Too many turkeys in Yule's stable diet

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
Andrew Davies gets his Claus into this year's children's books about Christmas. Giving children books for Christmas is a perfectly sensible thing to do. With any luck they might even read them, which will give you a chance to doze off after the port and nuts.

Unfortunately, though, the more useless kind of aunt or uncle, the sort who have forgotten what it's like to be a child, may well buy "Christmas books" for their luckless nephews and nieces, and there are plenty of unscrupulous publishers who are willing to aid and abet them.

There are several sorts of Christmas book. The worst of the lot are the ones that churn out yet more versions of the birth of Jesus Christ. Look, we know the story, all right? And it isn't very exciting or funny, is it, really? Yes, yes, the mystery of birth, and one does not want to begrudge the illustrators their chance to show how good they are at donkeys and shafts of light streaming out of stable doors, but honestly, there must be a lot of reluctant thank-you letters written by the recipients of Nativity books. The worst I could find was The Christmas Story, a tiny Dorling Kindersley book (no author credited) which illustrates the story with strikingly naff photographs of fat pasty kids dressed up as shepherds, kings, and so on.

If you have any relatives you'd really like to annoy this Christmas, this one would be a bargain at only Pounds 1.99.

Nicola Smee's The Christmas Story (with fold-out pages, Orchard Books Pounds 5.99) is a more tasteful effort altogether, though one does get a bit irritated that all Smee's characters have the same round innocent face with dots for eyes, even the cow. Jesus is baldly stated to be the Son of God in that one, whereas in The First Night (Viking Pounds 8.99) he's just "the baby".

The richly glowing paintings that illustrate this book are "by Steve Johnson with Lou Fancher" which intrigued me more than somewhat. Who did which bits, one wonders. An appealing, if redundant, book.

Francesca Crespi's The Nativity (Frances Lincoln Pounds 9.99) sports "six glorious 3-D tableaux" in her relentlessly charming faux-naif style. The usual story is recounted in wooden prose. Two years ago Frances Lincoln brought out The First Christmas, with text from the King James Bible illustrated by paintings in the National Gallery. And now we have Jesus of Nazareth from the same stable, as it were, this time going right through to the Ascension, with paintings from the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

They include a couple of lovely Annunciations, one by Filippo Lippi, a wonderful Gerard David showing Mary and Jesus sharing a bunch of grapes while Joseph appears to be playing golf in the background, and a really disgusting Crucifixion by Sano di Pietro (1404-1481) with blood spouting in a great arc out of Christ's chest. Well worth Pounds 12.99 for the reproductions of some great but unfamiliar paintings. What sort of child would clap its little hands at the sight of it, though? My advice is buy it and keep it for yourself.

The Wonderful Pop-up Christmas Crib (with press-out characters and a story book, Hodder Stoughton Pounds 9.99) is very much what you'd expect. Mary and Joseph "were engaged to be married . . . 'But I am not married yet,' whispered Mary in surprise. 'How can I have a baby without first having a husband?' 'Your baby will be the son of God on earth,'" replies Gabriel evasively. I like pop-up books, but in this case I think I would have preferred an exploding version.

The next batch is crib-free, but still clogged with Christmas. Teddy's Christmas, a pop-up book with "mini Christmas cards", by Pete Bowman (Tango Books Pounds 8.99) is a disappointment. The mechanics of the book work well, but the ideas are banal. Teddy goes out in the snow and delivers Christmas cards to his friends. They are all out. That's it. That's the whole deal. Pathetic.

Santa's Christmas Journey by Penny Ives (Tango Pounds 9.99) is a scrolling picture book. Great fun to operate, and again the technology worked well. The artwork is lively, but the story is wearingly predictable. What a shame. The message for Tango is clear; get a writer on the case.

Sarah Garland's Doing Christmas - nice title - is a straightforward picture book (Bodley Head Pounds 7.99). I have clearly come very late to this successful domestic series about a slightly shambolic one-parent family. In this one, Granny comes. She has bags of style, drives a red sports car and drinks a lot of red wine. Then she goes home. That's it, unless I missed something. I found it very likable but a bit inconsequential.

I prefer a bit more story myself: Middlemarch, say. Or The Vampire's Christmas by Willis Hall (Bodley Head Pounds 8.99), a splendid comic novel. I'd only known Willis Hall as a prodigiously gifted dramatist, so it's a pleasure to find that he has a supple, witty, confident prose style. Great illustrations (of course) by Tony Ross.

