Fabulous festive fiction

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Jane Doonan selects Christmas picture books to share with pupils or give as presents


The Christmas Story By Ian Beck. Doubleday pound;10.99

More Precious Than Gold By Gillian Lobel. Illustrated by Julie Monks Hodder Children's Books pound;9.99

Silent Night By Sandy Turner. Walker Books pound;10.99

Father Christmas's Last Present By Marie-Aude Murail and Elvire Murail Illustrated by Quentin Blake Jonathan Cape pound;7.99

The Miracle of the First Poinsettia By Joanne Oppenheim Illustrated by Fabian Negrin Barefoot Books pound;10.99

Saint Nicholas: The Story of the Real Santa Claus By Mary Joslin. Illustrated by Helen Cann Lion Publishing pound;9.99

Papa Panhov's Special Day Adapted by Leo Tolstoy from Ruben Saillens, retold by Mig HolderIllustrated by Julie Downing Lion Publishing pound;4.99

Is It Christmas?

By John Prater Bodley Head Children's Books pound;10.99

You Can Do It, Sam By Amy Hest. Illustrated by Anita Jeram Walker Books pound;10.99

Little Robin Red Vest By Jan Fearnley. Egmont pound;4.99

The Little Reindeer By Michael Foreman Red Fox pound;5.99 (mini edition)

A Redwall Winter's Tale By Brian Jacques Illustrated by Christopher Denise Red Fox pound;5.99

Wonderful seasonal picture books are as thick on the ground this winter as the snow children dream about. In The Christmas Story, Ian Beck blurs the boundaries between picture-book art and drama to irresistible effect. The layout is designed as a succession of double-page scenes in decorative borders, showing characters posed like actors in a tableau vivant. He begins with the Annunciation in Mary's garden - a paradise of leaves, flowers, fruit trees, and birds which could have come straight from an early Renaissance tapestry. The drama gradually unfolds until, through the magic of the page-turn, the final scene is set on stage at the Reception class nativity play, complete with a cardboard dove.

More Precious than Gold by Gillian Lobel takes slightly older children on a journey alongside the Magi to discover the true meaning of love. Thanks to young Caspar, the Kings' gifts include the small animals they have tended along the way. Julie Monks's illustrations have a deceptive simplicity, generous scale, and subtle colour: violet, chalky lilac, ochre and crimson.

The traditional Silent Night is anything but, in Sandy Turner's wordless (but not soundless) new cartoon-format version. It makes a perfect present for "dogophiles" and "dogophobics" of all ages. On Christmas Eve, all is calm when a stranger lands on the roof in his "sledgemobile", descends the chimney and heads for the bedrooms. The family pet is a small dog with a ferocious bark. What could possibly happen next?It must be a true story because there's a scrap of red cloth caught on the back end-paper, torn from the intruder's trousers by the demented dog.

The enigmatic text of Father Christmas's Last Present will appeal to those who think an unsolved mystery is more enticing than a solved one, and to those who believe in Father Christmas (in which case, here is the proof).

Quentin Blake's apparently spontaneous pen and watercolour sketches double the pleasure. Julien thinks he knows exactly what he's up to when he writes to Father Christmas, but one year he gets a surprise - and so do his parents. As Julien discovers, the best things don't necessarily come in big parcels, and this small-format book with cloth-board cover and cream paper would make a very special present in itself.

The Miracle of the First Poinsettia is set in Mexico on Christmas Eve.

Juanita's family is so poor that she has no gift for the baby Jesus at the altar. How can she attend Midnight Mass? This child (who is a gift in herself) has courage enough to carry weeds into the church and is rewarded with a miracle. Fabian Negrin's illustrations feature fire and candlelight effects in sonorous golds and orange, while the images themselves have a sculptural quality. This is a perfect story to read at assembly and, in a different vein, so too is Saint Nicholas. In an easy direct style Mary Joslin retells the story of the real Santa Klaus, who came from Asia Minor in the fourth century, and explains why we still hang up Christmas stockings. Helen Cann's illustrations, with their elegant design and ethnic details can be enjoyed after assembly is over.

Papa Panhov's Special Day, which was originally written by the French author Ruben Saillens, then adapted by Leo Tolstoy and now retold by Mig Holder, shows how divine love can be expressed through simple human actions. This is a good book to explore in literacy, PSHE or RE in the run-up to Christmas. Julie Downing's paintings are in colours which look faded by time.

Is It Christmas? by John Prater is a seasonal addition to the Baby Bear series, and there are further heavy snowfalls to be negotiated in You Can Do It, Sam by Amy Hest. This is a companion book to other adventures with a young bear called Sam.

Jan Fearnley's Little Robin Red Vest and Michael Foreman's The Little Reindeer are in miniature editions that make good Christmas competition prizes, while Brian Jacques' A Redwall Winter's Tale could slide into a stocking.

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