Christmas

A Q&A with Anthony McGowan: Killing Father Christmas

Anthony McGowan, possibly best known for his gritty YA stories including The Knife that Killed Me and the Brock, Pike and Rook series, has published a gorgeous Christmas story for younger readers with publisher Barrington Stoke: I Killed Father Christmas. Although it may sound rather horrific from the title, this is a gentle story about the true meaning of Christmas.

When Jo-Jo hears his parents arguing downstairs, he feels that it’s all his fault and that he has killed Father Christmas by asking for too many presents. To make amends, Jo-Jo feels he must try to do Santa’s job himself. Although McGowan shows Jo-Jo’s frustration here, he also incorporates much humour, and sprinkles more than a dash of Christmas magic across the pages. Cleverly, although the story is sweet and endearing, it does manage to incorporate the darker issues of Christmas time and families – showing how children may fear they are to blame for family arguments, as well as admitting how difficult it can be for some families to afford the excess costs at Christmas time. 

The book is illustrated by Chris Riddell, the former Children’s Laureate, who brings the story to life with both realism, and a clever use of colour. I had the opportunity to ask Anthony a few questions about his writing and Christmas, and this is what he said:

You’ve had huge success, and certainly critics’ acclaim for your series for Barrington Stoke: Brock, Pike and Rook. Is there something special about writing for dyslexia specialists Barrington Stoke?

Before I began writing for Barrington Stoke, my books were anything but dyslexia friendly. My style is naturally rather excessive, ornate and fancy and, unless I’m restrained, I tend to show off, letting the reader know just how clever I am. My earlier books tended to grab the reader by the ears and scream into their face. I pulled out all the stops to dazzle, astound, impress, amuse, disgust. Writing for Barrington Stoke taught me that less can be more, that three simple words can do the work of a hundred complex ones, that stories are about characters undergoing trials, and emerging from them changed. And so writing for Barrington Stoke simply made me better at my job.

I was quite surprised when reading I Killed Father Christmas to find out how ‘sentimental’ it was: full of hope and love. It doesn’t seem to fit with the author who writes with such grittiness and cynicism in The Art of Failing and The Knife That Killed Me for example…Is there a softer side to Anthony McGowan that isn’t normally seen?

Well, it’s a Christmas story! Actually, there are quite dark elements in it – it begins with a bitter argument, and tries to hint at how families can struggle with the cost of Christmas. But, yes, the underlying (and overlying) message is that what gets us through is love and kindness. I suppose I also wanted to salvage something from the commercialisation of Christmas – trying to find a core of goodness under all the tinsel.

Was Christmas a big part of your upbringing?

I’m one of five children, so Christmas was always exciting and chaotic. We were pretty skint when I was growing up, so it must have been a struggle for my parents to give us the presents we pestered them for, as well as all the other festive elements; but they made a huge effort to make Christmas special. I suppose it was all quite traditional – both in the wider sense, and in the more particular McGowan family rituals. We had the same decorations every year – the same tinsel draped over the pictures in the living room. There was always a huge tin of Quality Street – hidden by my dad, searched for and plundered by us.  Presents (always from Father Christmas, never acknowledged as being from my parents) were left in pillow cases at the end of our beds. We were allowed to open them at the crack of dawn, in a frenzy of tearing and rending and squealing. Then we’d go off to Mass, then Christmas lunch, that always happened around 4pm. The best part was going out to play with my friends, showing off your new toys – that Action Man, or a new torch, or a bike. I suppose the main thing is that because we didn’t have much money, Christmas felt very different to the rest of the year – it was a time of plenty – enough sweets, enough nice food, the toys …

Can you describe your perfect Christmas now?

For some reason it always makes me feel a little sad. I suppose it’s a very obvious marker of the years passing, of my own aging, of my children growing. But my daughter still gets incredibly excited by Christmas, and that infects the rest of us. There are plenty of family occasions – we go to my wife’s parents on Christmas Day, then travel up to Yorkshire to see my parents on Boxing Day. The McGowans are still mad and chaotic and noisy – quite a contrast to my wife’s very decorous family! As for perfection … well, as a parent all you want is for your children to be happy. The easy route is to buy them the presents they want, but the better path is to fill the house up with as much love as you can – which is what I Killed Father Christmas is all about.

Your writing is incredibly diverse – across genres and markets – do you find you prefer writing on any particular topic (cricket?) or for any particular audience? Presumably they all hold their own challenges..

I probably find it easiest to write for teenagers – those teenage years were very intense for me, and so my mind often drifts back there. And teenager’s lives are just so full of the stuff of fiction – conflict, friendship, love, hate… But there’s a huge joy to be had in writing funny books for younger children. And yet the book I’ve probably most relished is my recent autobiographical book for adults, The Art of Failing … I guess what all this means is that what I really love is the variety, the chance to write for anyone able to read (or be read to).

Do you write more than one book at the same time? And are you disciplined about your writing day?

