Elske: Great Books to Buy Your Kids for Christmas

Finding books to buy for my kids is turning into an ordeal. I didn’t grow up in a bookish house and, though I remember reading The BFG and The Worst Witch, until I reached my teens, my reading material consisted predominantly of gardening books, cookbooks, an illustrated Bible and Victorian classics that I only vaguely understood.

So when my own children ask for more books, I don’t know what to buy, and end up choosing at random from bookshop sections for their age groups. There are the Mr Gums, the Horrid Henrys, and a string of popular, hilarious-and-gross books from David Walliams – all big hits – but when all the on-trend series have been read, I am at a loss.

My eldest is nearly ten, his brother nearly nine and the baby is three. There are plenty of books to please the three-year-old, whose literary taste is, in any case, somewhat generous (the book of the film Finding Nemo is a current favourite), but I can’t keep up with the other two.

This year, enormous chunks of my time have gone into researching children’s literature. I have spent hours reading book reviews online, making inept Google searches like “best books for 8- to 10-year-olds” (which inevitably lead to hard-selling publishers’ websites) and asking anyone I know the title of their favourite childhood book. Now, with the Christmas stockings still a little roomy, I have been sent trawling the internet again.

To save other parents and gift-buyers the same hassle, I have compiled a list of the tried-and-tested recommendations that have resulted from a year of kid-lit-swatting. They are books chosen for their reviews or recommendations from friends, and all have been read and approved by their target readers. I have tried to include books that are not necessarily in fashion or just out. I think this is probably more useful than listing the books currently on display in bookshops.

Newborns

Generally, babies love being read to. The sound of a familiar voice is soothing, and the metre of verse by the likes of Julia Donaldson and Dr Seuss often more so, but they cannot see pastel colours or complicated images.

The discovery that babies enjoy contrast, rather than colour, was made back in the 1980s, and recent research is once again telling anxious parents that high-contrast visual stimulation is not just a way of keeping newborns occupied, but can also help to map their capacity for spatial relations, perception, coordination, communication and general cleverness. Yes, it all smacks of the pushy parent, but it is also, by most accounts, a theory of sound base.

Proper baby books are enormously boring-looking things and generally don’t contain many words, but they are available under less-obnoxious titles than the Baby Einstein series, and are of genuine interest to tiny babies.

So far I have not come across any that combine iambic verse with high-contrast images, but many a conscientious parent will no doubt be very grateful for a carefully sought-out mind-stimulating book for their newborn, and it is probably a better investment than an “I Love Mummy” bib or babygrow.

Hello Baby: Mirror Board Book by Roger Priddy is non-gimmicky. The images seem harsh and sometimes ugly to me, but to newborns they are fascinating, and provided they don’t get covered in regurgitations, the mirrors are an added bonus.

Black on White and White on Black by Tana Hoban are sturdy foldout books. To an adult eye, the images are less aggressive than some other books designed on the same principle. Hoban’s layouts are, in fact, oddly appealing and beautifully balanced, alternating solid, recognisable shapes like a leaf, with stencil-like images.

New Life: An Anthology for Parenthood edited by Sally Emerson is, incidentally, a genuinely great gift book (and they are few and far between) for new parents. In certain aspects, the topic of parenthood is oddly under-represented in literature, but here Emerson gathers an eclectic mix of poetry, folk songs and prose: some classics that are a delight to reread and, for me, some discoveries I was glad to make.

Ages 1–3

That’s Not My Puppy . . . Its Coat Is Too Hairy by Fiona Watt is an infuriatingly simple, transferable concept that never fails to engage tiny kids over and over and (patience required) over again. Each page offers a different texture that is not the right one, until the reader arrives at the final page: “That’s my puppy!” Of course Watts has now penned a whole array of “that’s not” spin-offs – “That’s not my dinosaur” or “That’s not my bunny”. It’s this kind of thing that gives children’s writing a name for easy money-making, but it is a true favourite for lots of babies.

A Fly Went By by Mike McClintock is a wonderful tale narrated by a little boy who makes it his business to help when a terrified fly whizzes by crying “Oh dear!” and shaking with fear. The problem is not simple, and, as he investigates, the boy discovers a series of frightened creatures, each fleeing something behind them. The narrator follows the chain of fear and discovers that no one is chasing anyone – everyone is just running from a misunderstood sound.

