English Christmas traditions, from St Stephen’s (Boxing Day) to Twelfth Night, and Shirley Hughes’ affectionate illustrations are quite the marzipan on the figgy pudding.
Three classics, old and new, weave three different kinds of Christmas magic. Winter Holiday is one of the very best of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books, and would-be pirate chief Nancy Blackett couldn’t be more wrong when she declares, “Nothing ever happens in the Christmas holidays”. That’s before she is stricken with mumps, poor girl, and her sister Peggy, the Walker children and new friends Dorothea and Dick find the holiday extended with three weeks’ quarantine – just after a heavy snowfall and before a long hard frost. Ever resourceful, the children devise signal codes, build an igloo, skate on the frozen lake and rig an ice yacht in the course of a Polar Expedition – one which turns out to be a little more perilous than anyone had intended, but ending cosily in reunion and triumph.
The Box of Delights was written and is set at around the same time; but Kay Harker’s Christmas holiday takes a distinctly surreal turn when he travels home by train, meets a bright-eyed Punch and Judy man, sees a pair of detectives apprehending a notorious murderer and is swindled by an unlikely pair of theological students – all before he has even reached his destination. The Punch and Judy man turns out to have a rare treasure in his care and some unscrupulous enemies on his trail, and Kay is drawn into an adventure in which showmen disappear into pictures; old enemies resurface with rats and wolves at their bidding; bishops and carol singers, choristers and bell-ringers are brazenly kidnapped… Few if any contemporary writers could combine all of this with time travel, pirates, castaways, mermaids, lions, unicorns and Herne the Hunter too, not to mention lashings of snow and steam trains, buttered eggs and cocoa; if they did, the result would undoubtedly be horribly contrived and charmless. Maybe it takes a poet, and indeed a Poet Laureate, John Masefield, to weave all together with such lightness and wonder. The Times’ Amanda Craig rates The Box of Delights and its predecessor, The Midnight Folk, “two of the greatest children’s books ever written”; not for the first time, I entirely agree.
Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising visits some of the same territory, with its Christmas setting, snow and carols and Herne the Hunter once again. Perhaps it’s a later, darker, more pagan sensibility, but the English myths old and new are anchored in a very English Christmas, with Will’s large and jolly family gathering and baking and preparing, and Will and his brother James singing in the church choir: there’s a special magic in Will’s singing releasing the stone talisman on Christmas morning. The Dark is Rising as a book and a quintet has inspired another whole generation of writers, and long may it continue to do so.