Often, yes, I’ll have a couple on the go, though that’s more due to necessity than design. I think it’s much better to finish one project before the next begins, but that’s just not possible when you’re a professional writer, having to cater for different audiences. I try to write a thousand words a day, but I’m not particularly disciplined. Almost anything can distract me, a leaf falling past my window, the noise of a road drill, the constant urge to check Facebook and Twitter. Luckily, when I get going I’m quite fast, so I can do my thousand words in a couple of hours, then spend the rest of the day loafing, or fretting, or bumbling around.

What are you reading at the moment? And your favourite Christmas children’s book please?

Just as I often have several books on the go as a writer, I generally find myself in the middle of several as a reader, usually a classic, something frothy, and a work of non-fiction. So, as a slightly trashy pleasure I’m reading The Stand, by Stephen King; my current classic is The Story of the Stone, an 18th century Chinese novel, by Cao Xueqin, and my non-fiction is  The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan. I’m not sure I have a favourite children’s Christmas story, though I do have one that makes me weep uncontrollably whenever I read it – The Little Match Girl, by Hans Christian Anderson.

With thanks to Anthony McGowan for taking the time to answer my questions so fully. You can buy your own copy of I Killed Father Christmas here.

 

 

Christmas Books Roundup 2017

““Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo” (Little Women), but for me, presents means books. So, if you’re looking to treat your children to some rectangular shapes in their stockings and under the tree, here are my highlights…

Picture Books


Oliver Elephant by Lou Peacock and Helen Stephens (Nosy Crow)
My top pick for the season is definitely this heartwarming Christmassy through-and-through tale about a Christmas present shopping trip, in which mummy has a long list, a pram to manoeuvre, her children Noah and Evie-May, and Noah’s toy elephant. With sparkling rhythmic rhyming, and huge attention to detail in the department store colourwash illustrations, this will make every reader feel that magical Christmas time aura. There’s much to love in the familiar tale of a temporarily lost toy in a large store, but Peacock and Stephens manage to inject their own personality onto the book, with lots of love, expression and minute detail. I love the mittens on strings, the busyness of the store, the flushed faces of the customers, the diversity of the cast, and the wonderful emotion on the face of the mother (tired yet happy), and Noah (small in a world of big things). His playfulness with the elephant, and the frustrated sympathy of his mother is pitch perfect. And of course, there’s a happy Christmas ending. You can buy it here.


The Princess and the Christmas Rescue by Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton (Nosy Crow)
This hilarious picture book for Christmas manages to combine fairy tale allusions (it is about a princess after all), feminism (girl engineers), and an ironic Amazon-like present-picking machine all in a neat sing-song rhyme. But mainly, this is an adorable rhyming picture book about finding friends. Princess Eliza loves to make things, but her parents are worried at her lack of friends. When the Christmas elves run into trouble in the busy lead-up to Christmas, Eliza steps in to help, and finds that as well as being a super duper inventor, there’s fun in friendship too. Exquisite illustrations in bright colours that mix the essence of Christmas (ribbons, elves, cosy armchairs by the fire) with ‘Wallace and Gromit’ type inventions. Christmas bliss. You can buy it here.


All I Want for Christmas by Rachel Bright (Orchard Books)
Rachel Bright is superb at wrapping moral lessons in her books, and this Christmas treat is no different. It’s not an illustrated version of Mariah Carey’s Christmas hit, but it does carry the same message – as well as cookies and trees, and presents and roast dinners, what this Big Penguin really wants is love. Yes, this is about penguins, not humans. Shown first in a snowglobe on a mantelpiece, the story opens up to explore the penguins’ world in the lead up to Christmas. Cute illustrations, and a fabulous spread in the middle that shows miniature vignettes of Big Penguin and Little Penguin busy doing the ‘hundred things’ to get ready, this is an adorable read. You can purchase it here.


Last Stop on the Reindeer Express by Maudie Powell-Tuck and Karl James Mountford (Little Tiger Press)
The next title also features a family with a missing adult, but here they are human, and there is a more pronounced emphasis on families who can’t be together at Christmas time. Mia’s dad can’t come home for Christmas, but luckily for her, she stumbles across a magical postbox with a door to The Reindeer Express, which manages to convey her to her father for a Christmas hug, and still be back with her mother for Christmas.

Karl James Mountford’s illustrations feel globally Christmassy, with muted earthy tones, in particular a profusion of rusty red, as he conveys a timelessness to the images – from the dress of the people, which feels old-fashioned, to the takeaway cups of mulled wine, which feel up-to-the-minute. With maps and explorers’ articles, and a globe-trotting reindeer, the book feels as if it’s digging into a magical time of exploration and discovery, as well as showcasing a homely setting with snow outside the window. Our heroine wears glasses and is an eager and curious child. But what sets this book apart is its production. With thick pages, peek-throughs and cut-outs, and the most tactile cut-away cover, this truly feels like a gift. Romantic and yet curiously real. You can purchase it here.


A Christmas Carol: Search and Find by Louise Pigott and Studio Press
Another beautifully produced book, with silver foil on the cover, this classic Christmas story is retold with search and find scenes – both the characters and setting are illustrated at the outset, with a brief summary of author and text, and then the story is told through double page illustration scenes, alongside an illustration key, which asks the reader to find certain people and objects (such as five red robins, a wistful scrooge, and the ghost of Christmas yet to come).

