A sense of wonder

25th November 2005 at 00:00
Huw Thomas selects midwinter tales bleak and merry to share in primary classrooms for the rest of term

The Christmas Story

By Ian Beck; Picture Corgi pound;5.99


By Geraldine McCaughrean Illustrated by Christian Birmingham; Doubleday Pounds 10.99

Ituku's Christmas Journey

By Elena Pasquali; Illustrated by Dubravka Kolanovic Lion Children's Books pound;9.99

The Wild Girl

By Christopher Wormell; Jonathan Cape pound;10.99

Nikolai of the North

By Lucy Daniel Raby; Hodder pound;12.99

Charles Dickens: The Man Who Invented Christmas

By Andrew Billen; Short Books pound;4.99

Horrible Christmas

By Terry Deary and Martin Brown; Scholastic pound;12.99

A Christmas Compendium

By J John; Continuum pound;9.99

An African Christmas

By Ifeoma Onyefulu; Frances Lincoln pound;10.99

Light Unlocked: Christmas Card Poems

Edited by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Lawrence Sail; IIllustrated by John Lawrence; Enitharmon Press pound;10

Ian Beck complements a straightforward retelling of the story of the first Christmas with striking illustrations. Richly bordered pages frame bright lively scenes, giving the book the feel of an illuminated manuscript.

Characters move through winter snow, shepherds bring lambs that catch the reader's eye, one of the wise men rides an elephant: details such as these generate a renewed sense of wonder. The final illustration brings the story up to date by drawing in a scene from a school Nativity play.

Equally beautiful illustrations, this time by Christian Birmingham, work with Geraldine McCaughrean's retelling of the story of King Wenceslas, which hinges on the interaction between the old king and young Peter, the page who is drawn along on a journey of fear and struggle. The language is rich with the balance of outside and inside, cold and warmth, locked rooms and wild blizzards, as the King takes Peter on a journey from the glowing tones of the palace, through freezing pages of purple and blue to return to the warmth of a fireside shared with a stranger. In McCaughrean's Wenceslas we have a memorable character and the story succeeds in tapping a deeply spiritual root, as the big-hearted king calls on followers to "step where I stepped".

Another hard winter journey forms the basis for Elena Pasquali's tale, Ituku's Christmas Journey. This modern Wenceslas is an Inuit child seeking the King of Heaven, on a quest filled with encounters that resonate with Gospel stories: she meets shepherds, a friend of fishermen, menacing soldiers and a fox with nowhere to lay its head. By dislodging Christmas from the Nativity, Ituku's story becomes a sensitive evocation of the journey as spiritual quest. Dubravka Kolanovic's soft pastel illustrations, which add to the gentleness of the story, take a medium regularly used by children and show the excellent use to which it can be put.

Chris Wormell's The Wild Girl may not be a festive story, but it is a seasonal one, and deeply moving. In an unspecified wilderness, a girl and a dog share a cave with some fleas. There is no explanation of their lack of family and origins; their solitude is evoked touchingly by the scenes of the mountainsides and the empty valleys where they spend their days. When the snow comes, they become part of a bigger family by reuniting a bear and her cub. The girl is a delightful character with great appeal to children, who can discuss her mysterious circumstances over and over again.

Children will also warm to Nikolai of the North, a young elf separated from his people, and his tale of stolen childhood and magical revolution. This lively novel is ideal for key stage 2 upwards, with plenty of potential for reading aloud. It takes features of good fantasy, such as the evil queen and the special child (it emerges that Nikolai is the child Santa Claus) and gives them a decidedly upbeat twist. It soon recovers from a slow start, avoids too much sentiment and leaves us with a tale that is earthy and believable, as well as magical.

Andrew Billen's Charles Dickens: The Man Who Invented Christmas is timely as Bleak House turns into EastEnders. With a firm grip on a good story, Billen retells the tragic childhood and eventual success of the great writer. This is another good text to read aloud before the end of term. A fair chunk of it is devoted to A Christmas Carol, Billen's recommended starting point for readers new to Dickens. One of a series of engaging biographies for older juniors and above, this is a concise and packed account embracing adventure, trivia and a sensitive handling of Dickens's love life. There are also reflections on literature, including an anecdote that gives struggling readers permission to skip passages.

If your school is preparing displays or productions that explain the origins of traditions, Terry Deary and Martin Brown's Horrible Christmas puts the Nativity, Santa, trees, crackers and other customs in the firing line. Well known traditions are unpicked and less familiar ones introduced, all with irreverent digs at the heavy hands of authorities who have tried to manipulate tradition.

A similar exploration aimed at adults can be found in JJohn's Christmas Compendium, an addictive miscellany that nudges us back towards the origins of Christmas in a way that isn't preachy or patronising. For a more global picture, Ifeoma Onyefulu's An African Christmas unpacks the Nigerian custom of Mmo dancing with the same quality of photography that made her A Is For Africa such a success.

Don't be put off by the subtitle of Light Unlocked: Christmas Card Poems.

No bile-prompting sentimentality here, rather a gathering of poems that contemporary poets have written to send as festive cards. The anthology gathers together the characteristic word-play of Roger McGough's "Dada Christmas Catalogue" alongside challenges to Christmas such as Benjamin Zephaniah's proclamation "All days are created equal". These complement the equally challenging "Advent Calendar", in which Rowan Williams expects the coming of the Christ-child in arresting language. This beautifully presented, thoughtful collection provides the perfect antidote to the domestication of this special season.

Huw Thomas is headteacher of St John's CE primary school, Sheffield

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