Gift ideas

1st December 2000 at 00:00
The best Christmas stories release children from commercial frenzy and transport them into a world of wonder and awe. They can have a remarkably calming yet uplifting effect. Picture books in particular, which can be shared in cosy corners on dark afternoons, can help to create a quiet space amid the excitement, leaving room for imaginative reflection. The best picture books for this Christmas will easily sustain a child through the season, with illustrations and text they can return to time after time.

How the Reindeer Got Their Antlers by Geraldine McCaughrean, illustrated by Heather Holland (Orchard Books pound;9.99) is a wonderfully uplifting and moral tale that combines the story of Creation with that of St Nicholas. To show he loves animals equally and to stop any squabbling, God gives them all crowns - a wreath of fur for the lion, a scarlet coxcomb for the rooster.

But the reindeer are so ashamed of the "lopped tree" God places on their heads that they hide in the coldest, most barren regions of the world until they are called on to rescue a man with a red coat and a white beard in a sleigh. This sweetly resonant narrative from McCaughrean is transformed into magic by Holland's gentle, inventive and beautifully composed pictures.

Ian Beck has produced another winning "Teddy" adventure with Lost in the Snow (Scholastic Press pound;9.99). This one is a real winter warmer - the story of Teddy's rescue by Father Christmas (although we never see more of Santa than his gloves) after he is left by Lily on a frozen window ledge while she goes out to play in the snow. Bang goes the window and off goes Teddy on another quest that soon turns chilly and lonely. Beck produces pictures and text of stunning, vibrant economy. Their simplicity speaks volumes and enables children to read and re-read without tiring. This will become a seasonal must.

Crispin: the pig who had it all by Ted Dewan (Doubleday pound;9.99) is a wild, witty tale of a pig who wants for nothing. Crispin has more toys, more computer games, more of the latest snacks and a bigger house than any child in the neighbourhood, and every Christmas he gets more. He grows bloated and bored until one Christmas he receives only a large empty box - his life is about to change.

Dewan has produced a masterful morality tale for modern times. His witty, highly expressive compositions add up to a withering commentary on materialism. A wonderful book to provoke much-needed discussion at this time of year.

Eric Carle again commands the total engagement of children with his latest picture book, Dream Snow (Hamish Hamilton pound;14.99), the story of a farmer's dream of snow falling until he and his animals are covered in a deep, white shroud. When he wakes, the dream snow has turned into real snow and he springs into action, transforming himself, his animals and all around him.

Ghostly tales, acts of courage or cunning and general high drama are always good value at Christmas, and David Wood's The Phantom Cat of the Opera, a retelling of the classic story illustrated by Peters Day (Pavilion pound;12.99) is a theatrical, feline (all the characters are cats) and spirited interpretation. Wood's text is succinct, yet retains the flavour of the original as Christine, a young and gifted operasinger, is entrapped by the troubled spirit that haunts the Paris Opera. Day's pictures unfold like a series of richly illumined stage sets, his painterly line and deep, jewel-like colours lighting the story with fresh magic and vigour for older children.

A clever and imaginative Puss in Boots by Philip Pullman, illustrated by Ian Beck (Doubleday pound;10.99), exploits all the pantomime theatricality of the tale. Jacques, the youngest of three brothers, is left nothing but the cat in his father's will. But Puss turns out to be the greatest asset of all. Pullman employs his usual pace, verve and clarity in a text well matched by Beck's illustrations, which have a formal, 18th-century quality. A not-to-be-missed title for children across the primary age range.

Older children might also appreciate a surreal and spine-chilling Jack and the Beanstalk by Anthea Bell with illustrations by Russian artist Aljoscha Blau (North-South Books pound;9.99). The inventive, yet dark, nightmarish quality of Blau's pictures - the ogre's kitchen equipped with sinister instruments; the ogre's masked wife, bones in her apron pocket - remind us of the gritty folk tale behind the familiar nursery and pantomime story.

Magic of a different kind is present in a refreshing interpretation of the tales of King Arthur from the point of view of the women who peopled his court. Women of Camelot by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Christina Balit (Frances Lincoln pound;12.99), is a striking and decorative account of Arthurian chivalry by some of its leading ladies - Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, Igrayne, Elaine and others. Determined and resourceful, these women provide a fresh layer of enchantment, love and hate. An absorbing winter read.

There are plenty of illustrated Christmas anthologies on the market, collections of favourite seasonal poems and stories of widely varying quality. Michael Foreman's Christmas Treasury (Pavilion pound;12.99), reissued for this year, must be one of the best. With poems such as "Snow in the Suburbs" by Thomas Hardy; "A Christmas Carol" by G K Chesterton and prose passages such as Laurie Lee's childhood Christmas from Cider With Rosie as well as Foreman's own deeply moving extract from War Game, describing Christmas in the trenches during the First World War, there is plenty of food for thought. It is sensitively illustrated throughout in Foreman's atmospheric and narrative style.

For an anthology with the underlying theme of Christ's birth, The Lion Storyteller Christmas Book by Bob Hartman, illustrated by Susie Poole (Lion Children's Books pound;10.99) offers rich, poetic yet lively versions of the Nativity stories. It includes the tales of Good King Wenceslas and of Old Befana, who is too busy sweeping to journey to Bethlehem with the Kings, and legends from Europe and the Middle East. A splendid reflection on the richness and depth of the Christmas tradition across countries and centuries.

Jesus by Brian Wildsmith (Oxford University Press pound;10.99) portrays the life of Christ in a series of brightly coloured scenes, framed by gold. Each frame, reminiscent of an early gothic style, presents cameos of events enriched by Wildsmith's inspired sense of decoration. Pictures to be dreamed over, and meditated upon, over and over again.

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