Z The Christmas story lends itself to any number of variations. I particularly remember one desperately imaginative primary school Nativity play that featured a heavenly throng of moon-walking astronauts. But in Joy to the World (Frances Lincoln Pounds 12.99), Saviour Pirotta's collection of Christmas stories from around the globe, the only extra-terrestrials are the angels. The stories - a wonderfully mixed bag of traditional tales and legends from Syria, Malta, Mexico, Ghana and Russia - have a reassuringly down-to-earth feel. With Sheila Moxley's easy-to-understand, vibrantly-coloured illustrations, each simply-told story finds a different way to celebrate feelings of gratitude, goodwill, friendship, generosity and compassion.
These are qualities that consistently elude the homeless refugee child in Carly by Annegert Fuchshuber (Feminist Press Gazelle Book Services Pounds 12.99). Alone in a war-torn country, having lost both home and family, Carly sets off bravely in search of help. As a lonely, starving child from a different culture, she doesn't seem to fit in with any of the communities that she encounters. At every turn she is ignored, rejected, misunderstood, seen as a threat to society or simply as a nuisance that must be swept out of sight. This is an eloquent parable, well worth tracking down. Its powerful imagery is frighteningly familiar from news bulletins. But not too frightening. Importantly, the final glorious pages offer Carly genuine, unquestioning acceptance.
Carly certainly wouldn't have got much of a welcome from the spoilt princess in The Frog Prince (North South Pounds 9.95Pounds 5.50). In this (the original) version of the Grimms' fairy tale, translated by Naomi Lewis, the princess doesn't kiss the frog - she flings him so violently against a wall that he turns into a prince, and then hops eagerly into her bedchamber. Full of as much detail and symbolism as you care to explore, this is a strangely beautiful picture book in which the artist, Binette Schroder, cunningly uses the angles created by the turning pages to give the illustrations a stunningly theatrical sense of perspective. The eye is led through the enchanted forest, along endless avenues, through the marbled halls of the palace, out into the moonlit night and on towards morning, where, against a Rex Whistler-ish fairy tale landscape, a carriage awaits the happy couple.
While The Frog Prince gives you a glamorous front-row seat at the pantomime, Bravo Zan Angelo! by Niki Daly (Frances Lincoln Pounds 10.99) offers an irresistible backstage glimpse into the lives of a commedia dell'arte street theatre group in 16th-century Venice. Little Angelo, who longs to be a clown like his grand-father, pesters him for a part in the show: Arlecchino perhaps? Or Pantalone? Or Pulcinella? At last a very special role is created for him and he gets a costume and mask of his own from the exciting workshop of Zanetti, the mask-maker.
Niki Daly's witty sepia drawings recall not only the lively graphic skills of the 18th-century master Tiepolo, but also the warmth and humour of (the rather more recent) Edward Ardizzone. Elegant calligraphy and stylish endpapers (the often blank pages at the start and finish of a book) give additional finesse to this uplifting festive tale.