Through minimal text but large illustrations, both the characters and their narratives are revealed. It’s clever, and wonderfully appealing, in that it’s a book that could be shared, and certainly pored over, as each scene is so wonderfully detailed. Answers, are of course, at the back. You can purchase it here.

Chapter Books:
Three chapter books for you, each from an established series, but this time with their ‘Christmas theme’ stamped all over the cover and narrative. My testers (little kiddies) adore all three series, and couldn’t wait to read them – so they won’t be under my tree!


Polly and the Puffin: The Happy Christmas by Jenny Colgan, illustrated by Thomas Docherty (Hachette)
I have the distinct feeling that the children and I like this book for very different reasons, but that’s the joyous element of this book, which is written to be shared by being read aloud (with references to hugs, and an authorial voice).

Polly and Neil (her real puffin) are all ready for Christmas, but it’s only November, and such a long time to wait. And then things start to go wrong. Will it ever be Christmas? Will the puffling hatch? Will Wrong Puffin find his way home? There is a huge infusion of wit and personality here – from Polly’s moods, and her quirks (from calling the toy puffin Wrong Puffin, to her grumpiness with her real puffin, Neil) to the illustrator’s humour (see the contented yet oblivious cat lying on the sofa, the wine bottle from Christmas Eve and bleary parents at Christmas Day morning). The narrative voice is warm and comforting, just right for Christmas Eve. There are loads of extras at the back too – recipes, activities and jokes. Buy it here.


Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: Jingle Bells by Tracey Corderoy and Steven Lenton (Nosy Crow)
This pair of cake-baking, crime-solving dogs are never far from mischief, and the delight of these little books is that they each contain three stories in one book – good for short attention spans and first readers. Only the first story is Christmas-themed, with the delightful Santa Paws, but the other two tales are equally strong and eventful: Sea-Monster Ahoy! and Lucky Cat. With plentiful illustrations in two-tone colour, lots of lively language, and fast plots, these are lovely little bursts of entertainment. You can purchase it here.


There’s a Dragon in My Stocking by Tom Nicoll, illustrated by Sarah Horne (Stripes)
Lastly, and for slightly older readers, this Christmassy addition to the fabulous ‘There’s a Dragon in my Dinner!’ series continues the adventures of Eric, who was first introduced when he discovered a mini dragon (Pan) in his takeaway dinner. In this funny sequel, Pan’s parents arrive down the chimney. Looking after one dragon and stopping fires was bad enough, but now Eric has three on his hands, and his parents are entertaining on Christmas day. When disaster hits their lunch plans, it might just be that three little dragons come in useful. As well as being huge fun, Nicoll captures the family personalities beautifully, especially annoying Toby from next door, and his Mum (complete with mobile phone!). You can buy it here.

Happy Christmas shopping.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis

For Christmas Day, a special classic. This key text in the children’s literature canon is always a delight to revisit, and once it’s been read with the children, it’s always fun when they spot a ‘Narnia’ lamppost when out and about. In fact, it’s the wondrous images created by the book that endure, and is one of the reasons why it’s a classic. From Turkish delight, to a fur-coat laden wardrobe, to a lion (Aslan means lion in Turkish), to Mr Tumnus.

In fact, the book reportedly began as such an image, when CS Lewis pictured a “faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood,” according to his essay ‘It All Began with a Picture’. This, is in fact, a wonderful resource for writers, showing how Lewis wrote, and how a picture that had been in his head since the age of sixteen turned into a novel at the age of forty.

So what’s the book about? Four children, evacuated from London during the blitz, stumble upon a strange new land through a wardrobe in their new house. This land, Narnia, is under the spell of the White Witch, (a spell of eternal winter with no Christmas). But with the help of the four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, soon a new dawn arrives with spring on the horizon. It’s a fantasy landscape, with magical creatures, and yet the normalcy of sibling relationships and rivalries is never far away.

Of course, in children’s literature terms, the blitz was a gift as a literary device – an absence of parents, a new landscape, and a dark threat of insecurity hanging over the children’s lives. Numerous authors made use of this device – Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, and Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian are another two evacuee classics. But Lewis juxtaposes the very real experience of being a wartime evacuee with a fantasy landscape.

Many point to the Christian allegory that they say underpins the book, the seasons of winter and then the spring when Aslan (representative of Christ) arrives, the stone table for the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the temptation of Edmund eating the ‘sin’ of Turkish Delight just as Eve ate her apple. But C S Lewis tended to deny this was the crux of his story – in fact there are many mythologies and fairy tales alluded to within the text, none more obvious than the borrowing of the Snow Queen from Hans Christian Andersen; Lewis transforming her into the White Witch who turns people to stone rather than ice, and who also manipulates a boy from the comfort of her sleigh.

It also features Father Christmas.