Why do I feel so resistant to Susan Hill's The Christmas Collection? It is beautifully produced (Walker Books Pounds 14.99) with dark green endpapers, and exquisite wood engravings by John Lawrence. Everything about it murmurs: "I am a Gift Book in the Best Possible Taste". There are five stories in it, they are all beautifully written, as you would expect from Susan Hill, and they are all about bloody Christmas.

I'm the Real Santa Claus, (North-South) on the other hand, disarmed me. It's by Ingrid Ostheeren (Swiss) and illustrated by Christa Unzner (brilliant). Santa goes delivering in the big city and finds it full of bogus Santas. A cop gives him a parking ticket. He nearly gets arrested for giving dolls to children. He gets mixed up with three Santas who are robbing a bank, and he gets away with a lot of the loot. He becomes very bewildered indeed. Happy ending, of course. A pleasure to read, and to look at. And I must mention A Pussycat's Christmas (Frances Lincoln Pounds 8.99) by Margaret Wise Brown, though I found the text mannered and twee, and not really about anything much. It's just an excuse for Anne Mortimer's ravishing pictures. There's one of the little cat outside the window asking us to let it in, tapping with its little pink paw, that's just . . . sorry. Sorry. I'll get on.

A Cracker Full of Christmas Stories (awful title) was compiled by Pat Thomson, (Doubleday Pounds 8.99) who has already laid A Stocking Full of Christmas Stories on us. Enough is enough, Pat. Stop it now. Some of the stories are quite good, some are awful, one (by Richmal Crompton) is a work of genius, but a whole book of stories all about Christmas is tedious and indigestible, like eating six Christmas dinners.

Margaret Mahy's The Christmas Tree Tangle (Hamish Hamilton Pounds 8.99) is a daft tale about a lot of animals getting stuck up a Christmas tree. It is written in appalling doggerel, but I found myself starting to grin a bit by the end.

I don't like Anthony Kerins's illustrations, though. His animals look as if they've been stuffed, and his people look as if they've been embalmed.

The Winter Sleepwalker by Joan Aiken (Cape Pounds 9.99) is just the job if you like Joan Aiken, which I do: eight new quirky fairy tales illustrated in colour by Quentin Blake on top form.

Snowy (text by Sheila Lavelle, pictures by Susan Scott) is a haunting little book about Emma, who finds a little white dog on her roof one Christmas morning. It is simply told, and beautifully illustrated, but it is a bit too sad for me. Snowy does not like it here: it is not cold enough for him. He stays a whole year and then the next Christmas Eve he goes back on the roof again. He had fallen out of the sleigh a year ago, you see. There is a very affecting picture of Emma in her stripey pyjamas having a last cuddle with Snowy before he goes. "She knew she would miss him, but only one thing really mattered. Snowy was on his way home." Hm.

Finally, a brief round-up of some goodies and not-so-goodies: Jo's Storm by Caroline Pitcher and Jacky Morris (Bodley Head Pounds 8.99) is an elegant and exuberant picture book; The Snowchild by Debi Gliori (Frances Lincoln Pounds 8.99) is tenderly told and wittily illustrated; A Night in the Dinosaur Graveyard by A J Wood and Wayne Andersen (Templar Pounds 9.99) has good illustrations, 10 genuinely spooky holograms, and is even rather well written. It's For You (Andersen Press Pounds 9.99) by John Talbot is a highly original and very desirable combination of picture-book and puzzle book. I am saving it for Christmas Day when the more intelligent Davieses will be around to help me with it.

For older children, both Ghostly Haunts (Pavilion Books Pounds 12.99) and The Young Oxford Book of Ghost Stories (Oxford Pounds 12.99) provide rich and substantial collections of good, classy, classic ghost tales. Jolly good value. But Raymond Briggs's The Snowman . . . Things to Touch, Feel, and Sniff (Hamish Hamilton Pounds 4.99) is a blatant rip-off.

Bah! Humbug!

TES December 2 1994 Sacks appeal: the hero of I'm the Real Santa Claus, by Ingrid Ostheeren, illustrated by Christa Unzner I I spots one of the few adults around who are able to believe in him

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