From Preston to Lapland

6th December 1996 at 00:00
Look beyond the "Books for Christmas" displays and trawl the best of the year's output for end-of-term prizes, treats, bribes and even presents.

Best stocking fillers among the plethora of pocket editions are the Mini Treasures, classic picture books from Red Fox (99p each). David McKee's Not Now Bernard and Dr Xargle's Book of Earthlets by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross are among the gems on the list.

Tomorrow's classics must include Willis's desperately silly tale, The Pink Hare, illustrated by Ken Hare (Andersen Pounds 8.99), and Babette Cole's Drop Dead (Jonathan Cape Pounds 9.99), which won the Kurt Maschler Award this week. A subversive guide to ageing and the afterlife, it will be appreciated by most members of the family.

Colin McNaughton's Oops! (Andersen Pounds 8.99), a Smarties Gold Award winner, continues the manic saga of Preston the accident-prone pig and the pop-eyed Mister Wolf with a crash, bang and wallop. A noisy diversion for partied-out but hyper under-fives.

To continue the wind-down, try Polar Animals (reindeer are not only for Christmas) and Rainforest Animals, new De Agostini poetry picture books vibrantly illustrated by Paul Hess (Pounds 4.99 each). As always in this series, there is lots to look at: left-hand-page panels show each species in its group, while the end-papers reveal all the animals in their habitat. But it's a continuing irritation that the poets are not credited as their rhymes appear. Gail Kredenser's ABC of Bumptious Beasts appears frequently in the sources listed at the front ("The secret of the polar bearIs that he wears long underwear").

The compact reference books in Dorling Kindersley's Pockets series (Pounds 4.99) slip nicely up the sleeve to be produced during the traditional Boxing Day Trivial Pursuits row. Sports Facts and Essential Facts are most useful for general know-alls; Astrology will give a star-crazy teenager technical assistance, with lavish attention paid to mythology and symbolism.

Catherine Called Birdy (Macmillan Pounds 3.99) will also help see early teens through the Christmas afternoon slump. The diary of a medieval knight's daughter struggling against the restrictions of her age, it's a boisterous, breathless, touching tale. As the reluctant Birdy, who is happier running wild than doing her tapestry, is prepared for the marriage market, there are glimpses of the foreign country called 13th-century England.

A chapter in more recent history - with echoes for today - is captured in The Opie Library's beautiful 25th-anniversary edition of the great blues poet Langston Hughes's last work, Black Misery (OUP Pounds 8.99). Hughes's captions for Arouni's watercolour illustrations were written in the heat of the integration battle ("Misery is when you see that it takes the whole National Guard to get you into school"), but their perceptive snapshots of the more subtle effects of racism do not date ("Misery is when you hear on the radio that the neighborhood you live in is a slum"; "when you find out that Santa is a white man"; "when you learn that you are not supposed to like watermelon but you do").

Gregoire Solotareff's Father Christmas: the Truth (Macmillan Pounds 9. 99) is a refreshing festive tonic for all ages. The chunky, tongue-in-cheek alphabetical reference guide confirms that the elusive man in red is just like everyone else: he has nightmares, he can't resist a new pair of boots or a crusty baguette, and he likes a bit of solitude now and then.

Father Christmas's finely tuned relationship with his elves, documented in Solotareff's punchy, sardonic paintings (see TES2 cover), is that of the strict but fair mentor. There's room for them all: the bright elves who invent gadgets, the lazy ones, the scared ones who call him Mummy, and the large group who "like fooling around so much that it can be tedious". Say no more.

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