The Twelve(ish) Books of Christmas

This blog is rather unapologetically taken over by Christmas at this time of year, and I realise the posts have got rather repetitive (though rest assured I am not missing out on my annual wreath round-up, no siree). 

And then I remembered I had not done a post about my favourite Christmas books. Hurrah! Problem solved. And then in a piece of perfect serendipity, I was reunited with a favourite Christmas book I’d loved and lost years ago: 

 

The Lion Christmas book was a book I poured over for hours, all year round – if I ever wanted to evoke the spirit of Christmas, I simply picked it up and dipped in.

It is the perfect Christmas anthology in that it has a balance of stories, crafts and baking ideas, poems and non-fiction (‘Christmas traditions around the world’, etc).

There is a lot of religious content, but much of it used to explain Christmas traditions – the origins of St Nicholas, the legend of a frosty spiders web inspiring tinsel – and it tells the Christmas story beginning to end, including Herod and the flight to Egypt, so it pulls no punches there.

It is sentimental, terribly naff and much too godly for my tastes now, but I still love it. I was thrilled to find a copy on a charity bookstall and after years of wondering if I’d ever see it again, am delighted to own my own copy once more.

The first Christmas book I remember, though, I have never parted with (and no intention of ever doing so). I was surprised to discover that my copy from 1981 is a first edition, I assumed it was much earlier than that, as the feel of it is more 1950s-60s.

Nevertheless, Lucy and Tom’s Christmas is very reminiscent of my 1980s childhood in lots of ways, but with an added bit of Shirley Hughes magic – look at those lush borders around the edge of the page, hung with gingerbread men and all sorts of other goodies. 

In Shirley Hughes’ world, there are always roaring fires to come home to, snow at Christmas, real candles on the tree, (who ever does that, nobody in 1981 that I knew of) and Salvation Army bands playing in the town centre. 

None of that was really part of my childhood, but the book still takes me back there in other ways, as there is much that reminds me of the Christmas build-up – the home-made cards, the nativity scene, the waking up early on Christmas morning. 

It’s the tiny details that make this book lovely – the cotton wool snow and gold paper star on the Nativity is a particular favourite picture of mine, but it is also famous for acknowledging the times when Christmas isn’t so much fun.

Tom has a meltdown and goes out for a walk with Grandpa. As the book says ‘Just the two of them. The sun is very big and red’.

Simple, beautiful, and instantly brings back the memories of Christmas tantrums or cooking disasters or sickness (and she never ate blackcurrant Fruitella again), but also pitches you into a moment of pure sentiment if you, like me, wish you could have had just one more Christmas with your grandad or granny there.


Moving on from the slightly melancholic to cheerier things, I bring you Mog’s Christmas. This is much more Christmas as I knew it in the 70s/80s – more garish and kitsch, with streamers, balloons, tinsel and paper pom-poms, but rendered in Judith Kerr’s trademark soft pastel shades, it feels very homely and familiar. 

There is still snow, of course, and the story is so slight you could blow it away like a snowflake, but who cares, it’s Mog, and I love her.

That covers the top 3 books from my junior Christmas reading era, and to take it to 12 will mean either a very long blog, or several. 

I’m not sure I can even get to 12 books without more research and digging back into the memory banks, but I can do a quick run-down which hopefully may prompt me to return to this topic next year.

4. The Box of Delights: I loved the celebrated TV series as a child, but the book I’ve read countless times, one of my default comfort reads.

5. The Dark is Rising: such a well-loved fantasy book that it now has a Christmas readathon associated with it. I could write essays about this book, let alone one blog!

6. A Child’s Christmas in Wales: a staple of our family Christmas, especially the lovely edition we had illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. 

7. The ‘Little House’ books: all of them have a Christmas chapter, but my favourite is By the Shores of Silver Lake, where the Ingalls family are left behind in South Dakota when nearly all the other prospective settlers go back East.

8. The Armourer’s House: one of Rosemary Sutcliff’s less well-known books, set during the reign of Henry VIII, but it reaches its climax at Christmas and delivers a supremely happy festive ending.

9. What Katy did at School: for the marvellous scene where Katy and Clover unpack their Christmas boxes and find all kinds of goodies inside. Actually the Christmas chapter in What Katy Did where she plans all kinds of surprises for her siblings is rather sweet.

10, 11 and 12 still remain unclaimed. Not even considered A Christmas Carol yet, as I suspect I’ve read it far less than the number of times I’ve watched A Muppet Christmas Carol. Another 12 months to see if I can think of something to fill in those gaps!

Building a library for children, part 2

I have no shame in admitting that if there is a kind of childhood book I love above all others, that I could never part with no matter how many I own, it is fairy tales. It may have become fashionable to knock them – or at least the Disney Princess variety of fairy tales with all the stereotyping and traditional gender roles they bring – but I came to fairy tales from a rather different direction.

