Turn the pages to a festive spirit

24th November 2006 at 00:00
Huw Thomas recommends books to share with primary classes before Christmas

On Angel Wings

By Michael Morpurgo

Illustrated by Quentin Blake

Egmont pound;4.99

The Fourth King: The Story of the Other Wise Man

By Ted Siegler

Walker Books pound;10.99

A Christmas Carol

By Charles Dickens

Illustrated by P.J.Lynch

Walker Books pound;14.99

Baby Christmas

By Michael Lawrence

Illustrated by Arthur Robins

Orchard Books pound;10.99

The Little Reindeer

By Michael Foreman

Andersen pound;5.99

Every Christmas a fresh crop of books appear that undertake the task of finding new paths through this well-trodden territory, and once every few years a retelling of the Christmas story treads such a path. When, as with On Angel Wings, the teller is Michael Morpurgo, with Quentin Blake's illustrations, you would expect something special. Building upon the Gospel narratives, this story homes in on the shepherd lad left looking after the sheep while everyone else trots off to Bethlehem, until Gabriel steps in and organises a trip to the stable.

It is the conversations that make this book: shepherd to shepherd, angel to shepherd boy. The scene in which the boy meets the holy family is a masterpiece of dialogue. The text is full of the sort of warmth generated by down-to-earth humour, such as when Gabriel's greeting, "Sorry to drop in on you unexpectedly".

In Quentin Blake's illustrations, repeated contrasts of greys and gold portray what happens when heaven touches Earth. There is a gentle seriousness of tone to these images. Blake does this so well and is all the more special as it is the rarer strand of his work.

Ted Siegler's The Fourth King (main picture) also diverts from a well trodden path. This king, Mazzel, becomes separated from the traditional Magi, when he stops to rescue a nomad girl.

The following, quirky journey will amuse children, with caricatured landscapes and fold-out pages that play jokes on the reader, leading to Mazzel's liberation of slave children and saving of the infant Jesus.

Mazzel never finds out what became of the baby he saved, but in other ways he receives fulfilment in a story that jumps out of the nativity and lands itself skilfully in the heart of the Gospel's message of love and justice.

Another seasonal story that is well known but continues to be rediscovered anew is Dickens's A Christmas Carol. The new edition illustrated by P.J.

Lynch captures the story with detailed illustrations that capture the tale's mood swings. This is a beautiful book.

Baby Christmas finds another original path through the tale by giving us insight into the next generation of Santa's family. Arthur Robins' manic illustrations perfectly complement the chaos wreaked in Michael Lawrence's story, as Santa's son accidentally flies away with baby Rudolph. The search is imaginatively depicted and the book uses a clever variety of picture styles and text directions to match the actions.

Michael Foreman also finds an original and distinctly urban way into the story of Santa's reindeer, now in a new paperback edition. The Little Reindeer ends up in a modern city, cared for by a young boy.

Foreman has a knack of presenting moving stories in mellow tones that keep his work from becoming oversentimentalised. The juxtaposition of tradition and modern city make this book an example of the way in which tales and traditions can be revisited with passion and flair that breathes new life into them Huw Thomas is headteacher of Emmaus Primary School, Sheffield

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