But for me, and for many others, this book is simply a great fantasy adventure story with the most delightful images, and speaks to the possibility of the impossible. It’s a feeling the book exudes – like any great piece of literature, which when devoured, lets the reader experience a feeling – just how the name Aslan made the Pevensie children feel:

“At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”

You can buy it here.

Christmas Round Up

It’s nearly Christmas. Bring out the bells and lights, decorate the tree. Here are some new Christmas-themed book delights to wrap up for the big day. Click on the book title for a link to buy. Click here for my non-Christmas themed holiday gift selection.

queen-present

A red and green foiled cover with a host of elves is a magical way to start the Christmas season. Steve Antony’s The Queen’s Present, complete with the Queen in Santa’s sleigh on the front cover, is a magical delight of a book. Familiarly set out as the other books in the series, this one traverses the world as the Queen seeks presents for the little princes and princess. Flying through Paris, Pisa, Egypt, Japan and New York to name but a few, the book is illustrated with thousands of elves carrying presents across famous landmarks. The colour palette is restricted to Christmassy green and red, with Steve Antony’s famous massively populated spreads showing characters from previous books, and elves up to all sorts of mischief. Of course, the moral of the story is that time with family members is the biggest present of all. But this book would bring a big smile too! Fabulous Christmas entertainment.

santa-magic-key

For those worried that Santa won’t visit them because they don’t have a chimney, Little Tiger Press have come up with the perfect solution. Santa’s Magic Key by Emi Ordas and Stephanie Stansbie is a book in a box complete with golden key (a fairly sturdy piece, no plastic rubbish here). A cute story book inside explains the significance of the magic key, enabling Santa to visit even when there’s no clear access – this is one to gift to the children before Christmas Day.

nightmare-before-xmas

If you associate Christmas with watching films, then this precursor to the film might be for you. The Nightmare Before Christmas, written and illustrated by the famous Tim Burton is a brilliant accompaniment for all fans of the film, and newbies too. Containing exclusive original sketches, this is for those who want a bit of a fright with their Christmas pudding. Macabre and witty, don’t miss out.

blue-penguinonce-upon-a-northern

More gentle, and more whimsical is Blue Penguin by Petr Horacek. A beautiful tale about friendship and finding your own voice, Petr’s illustrations linger in the imagination, evoking an icy blue and green wonderland of the South Pole. The children adored this tale of belonging, which evokes strong emotions through its enchanting illustrations. The tone is one of muted sadness, a kind of dream landscape that has a happy ending but will leave the reader thinking. Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean E Pendziwol and Isabelle Arsenault is a poetic lullaby, a paean to the land of wild animals, snowfall, and the northern lights. Another one in which the illustrations evoke a certain sadness or stillness, the beauty of wintry nature and the feeling of being lulled softly to sleep in a warm bed. Sensational use of language, and stunning use of illustration.

cat-who-ate-christmas

A totally different feel with The Cat Who Ate Christmas by Lil Chase and Thomas Docherty, this is a book for newly independent readers, based on a real naughty kitten. A charming story, with a fun family and a mischievous cat called Jingles, this chapter book is packed with large exquisite two-tone illustrations showing the wonderful family atmosphere at Christmas time (even if the cat makes it a little haphazard). It’s good to see diversity represented in this family, and a host of activities at the end of the book, including crafts, cooking, facts and jokes. Top choice for this age group. 5+ years.

mistletoe-and-murder

I’ve mentioned her before, but Robin Stevens definitely has the magic touch. Her Murder Most Unladylike Series (think Enid Blyton crossed with Agatha Christie) keeps getting better and better, and this Christmas themed title is no exception. Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens sets detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong a new mystery but also a deadline – when a brutal accident occurs two days before Christmas, the detectives suspect murder, but they must solve the crime before Christmas morning. Set in a beautiful snowy Cambridge, with tales of sumptuous teas, ornate buildings, and some roof climbing, this is pure joy. Hazel Wong’s narrative is emotionally astute and easy to read. Stevens manages to add her usual twists and turns, and her effortless mentions of food (this book makes you long for mince pies as well as bunbreaks). She also incorporates a darker side in this title when she touches on what it’s like to feel like an outsider in British society. With lashings of boy crushes, a hint of feminism, and perfectly exquisite 1930’s student language, this is one to be savoured with an extra helping of Christmas cake.

Check out my books of the week in November and December for other wintry reads, including The Christmasaurus and to come at the weekend, a rather special book called Winter Magic.

 

 

 

The Christmasaurus by Tom Fletcher, illustrated by Shane Devries

christmasaurus

How do I choose which books to review? First and foremost it’s quality. If it’s a good book, then I want to tell the world about it. Sometimes I want to highlight a particular theme or issue, and I want to draw attention to books for all ages (5-14 years) as well as non-fiction. And also, to draw attention to books that sometimes don’t get the marketing limelight.

Quite often I’ll make a decision not to review something that my readers will already know about. I don’t review Roald Dahl books, simply because my readership tend to know about them/own them/borrow them from libraries already. Dahl books secure a lot of media coverage – they don’t need me blowing their whizzpopping trumpet. The same applies to celebrity authors.

