Lasts longer than the leftover turkey;Ideas for Christmas;Books

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
Ted Dewan and Philip Pullman (below) get their teeth into some pictorial festive fare that should still be on the menu this time next year

Each year, publishers perform a highly dangerous ritual - publishing Christmas picture books. The deadly trap snaps shut a few days after Christmas, when nobody wants them around any more. The few that survive may sell on year after year. Here are three that could see the Christmas lights more than once.

Hilary Robinson and Anthony Lewis's e-mail: Jesus@Bethlehem (MacDonald Young Books pound;9.99, pound;4.99) is a thoughtful and heartfelt survey of the way the news of Jesus's birth would have spread were he born today, via satellite, the web, and other modern communications. If the method of dissemination would be very different to that of 2,000 years ago, the message would be the same.

e-mail: Jesus@Bethlehem provides a charming insight into the way a big news story travels around the world. Angels wear headsets, peck at laptop computers, and run the newsrooms, offering just the right tone of respectful light-heartedness. Lewis's competent Ahlberg-ish style helps make this a far more moving and substantial Christmas book than the photo-realistic dead donkeys that usually bury Jesus on his birthday.

The late US authorillustrator Richard Scarry is celebrated in a terrific posthumous British edition of The Night Before The Night Before Christmas! (Collins pound;10.99). Scarry is famous for his encyclopedic studies of everyday life in a wonderfully busy world, populated by immensely appealing animal characters. In this book, he ventures successfully into narrative - superklutz Mr Frumble sends Santa Bear off one day earlier than usual and has to do the (botch) job himself.

Collins has given this edition the highest quality production Scarry's work has ever enjoyed. His older hand-colour-separations have a certain charm, but this title is far more clear and vibrant. Scarry's appeal is eternal, and of the three Christmas titles mentioned here, this tale of multiple Christmas cock-ups should be the biggest hit with children.

If you prefer a more straightforward Christmas book, Maja Dusikova's Silent Night (North-South pound;9.99) is highly recommended. The text is Joseph Mohr's 1818 carol, and Dusikova perfectly captures the atmosphere of late Christmas Eve. This might just be what you need to introduce young children to the Christmas story. Where many Nativity picture books opt for bland jollity and rosy-cheeked donkeys and kings, Dusikova's excellent draughtsmanship and soft-focus watercolours give the story quiet strength.

The following are not specifically Christmas books, but would make good gifts or end-of-term treats. Christopher Wormell's Blue Rabbit and the Runaway Wheel (Jonathan Cape pound;8.99), the third Blue Rabbit book, is exquisitely illustrated and stylishly designed. His excellent woodcut prints are lithe, expressive, and a joy to look at. The story shoots off like a rocket, as Blue Rabbit's runaway bicycle wheel wreaks havoc. Unfortunately, the tale fizzles out at the end, but the art and the rest of the story get top marks.

Michael Morpurgo and Christian Birmingham whip up a big-screen bushfire Down Under in Wombat Goes Walkabout (Collins pound;10.99). Contemplative Wombat, having been dismissed by his colleagues as an unskilled lump, manages to save them all from fire when his denigrated digging skills suddenly find a heroic use.

Birmingham's masterful impressionistic illustrations create the sensation of intense hazy sunlight and shadows as they would appear to the dazzled eye (a welcome sensation in the midst of our northern winter). Oranges and purples tickle the retinas while the characters convincingly deliver Morpurgo's dialogue - no mean feat, as Birmingham leans towards realism rather than anthropomorphism.

On the opposite side of the visual spectrum, Niamh Sharkey's angular paintings make for a stylish re-telling of Jack and the Beanstalk (Barefoot Books, pound;9.99). Richard Walker's energetic text fills in some of the gaps in the traditional story (just how did Jack haul all that stuff down the beanstalk?) and tells it in a fun way without resorting to tacky wackiness. But the dominant narrative voice is Sharkey's.

Sharkey appeared on the picture book scene with another enormous vegetable, The Gigantic Turnip, which won her the 1998 Mother Goose Award. Her character design is startlingly original and appealing. She's one of the most exciting new artists published in Britain today, and I'll be surprised if we don't see many clones fairly soon.

There can't be too many picture books out there in the genre of surreal historical fiction. Alexis O'Neill and Nancy Carpenter's marvellous book, Loud Emily (Simon amp; Schuster pound;8.99), is set in a prosperous New England whaling community in the early 19th century. O'Neill tells the story of a little girl's heroic use of her extremely loud voice aboard a whaling ship (she winds up as a human foghorn).

Carpenter's paintings are described as "incorporating elements of the naive style of 19th-century American paintings and portraits", which might, at first, sound deadly dull. Far from it - she exceeds the achievement of Martin and Alice Provensen, who first used folk-art style to effect in a picture book.

Her paintings have humour, exciting geometry, and hilarious detail that will reward many re-readings. There are historical notes about the New England whaling industry and the contemporary paintings that inspired Carpenter, as well as a glossary of period nautical slang.

And don't just flip past the scrimshaw-style end papers that show Loud Emily and the sailors in a shanty singalong. This book has great value as both a good yarn and non-fiction, and it costs less than nine quid. Smart, lively, and remarkable.

Ted Dewan is a creator of picture books and one website,

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