The simple, repetitive story and satisfying rhymes make A Fly Went By appealing and easy for very young children to follow. With dialogue from lots of different animals, there is loads of scope for reading this aloud with different voices and animal sounds. I love the expressive, old-school illustrations and the calm, rational attitude of the little boy.

Written in 1958, there are some non-PC references, with talk of a “whipping” that the fox might receive, and some Christian undertones in the form of an innocent, truth-telling lamb, but the overall message, that fear drives aggression, is very simply and beautifully communicated.

This book is sometimes marketed as a read-it-yourself for 4- to 6-year-olds.

Jolly Olly Octopus by Tony Mitton and Guy Parker-Rees is actually a counting book, but as such it pretty much fails – there is so much going on in these pages that I think the number sequence would be lost on most youngsters.

Mitton and Parker-Reese are a prolific pair and have worked together on a number of uniformly gentle and good-natured kids’ books. With the joyful, catchy rhythm and simple story, this one is one of my favourite stories for babies. “Underneath the ocean, down beneath the sea, one wriggly octopus is giggling with glee,” and as the infectious laughter spreads, the dancing, giggling and silliness disarms the threat of violence from an approaching shark.

Ages 3–5

As far as I can tell, there are two recurring narratives in books for this age group. One is the story of losing and then finding a person or place. The other, is about negotiating the tensions between the essential “wild” self and the civilisation that must contain it.

The Somethingosaur is also by Tony Mitton, but I have to include it here, because it’s one of the best “where’s my mummy?” stories that I have come across. Mitton’s poetry is lively and touching and beautifully musical. We begin with an ornate egg that “crick crickle crackle”s until out hatches a creature of unknown species, the somethingosaur.

The little fellow’s early days are tough as he approaches hostile dinosaurs and traverses barren plains in search of his “ma”. At last he is brave enough to approach a terrifying cave and is rewarded with a tearful dragon mother (he was no dinosaur after all!) who greets him, “My dear little dragon my baby my child/ You’ve found your way home through the wastes and the wild”, and the two cuddle up close.

The story is made genuinely moving when combined with Russell Ayto’s atmospheric illustrations – an empty baby crib and mobile in Mother Dragon’s room, and a lonely little beetle who scurries along beside the somethingosaur. While Guy Parker-Reese creates a world where nothing is hostile, the richness of Ayto’s images allows further depth to come up through Mitton’s text.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendack received negative reviews and was even banned from some libraries when it was first published in 1963, but was pushed to classic status by its popularity with young children.

The poem tells the story of a badly behaved little boy called Max, who was sent to his room as punishment for “wild” behaviour, and for threatening to “eat up” his mother. Trapped in his room, hungry and seriously angry (the illustrations are magnificent), Max retreated into his imaginings, where he played out his omnipotence fantasies, and became the king of all the wild things. But Max was lonely, “and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all”. He smelled good things to eat “from all around the world”, and sent the wild things to bed.

Perhaps the key to the book’s success with children, is the assurance that self-regulation will protect us (i.e. the child reader/listener) from our own wildness. In a world of his own choosing, Max begins to behave like his mother, and the wild things begin to behave like him. Max’s love for his mother is revealed when his mirror-monsters cry, “We’d eat you up we love you so”.

Returning to his room in his “private boat”, Max discovers a hot supper waiting for him. The conclusion is a needy mummy’s dream: mother love draws him home, and he is glad to be there.

Mr Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown reverses the process of Where the Wild Things Are. This time we open in a grey world of order. Brown’s idiosyncratic style expresses perfectly the upright dullness of the civilised world. Mr Tiger is a gleeful pop of orange, creepily hatted and jacketed – it makes social order seem perverse.

When Mr Tiger’s wild ideas, like swimming in the fountain, get too much for his friends, he is ostracised and leaps into the vibrant, lush wild. The illustrations tell the story here, and they tell it beautifully, in a style incorporating the thrilling savagery of Henri Rousseau and the precision and minimalism of Charley Harper.

A lonely Mr Tiger returns to the town to find that a wonderful thing has happened – his straight-laced friends have caught some of his wild ways!

Ages 5–7

The Heart in the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers is pitched slightly older than his popular How to Catch a Star books. Here, the spreads are complex and focus on the interplay of darkness with light. With sparse text, direct but understated, the book gently explores losses that are never recovered and warns of the cauterising effect of refusing to feel sorrow. The power of this book is in the beauty of the illustrations, the simplicity of the metaphor and the non-threatening, third-person angle from which the subject of loss is approached.

