Dinah Hall picks the best Christmas treats for toddlers to teens.
Vampires, zombies, and a snake-haired Medusa all appear in Matthew Reinhart and Robert Sabuda's breathtaking pop-up book 'Dragons and Monsters' (Walker Books, £19.99)
By Dinah Hall
The simple device of an acetate page between each spread turns Shapes (Patrick George, £8.99) from a concept book for toddlers into something special. A semicircle that is a whale on one page flips over to become a railway tunnel, a green triangle becomes a tree that turns into a yellow pyramid. Hypnotically absorbing.
It’s hard to find a Christmas book that’s about giving without coming across all preachy (you can’t fool kids: Christmas is about receiving) but Just Right by Birdie Black and Rosalind Beardshaw (Nosy Crow, £9.99) delivers a warm glow with its waste-not-want-not message. The story follows a roll of cloth – “so red and soft and Christmassy” – as it makes a cloak for a princess with the leftover scraps passing down a human/animal hierarchy until it becomes a scarf for a mouse.
Words are really just a distraction in Inga Moore’s fabulous A House in the Woods (Walker Books, £12.99). The story is sweet enough – two pigs, a moose and a bear build a house with the help of beavers paid in peanut butter sandwiches – but all you want to do is drink in the detail of Moore’s unparalleled artistry: the dappled light of the forest, the expressive posture of the animals. Children will spend hours poring over it – but they’re not having my copy.
Christmas Eve at the Mellops’ by Tomi Ungerer (Phaidon, £9.95) provides sentiment with a gently sardonic edge as the Mellops piglets struggle to find takers for their festive largesse. Cheerful orphans and hospital patients have all they need, but at last they find a weeping child with the requisite tumbledown house complete with sick grandmother, crippled soldier, two frightened children in the attic and a lonely old lodger. Ungerer’s eye for detail and gentle wit is as fresh today as it was 50 years ago.
The stories in The Crimson Fairy Book (Folio Society, £44.95) were once, as Andrew Lang put it in 1903, told by “savage grandmothers in many climes” and all he did was tone down “to mild reproofs the tortures inflicted on wicked stepmothers and other naughty characters”. Oh, to be a grandmother, savage or otherwise, for the pleasure of reading from this covetable edition, bound in buckram and vibrantly illustrated by Tim Stevens.
There is a welcome backlash against the idea that children have to give up pictures when they become fluent readers. Actor Mackenzie Crook’s fiction debut The Windvale Spirits (Faber, £9.99), about a boy who discovers a genus of sprite living on the moors, is enhanced by his delightful drawings – though you can’t help feeling the editing, sloppy in parts, is a bit star-struck.
There is an almost alchemical synthesis of words and pictures in the magnificent Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick (Scholastic, £14.99). The text is broken up by long sequences of black and white illustrations, which pan and zoom cinematically, and make a seemingly hefty book accessible to novice readers. The technique does more than just add to the parallel stories of a partially deaf boy searching for his father and the visual narrative of a lonely deaf girl, 50 years earlier: it becomes another medium, a living, breathing entity that takes possession of the reader. The title says it all.
Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver (Hodder & Stoughton £10.99) brings much-needed magic to an increasingly neglected age group. Liesl is locked in an attic by her murderous stepmother when she is rescued by Po and Bundle, the ghosts of a boy or girl and a dog or cat – “Things are different on the Other Side, you know. Things are… blurrier”. There are some exquisitely drawn characters – like the undertaker doing a sideline in selling body parts, who views children as “strange and sticky and best avoided, like an upright variety of jellyfish”. It’s books like this, with its classic quest plot, intertwined with lyrical metaphysics, that can set a child up for life.
A Dark Lord finds himself on earth in the shape of a 13-year-old boy in Dark Lord: The Teenage Years by Jamie Thomson (Orchard, £5.99). His enraged rantings are diagnosed by child psychologists as dissociative identity disorder, but to his friends – or “lackeys, lickspittles and worshippers” – he presents himself as a fascinating uber-nerd, rubbish at sport but brilliant at strategy. A perfect novel for computer games-obsessed boys.
For once the frenzy over a teen novel is justified. Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99) is one of those books that blots out reality, so consumed do you become in its fantasy world of chimeras and angels. Karou is an art student in Prague, but has another life in a place called Elsewhere as the foster daughter of the chimera Brimstone, for whom she travels the world collecting teeth without knowing why. Inevitably there is epic romance but Taylor is a talented writer; this is aeons apart from the usual angels and werewolves dross. “Love is an element” – I can see the T-shirts already.
This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel (David Fickling Books, £12.99) is a brilliantly layered exploration of what made Victor Frankenstein the man he became. When Konrad, Victor’s “better” twin, falls mortally ill, Victor turns to the secret Dark Library in Chateau Frankenstein and the forbidden arts of alchemy to find a cure. Victor’s struggle to pit fraternal love against his baser emotions, particularly his animal attraction to their cousin Elizabeth, who loves Konrad, gives a compelling psychological edge to this richly imagined Gothic thriller.
In The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner (Indigo, £9.99), a father’s answer to his daughter’s damaged early years in the Thirties is to build a machine that will preserve only her good memories. Hijacked by those with evil intentions, it becomes a living mausoleum where memories play on an endless loop. At times the writing is almost too good – so visual, so visceral that you can feel the green fog of captured memories seeping out from the pages and suffocating you, the headaches blinding you. Some of the characters – the caddish villain, the movie star in pursuit of lost youth – are straight out of central casting, but in this complex, unsettling novel, it somehow doesn’t matter.
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