But top and foremost in my mind is always quality. If a book is good, then I want to shout about it from the rooftops. No matter who the author is.

Tom Fletcher is one of these so-called celebrity authors. (For younger generations maybe who’ve heard of the pop group McFly – personally I wouldn’t know him if I passed him on the street, but that says more about ME than about him.) Anyway, he is a celebrity, and his book will, no doubt, get top billing/window space in many a bookshop this Christmas.

But I still want to draw your attention to it. Because you might not have heard of it yet, and it’s fabulous, and it made me laugh and cry.

William Trundle’s father loves Christmas. More than anything in the world. And William loves dinosaurs. So when a frozen dinosaur egg hatches in the North Pole right under Santa’s eyes (and bottom), a hybrid is born – the Christmasaurus. Which is just as well, because what William wants most for Christmas is a dinosaur, especially after the rotten year he’s had. But when he wakes up to find what Santa has left him as a present, an amazing adventure begins that will completely change his life.

Fletcher has liberally sprinkled Christmas magic throughout his tale. Although our hero is William Trundle, the story starts in the North Pole with Santa and his elves, who make merry and speak in rhyme and are rather reminiscent of oompa loompas – also in awe of their leader, Santa. There is an abundance of joy here, with crumpets, candy canes, toboggan runs, and a North Star-bucks. But all dominated by the hugely jolly Santa – the illustrations are like a warm hug. At times Santa even looks like Aladdin’s genie – all large and wish-awarding.

The tone of the book is appealing too – Fletcher writes with charming style, conversationally talking to the reader with asides (such as implying that everything you read in books is true). It’s not too cute, not too saccharine – but engaging and inviting, so that the child reader feels as if the author is a friend. Sparks of humour fly throughout the text – I’m no child but it made me smile more than once.

William is an endearing protagonist – sadly bullied for being in a wheelchair, and evoking pathos because he has that children’s book burden of a dead parent – yet he is not pathetic in any way. The reader sees his charm and goodness as well as his strengths, and cheers him on well before his adventure really starts. The Christmasaurus is also hugely likeable, with ambitions to fly like the reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh, and he wishes for a friend – he appears just as a child would and this is why he works as a character. It helps that every description is magical – from the colour of the dinosaur’s shiny rainbow iridescent skin to William’s shiny red dinosaur-decorated wheelchair.

The plot is paced well – much happens, which warrants the book’s fairly hefty size, and there are some great twists, but it’s the little asides and observations that give the book its winsome character.

“Brenda sniffed hard again and swallowed the snot that had frozen up her nose from sitting in the cold for so long.”

“The ropes weren’t just twisted and tangled. They were twangled.”

But also Tom Fletcher’s observations on life – those little life lessons dropped in children’s books that makes them magical:

“He knew it was the right thing to do, and sometimes the right things to do are the hardest.”

“A friend is for life, not just for Christmas.”

The text is brought to life not only by playing with fonts – bolds, italics, large type, but also the detail of snowflake page numbers, and Devries’ marvellous illustrations – fantastically emotional and fun too.

This book even made me cry at one point – Santa points out with some emotion the wonder of children themselves, and it is perhaps by getting to the very essence of this that Fletcher succeeds in his wonderful Christmas book. If children are magic, as he describes, because they can create worlds in their imaginations, because they have the power to see the best in things, and the power to believe, then children’s books are the epitome of this power. And this one harnesses it with pride. Santa’s sleigh will be a heavy one this year I think – sacks packed with luscious hardback books. For children aged… (who am I kidding? – for everyone!) You can buy it here.

Christmas with Little Women

littlewomen

Christmas is a lovely time of year. Although sometimes our expectations of it can be too high, and it fails to live up to the hype. For those who are only looking in on Christmas, not celebrating it, Christmases exist first and foremost in storybooks and in the imagination. My idealised version is born from a lifetime of reading about great Christmases. Last Christmas I blogged about The Holly and the Ivy, my favourite Christmas story for younger readers.

But when I was slightly older, it was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women that clinched the deal, and persuaded me that, despite being a Londoner, real Christmas was in the snowy suburbia of Massachusetts.

Little Women’s first word is Christmas:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

And immediately the scene is set, and one of my favourite characters begins to take shape. That first Christmas in Little Women, with its “four young faces on which the firelight shone” paints a dampened Christmas, with ‘relative’ poverty, from which the girls start to learn valuable life lessons, such as sacrifice, generosity and charity. They are rewarded for their virtues by a neighbour with “distracting French bonbons” among other things.

But Christmas means more when it comes as a pause in working – and the work ethic theme runs throughout the novel. That the girls and their mother find meaning through labour, resonates with the Puritan teachings of New England where Alcott grew up. So the holiday of Christmas, when it comes, is even more joyful because of its juxtaposition with the rest of their year.

