A black angel? Pigs might fly

5th December 1997 at 00:00
Geraldine Brennan picks out children's books that will slide easily into Christmas stockings

Misery is when you go to the department store and find out that Santa is a white man," wrote Langston Hughes in 1969. Today, Christmas artefacts from the Holy Family crib figures to the angel on top of the tree continue to come out of the same Anglo-Saxon cloning machine. "Why are they always pink?" asks Tyler in An Angel Just Like Me by Mary Hoffman (Frances Lincoln Pounds 9.99).

Tyler has better luck than Langston Hughes in Santa's grotto: his Christmas wish comes true in a refreshingly un-twee story which treats the more subtle workings of discrimination with a light hand. It is still easier to spot a flying pig in a department store than a black angel but Frances Lincoln is working on the buyers for next Christmas. The publisher has also commissioned sculptor Lindsey Kidd (who, with her husband Richard, created Monsieur Thermidor) to assemble a very small shining throng, one of which appears on the cover of TES2 this week.

For angels of non-specific colour with plenty of narrative thrust, try The Subtle Knife, part II of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (Scholastic Pounds 12.99) and God's Story by Jan Mark, a retelling in novel form of the first stories drawn from the Old Testament, the Midrash Rabbah (Walker Pounds 10.99). Both solid, absorbing holiday reads.

The Greatest Gift: the Story of the Other Wise Man (Barefoot Pounds 9. 99) is itself a gift for Christmas assembly, which is why Susan Summers, a former teacher, first adapted it from Henry van Dyke's classic story of Artaban, who was just behind Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar until he stopped to help a sick traveller. This retelling, with glowing illustrations by Jackie Morris, has Barefoot's usual high production quality and will be an enduring record of virtue and perseverance rewarded.

The imposing new Nutcracker illustrated by Roberto Innocenti (Jonathan Cape Pounds 19.99) is also a pleasure to handle and will withstand many Christmas read-aloud sessions. Innocenti catches the darker side of Hoffman's tale, with even his surrealist Sweettown oozing with menace. This, and the complex layers of the story, may mean that only older keen readers will want to tackle it alone. Those who enjoy it may also relish Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost, illustrated by Inga Moore, in the elegant Walker Treasures series of pocket classics (Pounds 7.99 each).

Similarly, the witty wordplay and anthropological musings of Tony Meeuwissen's parlour-game picture book, Remarkable Animals (Frances Lincoln Pounds 9. 99), will be lost on younger children attracted by cross-breeding "amazing amalgamations" from weird-sounding but real creatures such as the Trunkfish, the Moohoohoo and Ruby Topaz. This is the Opunkfin, observed by Meeuwissen: "These animals hang for hours by their tails. If threatened, they exude a poisonous slime that repels any would-be predator. Encased in armour, they rather partial to a glass of good port and a pipe of tobacco."

More instant child appeal is needed for tired and cross holiday moments. Alfie's Alphabet by Shirley Hughes ("A is for Alfie and his little sister, Annie Rose") is a bargain remedy at 99p in the Red Fox Mini Treasures series, which also includes David McKee's Two Monsters. And McKee's hot-and-cold frolic with his patchwork elephant, Elmer and the Snow, is now in paperback (Red Fox Pounds 4.50).

Katie Morag and the Grand Concert, the latest Katie Morag MacColl tale from Mairi Hedderwick (Bodley Head Pounds 9.99) will soothe end-of-term performance nerves and party frock traumas. Regular visitors to the Isle of Struay will note the new pier's effect on the island economy. Not only teas in the Lady Artist's studio, but a bistro. Whatever next - a supermarket? But, thank the angels, Katie Morag will never change, even if Struay gets the motor car and a branch of IKEA.

Motley the Cat by Susannah Amoore and Mary Fedden (Viking Pounds 10.99) has the same timeless charm and a blissful marriage of text and illustration which milks an everyday tale of cat's flirtation with humans for all the drama it's worth. When it seems that there cannot be room for yet another cat book, remember that Motley is "a cat of quite exceptional power and magic".

No tricks (well, just one) in The Best-Ever Book of Magic (Kingfisher Pounds 9.99), but a Palladium full of practitioners from Merlin to David Copperfield, hey-presto design and a thorough research job by Magic Circle member Peter Eldin.

And it seems that animation isn't magic after all, but hard graft, as Wallace would say. In the absence of a new Wallace Gromit film for Christmas Day, see the director's cut of A Close Shave in the Storyboard Collection, edited by Brian Sibley (BBC Pounds 16.99), and find the missing 20 minutes. Worth the money for its frame-by-frame analysis if you know a child interested in animation.

Finally, more close-ups of a celebrated illustrator's 20-year achievement, and many loving memories, in Allan Ahlberg's tribute to Janet Ahlberg, his late wife and collaborator. The delightful, touching Janet's Last Book, only available in a limited edition last year, is now published by Penguin (Pounds 9.99).

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