Roddy Doyle’s The Giggler Treatment is a remarkable feat. Perhaps Doyle’s interest in literacy has contributed to the extraordinary accessibility of this book, which, by repeating and slowly expanding its vocabulary, makes reading alone seem much more achievable. A laugh-out-loud book is a rare thing, and rarer still, a book that is simple enough in language and complex enough in content to engage barely reading children from beginning to end.

The charming little “gigglers” employ a dog called Rover to help them dole out “treatment” for badly behaved adults. But this time, they’ve got it wrong, and if the mix-up isn’t sorted out soon, poor innocent Mr Mack the biscuit-taster is in for a smelly surprise.

The Giggler Treatment is a cut above other poo-talking and adult-toppling books for this age group, a pleasure to read aloud and a great, rewarding introduction to reading alone.

Mudpuddle Farm by the prolific Michael Morpurgo is another book carefully tailored to make early reading less daunting. The six animal tales are a bridge between picture books and “real” books. Heavily (and aggressively) illustrated, simple and wacky, but presented in a thick grown-up book, they are bonkers as far as I can tell, but really popular and engaging for kids.

Age 7

Dear Hound by Jill Murphy was a lucky find. I came across it on sale when looking for more from the Worst Witch series.

Remember The Worst Witch? Most 1980s babies will. They are those cosy, magical, beautifully illustrated, misfit tales of Mildred Hubble, her friend Maude and their adventures at the straight-laced academy for witches. The book was, rightfully, a massive hit for years, and there are loads of sequels – something I didn’t know until recently. My eldest read them all and loved them, but his brother wouldn’t open them because there is a girl on the cover . . . but he read and loved Dear Hound.

Well, there is more from this wonderful writer and artist. Her latest novel tells the story of a dear deerhound called Alfie and the love between him and his boy, Charlie. Murphy’s writing is characteristically simple and expressive, conveying poor Alfie’s angst with occasional all-caps dialogue. And she’s still got it – the charming black-and-white line illustrations are a joy. They appear on every spread, extending the simple text and making this an excellent choice for young readers.

(Incidentally, remember those The Large Family elephant books – odd, guilt-inducing little stories of the self-sacrifice involved in parenting? Who were they for? The kids or the parents? The illustrations were stunning. Well they were by Jill Murphy too, back in the day.)

Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery by Deborah and James Howe, was recommended by a close friend as her favourite childhood book, and was an immediate hit with my then seven-year-old, who was simultaneously amused and creeped-out by this strange tale. He read the book twice and summoned us into his room to listen to him read the most chilling and “hilarious” bits.

The 1979 cult classic is as weird as it is entertaining. Our narrator, Harold the dog, has turned to writing because he knows that someone has to tell the full story of what happened in the Monroe household after Bunnicula the rabbit arrived. The happily oblivious Monroes have taken a strange nocturnal creature into their home – not only does he have two tiny fangs and cape-like markings, but by daybreak the vegetables in the kitchen have been sapped of their juice.

Only Harold and Chester the cat know the truth, and their attempts to save their owners remain misunderstood by the short-sighted adults of the story.

Tiger, Tiger by Lynne Reid Banks is a classic tale of twins separated and doomed to diametrically opposed prince and pauper fates. Set at the time of Caesar, the book explores the brutality within power and ownership, when twin tigers are ruthlessly separated by the emperor. One is used as a pampered pet; the other is abused for the amusement of spectators at the Colosseum.

The complexity of cultural relativism is entirely left out here. Somehow the human saviour, Aurelia, rejects her father’s culture and feels an unlikely distaste and horror for animal cruelty and the persecution of Christians. Modern as her beliefs may seem, she is also irritatingly “girly”, relying on her love-smitten male slave to sort things out.

That is my adult perspective on it. I have included the book in this list, though, because it worked for my children, who both listed it amongst their favourite books. They were intrigued by the historical background, and engaged by a story that spoke to modern sensibilities.

After reading it, they went on to seek out more information on ancient Rome (The Rotten Romans by Terry Deary). The book is advertised for older children, but the humanoid animals and perfect princess probably wouldn’t hit the right note for children over 10.

Age 8–9

The Blue Horse by Marita Conlon-McKenna is much braver than it is given credit for.