And Christmas means more than just a break from work in Little Women. The true meaning of Christmas is revealed in the girls’ thoughtfulness for others and most of all in ‘love’, in this case, their love for their family and in particular their mother, whom they surprise with gifts rather than having spent the money on themselves:

“There was a great deal of love done up in the few little bundles,” and

“There was a good deal of laughing, and kissing, and explaining, in the simple, loving fashion which makes these home-festivals so pleasant at the time, so sweet to remember long afterward, and then all fell to work.”

little women 2

But it’s the Christmas with which Part One ends that competes with all the cheery Christmas films on TV, with its excess of delights, and a homecoming to rival The Railway Children.

“Now and then, in this work-a-day world, things do happen in the delightful story-book fashion, and what a comfort that is.”

They do have a sumptuous Christmas meal that year, in stark contrast to the beginning of the book in which they sacrificed their breakfast pancakes and muffins for the poor family down the road.

“There never was such a Christmas dinner as they had that day. The fat turkey was a sight to behold, when Hannah sent him up, stuffed, browned and decorated. So was the plum-pudding, which quite melted in one’s mouth; likewise the jellies, in which Amy revelled like a fly in a honey-pot.”

But mainly Christmas is about family reunions, and Alcott pitches it perfectly when Mr March returns from the war just in time for Christmas:

“A sleigh-ride had been planned, but the girls would not leave their father; so the guests departed early, and, as twilight gathered, the happy family sat together round the fire.”

Little Women may be an old classic, but it pushes the boundaries with its challenge to gender stereotyping, and the values it espouses. Moreover, to make modern day authors feel perfectly sick, Alcott apparently only started writing Little Women in May 1868, and the book was published in September (just four months later).

You can buy it here. Have a lovely bookish Christmas.

Seasonal Books For Younger Readers Part 2

refuge

Refuge by Anne Booth and Sam Usher
If you’re only buying one Christmas book this year, make it this one (although the mind boggles as to why you’d just buy one!). Refuge is a charity book – £5 for every sale goes to War Child. It’s a partnership of two very special people in the children’s book industry – Anne Booth – a magical writer who manages to be continually altruistic whilst writing thought-provoking literature for children, and Sam Usher, whose beautiful illustrations light up my eyes.

Refuge tells the traditional Christmas story in a new way, highlighting very cleverly and simply the struggle faced by a family seeking refuge – a family who could be anyone –  not just people from biblical times. It particularly demonstrates the kindness of strangers who help them along their way, and then take them in. Told from the point of view of the donkey, he explains the generosity of the innkeeper, the harshness of the journey, and the final granting of refuge. Of course it draws attention to the particular nub of our time – refugees and homelessness, and questions our basic humanity.

The illustrations sing from the page – Usher has depicted the nativity seamlessly in pen and wash, but inserted a shrewd narrative device of light on each page to express hope and freedom and sanctuary.

It’s published by Nosy Crow publishers, who are kindly absorbing the cost. They are a fairly new publishing group, who shine with innovation and are proving to have oodles of integrity. Their books are always of the highest quality, and this book is no different, which makes it easy to support.

For all ages. You can buy it here from Waterstones, or in any good book shop.

Snow bear

Snow Bear by Tony Mitton and Alison Brown
A winsome rhyming tale with one of the cutest bears in picturebooks. Alison Brown’s bear is far more abstract and less traditional than most bears, a cute white ball of fluff with dots for eyes and a cylindrical shape, but endearing nevertheless. There is glitter on this cover, snowdrops in silver that will catch any shop’s lights – who can resist glitter at Christmas? The story is more wintry than strictly Christmas – it could appeal to any faith denomination.

The bear is cold and looking for warmth. The other animals can’t help, and then he finally stumbles across a house with warming features – a comfortable armchair, a roaring fire, and a small girl who needs a hug. There is no explanation for the girl’s loneliness or why the bear needs human kindness, but the illustrations show incredible tenderness between the two when they do finally meet – the girl reads to the bear, helps him climb the stairs, and wraps him up warmly. The book is about solving loneliness, finding friendship, and showing kindness. The rhyming works well, the vocabulary is lovely. But it is the atmosphere created that warms the heart – the cold blue winter turning to reds, oranges and purples inside. It makes the reader want to climb inside the book itself. Perfect for reading aloud with a cuddle. 3+yrs. Buy it here.

toothfairys christmas

The Tooth Fairy’s Christmas by Peter Bently, illustrated by Garry Parsons
It’s always great fun to bring together more than one childhood character – in this case a very cold tooth fairy seeks the assistance of Father Christmas so that she can pick up a tooth from a particular child on Christmas Eve. Not everything goes smoothly though, as Santa is a little clumsy and they very nearly wake the sleeping child.

Told in rhyme, this is a fun giggle:
“Thank you for helping me out in this weather!”
She said. “It was lots of fun working together!”

