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December 15, 2006

Children's Christmas Books: Harry Phibbs selects the best - and the worst - of this year's crop

Posted by Harry Phibbs

With Madonna and Kylie Minogue, celebrity children's books appear all the rage this year. Harry Phibbs suggests some alternatives.

It is often lamented that children spend less time reading than earlier generations. The arrival of the internet, videos, DVDs, broadband, cable, satellite, digital, etc, is supposed to mean that books are uncompetitive. There is also the suggestion that with more single parent households, long working hours and selfish parents indulging themselves with active social lives the time spent reading to children and teaching them to read has been squeezed.

I'm not so sure. The mass affluence has meant more books as well as everything else. Does more mean worse? No. All the classics are in print and doing well alongside some terrific new ones lavishly printed, beautifully and amusingly illustrated and very well written.

People may be busier but also work has become more flexible with more working from home. Fathers are far more actively engaged in child rearing and seem particularly patient about story reading.

Schools may be worse than ever at teaching children to read - but there is also greater awareness of this and acceptance that it can't safely be left to schools but must be taught at home.

Almost as widespread as the claim that books are going out of fashion is the claim that Christmas is. The main story in the tabloids has been of such a craven attitude to multicultural political correctness that Christmas is the one religious festival denied acknowledgement in schools and Council offices.

Maybe, but visit Waterstones or Hatchards and you will see the Christian message is coming through loud and proud in the children's books sections.

Illustrator Jan Pienkowski's The First Christmas (Penguin, 10.99) is absolutely beautiful. The words are taken entirely from the King James Bible. So for traditionalists this must be the children's book to give this Christmas. A dark stable is flooded with light from Joseph's lantern as woodland animals look on, while Angel Gabriel adopts a lively, dynamic pose as the figures of startled shepherds cower beneath him.

On Angel Wings (Egmont Children's Books, 4.99) offers a modern version of the greatest story ever told. It is written by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Quentin Blake. A grandfather tells the story of how he had been tending sheep with his own father and brothers when they were visited by the Angel Gabriel. Although initially stunned, the shepherds were persuaded to visit Bethlehem, where a baby had been born who was the son of God.

As the youngest, Grandpa is left to watch the sheep alone, while his family go to visit this Christ child. However, Gabriel, realising his distress at being left behind, takes him on a journey he will remember for the rest of his life.

Those who want something seasonal but not specifically Christian might like Tiger in the Snow by Nick Butterworth (Harper Collins, 10.99). For very small children it concerns a tiger going for a ride on a sledge.

Similarly there is the Raymond Briggs classic The Snowman (Puffin, 5.99) But this is not the appropriate choice for encouraging your child to read as it consists entirely of illustrations.

Often these days books are merged into toys. In this years crop we have The Little Red Train Magnetic Playbook by Benedict Blathwayt (Hutchinson, 9.99). It explains that play is "integrated into he narrative". Hmmmm.

Then there is Snow is My Favourite and My Best (Charlie and Lola) (Puffin, 14.99) which goes even further and is a sort of pack of which the book element is limited. I suppose the argument is that, where children are hostile to reading, this is a way of weaning them onto it. I'm not so sure. Where there is a short attention span is more distraction the answer?

For slightly older children one popular book this year has been You're a Bad Man, Mr Gum by Andy Stanton (Egmont, 4.99). Mr Gum is a thoroughly unpleasant character who lives in a house infested with insects but gets hit with a frying pan by a fairy and attempts to poison a dog. The story is in the broad literary tradition of Roald Dahl.

Another big seller has been The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers (10.99, Harper Collins). It concerns a boy called Henry who loves the taste of books and finds that eating them increases his knowledge. On the back cover there are teeth marks showing a missing chunk eaten by Henry and the illustrations include a picture of his stomach with books in it.

Some are concerned that children grow up too quickly in this age of mass media and pushy parents. One thing we should surely protect them from is the obsession with celebrity. Actress and singer Kylie Minogue has written a children's book, following the example of Madonna. The work is entitled Kylie: The Showgirl Princess (Puffin, 12.99) and the publishers declare it is:

Brimming with positive messages such as believing in yourself and the importance of friendship and teamwork, the Showgirl Princess tells the story of how Kylie becomes a showgirl princess with the help of her dedicated team.
Writing a story book about tour managers and sound engineers shows a terrible poverty of imagination.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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