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December 19, 2007

What books should your young children be reading this Christmas? Harry Phibbs makes his selection

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Generally I am all for the abundance provided by capitalism but I think there may be something in the concern that it means children become overloaded at Christmas with brightly coloured, high tech plastic rubbish so that walking over their bedroom floors means shuffling through layers of the stuff - rather like leaves on the pavement outside in the preceding season.

The answer is to give books not toys. Good old fashioned heroism remains there in abundance. For a fine example see The Children of the Night by Madsen Pirie (London: Arctic Fox Books, 8.95 - Already reviewed on this site.) Pirie's principal heroes were children but a rat also had a prominent role.

Steve Cole was the voice of a Dalek before becoming a children's author. Full marks to him for giving heroic status to animals that might have been thought of as a bit lumbering. He has written a series called Cows in Action.

Then there is the Astrosaurs books. The combination of dinosaurs and astronauts must have had the publishers thinking "Kerr-ching!" This thought made me suspicious that the stories themselves might not be up to much but I enjoyed Astrosaurs: The Claws of Christmas (Random House, 4.99). There was plenty of page-turning cliff-hanging adventure with the odd joke thrown in:

You keep eating the Christmas trees before I can finish decorating them.
If boys like space ships and dinosaurs, the great thing for girls is a story about a princess. But on the whole you are best sticking to classic fairytales about princesses. Beware of those that attempt to put princesses into a modern "relevant" context. The Princess Poppy Gift Collection by Janey Louise Jones (Random House, 9.99) is not about a princess at all but an ordinary girl doing ordinary things. Rather in the tradition of Milly Molly Mandy but not as good. But I think this is an example of where children are different. Most I think would prefer something with more escapism - castles, dragons, flying through the air - but you need to consider whether the 0-5 year-old in question would or not.

Children's books usually combine some kind of moral message with telling a story. It is possible to get away with doing this by getting into the mind of the child and seeing the world in their terms.

Michael Morpurgo is an old pro at this. His latest offering is Born to Run: The many lives of one incredible dog (Harper Collins, 10.99). The story begins with a boy jumping into a canal on his way to school and jumping into a canal to save a bag of drowning greyhound puppies.

For younger children there are fewer words on few pages. But the books cost more because they are huge hard books with bright colours, glossy paper and huge pictures some of which even pop out.

Oliver Jeffers volume this year is The Way Back Home, an account of a boy flying up to the Moon by mistake and meeting a Martian there who had also landed on it by mistake (Harper Collins, 11.99). Small children have a clear idea that the moon isn't really very far away - no further than an aeroplane or a cloud. This book will entrench this error but I don't think that matters unduly - more important that children enjoy being read to and learning to read.

For those parents who think the key point about bedtime stories is getting their children off to bed then I would recommend Goodnight Baby Bat by Debi Gliori (Doubleday, 10.99). Baby Bat resists going to bed before snail, caterpillar, spider and the moon.

For something with a mildly Christian element try Angela and the Baby Jesus by Frank McCourt (Harper Collins, 12.99). The Irish are natural story tellers and the Irish accent comes into your head as you read the words on the page. It tells the story of a girl who felt sorry for the baby Jesus in a crib in the Church and so took him home so he would be warm.

The market for children's books may be lucrative but it is also pretty competitive. Most of us sensibly buy children's books that we ourselves enjoyed as children. It is good to see Paddington Bear is not only going strong and that Michael Bond has written a couple more to look forward to for next year. Classics are a safe bet but if children need more to read there is plenty of new talent out there on the shelves.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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Being a mother of two growing up children, I am always very concerned about what they read. Inculcating the love of reading is something that I have always paid attention, being an avid treader myself. Couple of days back, my mother bought this book Beyond This Point There Be Dragons for them. This is a wonderful book for kids. And then I checked out the website www.beyondthispointtherebedragons.com/ . It has some great illustrations.

Posted by: Amy at March 6, 2008 08:15 AM
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