There are some beautiful touches from both author and illustrator, the tooth fairy’s lounge is beautifully decorated – with Christmas tree and stocking – but alongside the seasonal touches are the numerous portraits on the wall of gappy smiles! In this story the tooth fairy doesn’t like the cold, and the wind whirls up her knickers, whereas Santa’s bottom gets stuck in the child’s window. I love the pages in which Santa’s huge face takes over the entire page, and the daintiness with which he tries to leave the tooth fairy her own Christmas present. A real joy to read. You can purchase it here.

fairytale hairdresser and father christmas
The Fairytale Hairdresser and Father Christmas by Abi Longstaff and Lauren Beard
Another not entirely new book (published last year), but part of the fun series about Kittie Lacey, the Fairytale Hairdresser, that likes to splash with the glitter whatever the time of year. Like every other hairdresser, Kittie’s busiest time is Christmas. When she makes a home visit to Father Christmas to trim his beard and tend to all the elves, she discovers the Snow Queen has stolen all the presents.

Together with her hairdryer (isn’t it amazing what hairdryers can do?), and Father Christmas, Kitty melts the Snow Queen’s heart and they all deliver the presents together.

Some hilarious illustrations make this a sure-fire winner – look carefully for the page on which The Snow Queen tries different outfits for the party (the onesie is great), and the presents all the fairytale characters receive for Christmas (particularly Snow White’s). A lovely Christmas book (and Lauren Beard has even drawn in Father Christmas’ utility room). Fun indeed. You can buy it here.

 

Seasonal Books for Younger Readers Part 1

My next couple of blogposts feature my selection of Christmas books: firstly four books for the youngest readers. Another four follow on Wednesday.

is it christmas yet

Is it Christmas Yet? by Jane Chapman

Sometimes the simplest titles are the best. Jane Chapman has a wonderfully sympathetic drawing style when tackling bears, and this depiction of an over-excited cub and his weary parent is no exception. Produced this year in a padded board book for the smallest child with an enticing glittery cover – even if it goes in the toddler’s mouth, it shouldn’t get too damaged!

It depicts the bears’ preparation for Christmas Day – wrapping presents and finding a tree, although the cub has a little more enthusiasm than the parent. The illustrations caused this book to end up in my list of Christmas picks – the cub’s playfulness is irresistible, while the parent bear goes through all the emotions that parents do in the run up to make a perfect Christmas – from growling to sighing to mumbling to huffing and moaning. But in the end, Christmas arrives, and it looks fairly perfect to me. You can purchase it here.

socks for santa

Socks for Santa by Adam and Charlotte Guillain and Lee Wildish
There’s always room on my bookshelves for another ‘George’ picture book. After the success of Spaghetti with the Yeti, Marshmallows for Martians and the other titles in the series, I was excited to hear there would be Socks for Santa. It didn’t disappoint. In fact, I think it’s one of the best. Generous and thoughtful George decides to take Santa some presents at Christmas in return for him giving them out every year. However, there are of course some hitches along the way – the elves need help with wrapping, Rudolph has a cold, and the reindeers open Santa’s presents. The rhyming text skips happily along telling the story, but the true delight of this title lies in Wildish’s illustrations.

From puffins sliding on ice and pulling a sleigh to the wonderful snowball fight with bears to my favourite of all – the reindeer playing connect four. There is so much detail and glee in all the illustrations, that no child could be unhappy opening this under the tree. Wholeheartedly recommended – and illustrations I want for my illustrators’ wall! Click here to buy.

one snowy rescue

One Snowy Rescue by M Christina Butler and Tina Macnaughton
This is one busy hedgehog. The ninth little hedgehog book won me over with the furry red hat. (Yes, I’m that easy!). Advertised on the front as a touch and feel book, the reader can trace their fingers over the felt red hat on every page. It’s quite alluring.

Little Hedgehog finds it difficult to navigate the snow, and relies on his friends to pull him out of various hitches, including a snow drift and some icy water. Each time his bright red hat signals to his friends that he is in danger, and he is rescued. However, the whole point of his trek through the snow is to rescue someone even smaller than him, which he succeeds in doing in the end. It’s a lovely little tale for small children – about helping each other, in a lovingly drawn winter landscape. You can buy it here from Waterstones.

magical snow garden

The Magical Snow Garden by Tracey Corderoy and Jane Chapman
Most people have a penchant for penguins (in picture books). Not in reality of course, as they smell, but in picture books they tend to be drawn as slightly more fluffy and cutesy. This is definitely the case here. Wellington the Penguin enjoys reading books, but when he spies a garden in one of his picture books he sets out to recreate it. Despite his friends’ lack of enthusiasm he does build a garden out of recycled rubbish (there are no seeds available and things won’t grow in the snow.)

Once all the sweet wrappers have been shaped and twisted, the garden looks fabulous, but then overnight the magical snow garden is blown away by a nasty storm wind. This time his friends help him to recreate the garden, and it is so magical that creatures come from all over the world to see it.

This completely fantastical story is drawn beautifully by Jane Chapman – glitter on the cover of course, but a garden reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, with fountains and flowers and cuckoos – all made from wrappers. A reference to recycling – or just a clever way to add colour to the snow – either way, it makes for a fine addition to the ‘snow’ picture book flurry. Purchase here from Waterstones.