I remember someone saying that they wanted to become a Traveller when they read this book, but I fail to see why. Conlon-McKenna does not glamorise Traveller life; nor does she condemn the culture. Her focus is solely on the protagonist and her struggle to cope with events outside her control. When her family’s caravan burns down, Katie’s mother decides to take a house for the sake of her children, and her father, refusing to break with tradition, leaves them.

Any child readers I have talked to about The Blue Horse seem to think that Katie has extreme difficulties to deal with: social ostracism, parental strife and material insecurity. The book takes lots of cheap tugs at the emotional heartstrings, but, in a way, this is all for the better.

My son was enthralled by The Blue Horse, calling it “as good as Under the Hawthorn Tree”. Which is to be taken as high praise indeed.

The Flying Classroom by Erik Kästner is a lesser-known and, by all accounts, just-as-exciting novel from the mastermind behind Emil and the Detectives, and Parent Trap.

The Flying Classroom is set in a deliciously kooky boarding school with lots of out-of-line fun, secret meetings and darkly weird characters that thrill young readers. It is a bittersweet story about subversion, censorship, friendship and the difficulty of being brave when you are at your most scared, all written with such gentle and good-natured lightness that it is ideal for this age group.

Kästner’s books were burned in Nazi Germany, as “contrary to German spirit”. My eldest son is thrilled with this – claiming that they were burned because they taught children to think, and that they would thereby realise the Nazis were baddies and “not go along with it”. More likely, it was because he was a cartoonist ridiculing Hitler, an outspoken pacifist, and a signatory of the ‘Urgent Call for Unity’. Either way, for a child learning about WWII, Kästner’s bravery makes him a hero.

Ages 9–10

Hitler’s Canary by Sandi Toksvig is a page-turner, a tear-jerker, and an immensely important testament to the human capacity for bravery.

It seems as though half the books for kids this age relate to WWII, and, important as that is, it can be very heavy reading for people so young. Hitler’s Canary is perfectly pitched, and Toksvig’s subject is the human capacity for good, rather than the horrors of that time. Based on what she knows of her own family history, the author has written a part-memoir about the incredible moral courage shown in Denmark during the war – a widespread resistance that resulted in 98 percent of Danish Jews surviving Hitler’s best efforts at their destruction.

Although dealing with a weighty subject, the novel is neither depressing nor gratuitous. Told through the eyes of Bamse, a 10-year old boy (Toksvig’s grandfather) the story begins in a theatre, and this trope (history as a stage?) continues throughout the book. The details of the resistance provide all the suspense of a gripping thriller, and the bravery of the novel’s heroes is all the more moving for remaining faithful to the complexity of experience.

Unusually for a children’s book, there is a stolid refusal to either sugar-coat or simplify history: “This is my story. It is my story of when the war came to Denmark in 1940. The Second World War. I can’t give you the whole picture of what happened, just what I saw and what people told me. There are hundreds of personal stories from that time, but this is not one in which all Germans were bad and all Danes were good. It didn’t work that way. There were just some good people and some bad people and it wasn’t always easy to tell the difference.”

What is really telling about this book’s power is that six months after reading it, my son still comes out with little comments about it, parts that he has been musing over or reflecting upon: “So in that canary book, his mother told him not to get involved, but she was involved all along. She was trying to protect him, but protecting him from doing the right thing is not really good or is it Mammy? That’s not right or is it?”

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia is a seriously impressive feat. The narrator, 11-year old Delphine, is a full and wonderfully engaging character with impressive but plausible self-awareness: “I’m sure it’s my plain face that throws them off. Not plain as in homely plain, but even plain. Steady.”

Delphine and her two little sisters, Fern and Vonetta, are sent to stay with their runaway poet mother “who is no kind of mother” in Oakland in the summer of 1968. Delphine is the only one who remembers her: “Papa didn’t keep pictures of Cecile but I had a sense of her. Fuzzy flashes of her always came and went. But I knew she was big, tall and Hershey colored like me.”

The book raises complex questions about ethnicity and cultural identity and does nothing to apologise for the mother’s need for selfhood outside her children, and the terrible reality of being unwanted. This strikes me as a brave and original move. Too often in children’s books, the protagonists discover some true and reliable mother, but the truth is that some mothers “didn’t ask for all of that”, and not every child gets a good deal.

