Peter's friends

4th December 1998 at 00:00
Original ideas for Christmas are as difficult to find as original ideas for pop-up books. Robert Sabuda manages to surprise and delight in both categories with The Christmas Alphabet (Barefoot #163;18.99). Pure white pop-ups set against a plain coloured background focus attention on the simple brilliance of his paper engineering.

Each spread features four doors that contain an alphabetically organised Christmas pop-up. The absence of publisher's hype quietly seduces you into the hushed white world of this amazing book. I was moved by the genius of these highly original pop-ups, and they all work extremely well, even when handled roughly. The bell sways in its belfry and the snowmen raise their hats in greeting. The price-tag might seem steep, but as the hand-assembled book contains 26 pop-ups, it's astounding that you can buy such high-quality art for such a low price.

As a Dr Seuss fan, I then had a rude awakening when opening The Pop-Up Mice of Mr Brice (Collins Pounds 11.99), a bogus reworking of one of Seuss's minor books. Children will be frustrated by the many pop-ups that jam up and don't work. Most of Collins' UK editions of Seuss are woefully substandard, and while they continue to do injustices to Seuss's genius, my advice is to slip into GOSH! Comics on London's Great Russell Street and sample the shop's complete stock of Seuss American imports.

Ruth Brown's golden One Little Angel (Andersen Pounds 9.99) simply and gently tells the tale of a reluctant angel who refuses to greet the baby Jesus. Eventually she becomes intrigued by the spectacle of the Nativity and comes down to Earth with a sudden ingenious story twist. Brown's mastery of her medium and subject compensates for the unsympathetic design of the book. Her acrylic, watercolour and gesso primer technique has a heavenly ambiguity while delivering strong characterisations that shine with pathos.

Nick Butterworth has excelled himself with Jingle Bells (Collins Pounds 10.99), in which two clever mice and a wise, if ersatz, Zen rat cook up a cunningly hostile gift idea for the local bully cat. Butterworth's art here is more atmospheric and three-dimensional than it is in his early Percy books, with its palpable winter mist and dramatic shed interiors. Fun background details will ensure pleasurable re-reading for adults and children alike, and a jingle bell provides sound effects.

Jan Fearnley's Little Robin Red Vest (Methuen Pounds 9.99) is a tale of selflessness that rolls along with the simple profundity of a great Beatles song. At first, the scratchy ink-and-watercolour illustrations misled me into underestimating the book, but I was surprised by the grace and power of this tale of Little Robin having his red "vest" knitted from Santa's own cloak as a reward for his generosity. A real winter warmer that deserves to rank with the great timeless Christmas stories.

Jan Brett graces Clement Moore's Yuletide favourite, The Night Before Christmas (Macdonald Pounds 4.99 paperback) with her over-the-top Christmassy illustrations. This sugared eye-feast has integrity born of careful thought and attention to detail in the watercolour artwork, which will ensure many re-readings.

Finally, Ian Beck has illustrated one of the all-time classic re-tellings in Peter Pan and Wendy (Orchard Pounds 12.99). Rose Impey's text will inspire the interest of today's children in Peter Pan: The Book, while keeping it set in an Edwardian Never-Never Land. Beck is one of Britain's finest book illustrators, looking at once classical, child-friendly, and in step with a twinkly 1990s style that he was in part responsible for inspiring. The charitably minded will be delighted with the royalty each Peter Pan sale delivers to The Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children.

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