Every Day For Me is World Book Day

I wrote about focusing on the book, not the costume for World Book Day here. But I don’t want to appear negative, for I adore World Book Day. It’s a day to celebrate writers, writing and favourite characters. The bus stop was quite a sight this morning with unicorns, Horrid Henrys, monkeys, including my own adorable Muggle Wump, some crocodiles, and I even spotted Where’s Wally. Kudos to me! Of course I didn’t take the bus this morning, I used my Harry Potter floo powder to get to the library.

Other than dressing up, how can we celebrate books this World Book Day? There are lots of ideas on the WBD website, and hopefully many of us will visit our local independent bookshop to spend our £1 Book Day tokens. My son has a chart to fill in from school, in which he has to ask different members of society which is their favourite book and why. And he asked me.

“One book” I shrieked. What torture! And then I realised which it was.

Little Women

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
This book is unique. I don’t think it can be pigeonholed as a children’s book, nor an adult book – although is often labelled as a classic. It’s historical, but not pegged as an historical novel. It’s semi-autobiographical (Louisa May Alcott didn’t correct readers writing her letters addressed to ‘Miss March’, but replied as if she were Jo.) It’s about feminism. It’s also a family saga, and a coming of age book. I suppose it was one of the first YA titles, although most children seem to read it as they reach the upper level of middle grade – about age 10-13yrs.
Little Women tells the story of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, during the American Civil War. Their father is absent, fighting in the war, and their mother is left to raise the girls alone. As they grow from children into adulthood, they face dramas of friendships, illness, arguments, breaking free from constraints of domesticity, and explore first love. The book highlights the wonder of storytelling, as well as espousing moral virtue over materialism, but the wonder of the book for many lies in the depth of characterisation of the four sisters.
They are each so well-defined that, as with Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore, you can remember the character traits of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy long into your own adulthood. Meg, the beautiful compliant daughter; Jo, the non-conformist hot-tempered tomboy; Beth, the shy, quiet creature, whose sacrificial death can be read as the death of the era of quiet domesticity; and finally Amy, the vain and self-centred baby of the family, who nevertheless excels at art and pursues her passion for it no matter the cost. It teaches such important lessons subtly – women’s access to education, overcoming shyness and having confidence, practising small kindnesses, charitable acts, and the importance of a sense of humour too. Little Women was even mentioned in that long-running television comedy Friends, when the girls ruined the story for Joey by telling him what happens to Beth in that devastatingly sad chapter, Dark Days. I don’t think there’s any other book from which I can remember the actual chapter titles. The description of Christmas with the Marches made me long for an American family Christmas just like theirs, and even made me consider calling my  mother ‘Marmee’. It’s a beautiful re-read, and works wonderfully as a ‘read-aloud’ too. I implore you to revisit it – and then give it to your children.

So I chose my one book. However, the fun of being a children’s book blogger and writer is that I don’t have to choose one book. I blog twice a week (sometimes more) about all the amazing books there are for children to read. And I have to read the books to enable me to blog. I interview the authors and tweet with other writers. It’s a privileged and rewarding task. Every day for me is World Book Day.

 

And So This Is Christmas…

The Story of Holly and Ivy

On my bookshelf are a fair few books from my childhood that are now sadly out of print. One, for which I lament its inaccessibility more than others, is a traditional Christmas tale, The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden. In fact, it’s not my favourite book of Godden’s – that title belongs to the brilliant The Diddakoi (in my view one of the best books on outsiders and bullying), but The Story of Holly and Ivy stands out as a simple, old-fashioned story that deserves to be read every Christmas Eve.
It is a story about wishes. After all, every child has their wishes at Christmas – wishes that Father Christmas visits them and delivers the correct present – wishes that their family can spend some quality time together – wishes for a healthy and happy new year following the holiday season.
Holly is a doll in the story, who wishes to be bought and owned and loved. Ivy is an orphan child, who likewise wishes to be looked after and loved, and Mrs Jones is a woman with no child who wishes for her own. The three strands tie together to create a little Christmas tale with a happy ending. It may sound sentimental, and does massively affect the heart strings, but the narration is so pure that you forgive any play on the emotions.

The Story of Holly and Ivy1
Reassuringly confident, Rumer Godden takes the role of the omniscient author, addressing ‘you’ the reader and speaking of ‘I’, the storyteller, as she explains what you and/or I would feel, and what she knows that Ivy does not know. Her gentle tones sweep the reader through the story. Some of the most stunning lines of the story have a presence today that the author could not have anticipated when she wrote it in 1959:
“They did not know, and Abracadabra [the owl] did not know that it is when shopping is over that Christmas begins.”
And my Christmas wish is for the publisher to realise the strength of this story and to commission a new and upcoming modern illustrator, and repackage the book for the next generation. Although it’s available on an e-reader (and I truly believe e-readers have their place for many texts), this book deserves to be given as a gift, shared with siblings, and pored over in book form.

The Story of Holly and Ivy3

The cover version Young Puffin shown at the top is my old copy from the 1970s, illustrated by Sheila Bewley, but out of print. This edition, Viking, 2006 was illustrated by Barbara Cooney and is available in some shops, although there seem to be more copies available in the US than here in the UK. An ebook edition is available.