Delphine faces her lot, chooses resilience and wins. It is her lack of self-indulgence and firmness of character that make her an instant heroine. The story of the children’s abandonment is rendered with perfect balance through her voice:

“It’s hard to believe the last time they’d seen each other, Fern had been a loaf of bread in Cecile’s arms. That’s how uncle Darnell told it to me. Some pieces of it I even remember. How Cecile had nursed Fern, burped her and placed her in her crib before leaving us. It’s funny that Cecile had at least thought to give Fern her last drink, but at the same time left her wanting her milk. Now they stood across from one another: Cecile towering over Fern with her arms crossed, and Fern looking up at Cecile.”

The girls have been raised by their grandmother never to make a “grand negro spectacle” out of themselves – they are, after all, representing their whole race. But over the course her month in Oakland, caught up in political struggles and with two younger sisters dependent on her, Delphine begins to see the inequality that needs to be fought, the spectacle that needs to be made, and to understand the complexity of personal responsibility, play her part, and learn the other truth about the missing pieces of her past.

The book is always true to the child’s experience of the adult world. There are some phrases and references (Cassius Clay, “colored”, Timex) that Irish children might not be familiar with, but they are things that are picked up along the way. There is nothing esoteric here, only clear, poetic prose and the tough affirmation that life is often made up of things we “didn’t ask for at all”.

No one asked to be born, no one asked to be persecuted, and the girls certainly didn’t ask to go to Oakland, but by the end of the book Cecile has bequeathed something precious to her daughters.

The Summer of Lily and Esme by John Quinn is perhaps a little well-known to go on this list, but it is a very special book, and I couldn’t leave it out. I have allowed myself to put it in here because I noticed, the last time I was in a bookshop, that there was only one copy of it, tucked away at the back, so I wonder if it is still being brought to the attention of children and their parents.

The emotional impact that this book had on my children was shocking. When I found my eldest son weeping in bed while he read, for a fleeting moment I regretted buying it. Perhaps it has something to do with his closeness to his great-grandmother, but he was pretty shaken up by the book. He refused to put it down though, and maintains that it is “lovely because you see how everyone is kind of the same even though they are at different parts of their life. Like the old ladies are so sweet and it is so sad then. Like I am nine now but I still have me when I was little inside me. Like folded up.”

Lily and Esme are elderly twins, both suffering from dementia, and Alan, our protagonist, is at first bewildered and miserable to find that these are his summer neighbours, “but then he realises that they are actually really nice and actually sweet and funny”, says my middle son. Their loving care for one another, their kindness, and their glee at apparently new experiences makes the two quickly appealing, and a genuine friendship begins to develop between the boy and the two old ladies, who, at times, believe themselves to be 11 years old again. When they begin to call him Albert, Alan glimpses a great pain from their childhoods. To help his friends to find peace, he sets out to recover the mystery of the missing Albert.

Quinn’s prose is beautifully paced and understated, and he captures the heartbreaking fragility of life with his light-handed description of the frail old ladies and the trinkets and memories that he is left with: “He closed the box and thought of a brighter summer day when puffball clouds sailed across the sky and a young girl in an old woman’s body dreamed of sailing to France on a cloud to see what it was really like . . .”

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Author:

Elske Rahill: Elske Rahill’s short stories have appeared in a number of literary journals and anthologies in Europe and the US. She is the author of the novel Between Dog and Wolf (Lilliput Press, 2013) and her short-story collection In White Ink is coming out this October (Lilliput Press/Head of Zeus).

Reader responses

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Tom Weaver
at 16 December 2015 at 13:20

Two more books for children (and some adults) are:

The Book with No Pictures by B. J. Novak. I received this for Christmas from my grandchildren last year and it has been a hit. The idea is that the adult reads the book and has to do what it says. What it has you do is say meaningless words in funny voices and so on. Everyone who gets it read to them ends up laughing out loud. My local library got a copy and it has been a hit with whoever checks it out.

Finding Winnie: The Story of the Real Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Lindsay Mattick and Susan Rich. A true story of how a bear cub in White River, Canada got the name Winnie, ended up in the London Zoo and became the inspiration for Winnie-the_Pooh. There is a even picture of Winnie with Christopher Robin Milne and A. A. Milne standing in the background.

Thanks for the book reviews. Finding worthwhile children’s books is always somewhat hit or miss and having a good list like this is VERY helpful. Thanks.

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