“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents”, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” The opening of Little Women has had children nodding in agreement since 1869 and my generation at least was horrified when the secret present that they each received was a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress. Little Women begins and ends at Christmas, and much of the moralistic sermonising of the book is very much of its time, but there is something to be said for a children’s book with a moral, especially at this time of year. Browsing through the new offerings published for Christmas this year, there is very little which is truly redolent of the message of the season. There are of course some notable exceptions, and many classics to turn back to which the children in your life will love.
JK Rowling, whose Harry Potter series treats of nothing if not an old-fashioned battle between good and evil, has released a charming fantasy, The Christmas Pig, about a boy who has lost his favourite toy, Dur Pig. Jack sets off on Christmas Eve to the magical Land of the Lost from where, helped by Christmas Pig (Dur Pig’s irritating replacement), he hopes to rescue his lost toy. Santa appears in the story – which alone would give the book Christmas status – but it is the themes of friendship and courage which give the story its feel-good atmosphere.
A story with a similar theme is Shirley Hughes’s Dogger’s Christmas where another favourite toy is lost, and the children reading are reminded that sometimes it’s not the new and shiny which is important, but the love you bear for the old. Poor old Dogger, lost at a jumble sale in 1977 and now lost again (this time bagged up for the bin men), will be loved as much on this outing as he was all those years ago.
For the traditionalists who insist on Advent Calendars with Nativity scenes, Usborne has engaged Sam Taplin and Roisin Hahessy to produce a new telling of the Christmas story. Twinkly twinkly Nativity, a solid book for younger children, takes you through the story with simple pictures and brightly shining lights. It is not as beautiful as Dick Bruna’s Christmas Book, but its shininess will definitely impress the very young.
Julia Donaldson (the Gruffalo, Zog, Room on the Broom) has a lovely new story, The Christmas Pine, with wonderful atmospheric illustrations by Victoria SandØy. It is about a pine tree growing up in a frozen wood in Norway to become the tree the Mayor of Oslo presents to the British people in thanks for their support in the Second World War. The final pictures, of the tree in Trafalgar Square watched over by Nelson while it looks down at children singing, are heartwarming and joyous. Each year, the UK Poetry Society asks a poet to write a poem to welcome the tree. Julia Donaldson wrote The Christmas Pine to celebrate last year’s tree and it was performed by London schoolchildren, and displayed in Trafalgar Square. With mention of the Christmas Star, it addresses not only the story of Christmas but gives children a lovely, and interesting, historical tale.
Sometimes, though, the old ones are the best. Edward Ardizzone’s illustrations of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, reissued in a small format hardback, will delight literate children and their parents equally. Tolkien fans will be delighted, if surprised, by his Letters From Father Christmas, the charming, whimsical letters he sent his own children every year.
Christmas is also a good time for dipping into books, and perhaps a time to encourage children towards poetry. Just out in paperback in time for Christmas, Roger McGough has edited a wonderful anthology, 100 Best Christmas Poems for Children. There is no real reason this should be sold as a children’s book as so many of the poems, whether modern or older, are classics. Any collection that can include William Blake and Benjamin Zephaniah is a collection worth having and treasuring. And, most gloriously of all, these poems are not just about decorations and presents, but also about the real Christian themes of Christmas – hope, peace and joy. Read it to or with the children, or let them read it to you; in so many ways this is the pick of the Christmas bunch.
The Christmas Pig
JK Rowling, Illustrated by Jim Field, Hachette Children’s Group, £20
Shirley Hughes, Penguin Random House Children’s, £12.99
The Christmas Pine
Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Victoria Sandoy, Scholastic, £12.99
Twinkly, twinkly Nativity
Sam Taplin, illustrated by Roisin Hahessy Usborne £12.99
Sophia Waugh is a writer and teacher.
This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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