I wasn’t really raised on Disney (bar the classics like Dumbo and Bambi), and the thought of ever going to Disneyworld is enough to bring me out in hives. Rather, my first exposure to fairy tales was via Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book and Hans Christian Andersen. So the versions I read included the chopping off of heels and toes to fit into the glass slipper, and the terrifying fate of the Little Mermaid to feel like she was walking on knives when she replaced her tail with legs (though how relieved I was that she had a happy ending of sorts, even if it didn’t involve a prince).

Luckily, alongside the more disturbing versions of these tales were the picture books I loved most of all, Cinderella and Thorn Rose (aka Sleeping Beauty) illustrated by Errol le Cain, published by Puffin. I’ve since also bought (possibly my favourite of the lot) the Twelve Dancing Princesses, which I borrowed from the library as a child but never actually owned.

It’s the gorgeous, detailed, jewel-like illustrations which make these books so precious to me. Here, for instance, is Cinders dressing one of her ugly sisters for the ball…

2015/01/img_2138.jpg

And here is the Sleeping Beauty asleep in her bed:

2015/01/img_2135.jpg

Here, finally, are the twelve princesses in their magical underground palace, dancing…

2015/01/img_2139.jpg

(Incidentally, how weird and mysterious that story is. Who *are* the princes trapped underground in the castle? Do they ever get out or do they wait forever in vain for the princesses to come back? The book doesn’t answer those questions and it’s always haunted me…)

Those pictures don’t even show the best of the books, but it’s hard to capture the tiny details in a photo – mice transforming into horses for Cinderella’s coach, the different costumes of the twelve fairies invited to the Sleeping Beauty’s christening, and above all the frames and borders of each page which are decorated in the most lush, delicate repeating patterns.

As a child, it was hard not to believe in fairies when presented with such fantastical, magical pictures, and if you can track these books down on second hand sites anywhere, I highly recommend them to anyone you think needs an antidote to Disney. (And for the record, I did have a ‘princess dress’ as a little girl, but also had a ‘Cinderella dress’ made of shabby brown stuff covered in patches, and a toy broom to go with it, so I could play at being Cinderella when she was sitting in the ashes).

As I grew up, my early love of fairy tales opened doors to more stories – British folklore like the Mabinogion and the tales of King Arthur, and the mythology of Greece, Rome and the Norsemen, as told for children by Roger Lancelyn Green (again, if these are still in print I recommend them – Lancelyn Green’s novel for older children about the fall of Troy, The Luck of Troy, is particularly worth a read).

Even devouring these books aged 9, 10, 11 or so, I never would have imagined what would follow – the fascination with fairy tales and mythology led me to what was possibly my favourite ever module of my English degree, Romance, Ballad and Fairy Tale. This course introduced me to the idea of fairy tales as symbolic narratives which help shape children’s understanding of the world and the journey to adolescence and adulthood (See: Bruno Bettelheim, Angela Carter, Marina Warner).

Then, my fascination with Norse mythology drew me to study the Viking sagas, which in turn gave me a yearning to go and see all the places for real one day – and thanks to that, I got to visit Iceland for a memorable weekend in 2009, followed by Newfoundland in 2011 to see L’Anse aux Meadows, the place the Vikings (it is believed) knew as ‘Vinland‘ in the saga of Erik the Red.

Who would have believed a childhood love of fairy tales could lead to such adventures and experiences?

So, for anyone who worries about whether their children should be reading fairy tales or not, or anyone who has neglected to read fairy tales themselves, I have plenty more weird, wonderful and inspiring books to share.

Angela Carter’s collection of updated fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, is most definitely for adults not children, but I read and enjoyed her Virago collection of fairy tales from around the world in my late teens.

2015/01/img_2140.jpg

Worth owning for the cover alone is Alan Garner’s amazing collection of folk tales. Some very odd and fascinating tales here you won’t find anywhere else. I’ve also just been given a lovely collection of tales as retold by Carol Ann Duffy, published by Faber.

2015/01/img_2141.jpg

For younger children, I’d also recommend the glorious, sunny tales of Joan Aiken’s A Necklace of Raindrops collection – no dark or troubling corners to be found here, only the magical illustrations of Jan Pienkowski and a world of fantastical and imaginative stories. (I also had a couple of other collections by her aimed at slightly older readers, The Kingdom under the Sea and Tales of a One-Way Street).

Finally, no house should be without Grimms Tales (as per the current trend, you can buy a Penguin Classics edition retold by Philip Pullman) and Hans Andersen – and it’s worth remembering that although many of the tales are psychologically quite disturbing and even more are downright bleak and depressing (see The Red Shoes, for instance, or The Story of a Mother if you want to feel really miserable), there are plenty of positive role models too – heroines who rescue the men rather than the other way round – East o’the Sun and West o’the Moon is a favourite of mine, and of course the best heroine of them all, brave, resourceful, loyal Gerda in the Snow Queen.

We’ve now become converts to Anna and Elsa in our house – despite the lack of Disney in my childhood, I have no problem allowing The Mouse into our house, provided it’s *good* Disney. The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians and The Lion King are all welcome, and Toy Story OF COURSE, (mainly parts 1 & 3 – 2 was a big disappointment). So far, Frozen wins on all counts – great songs, some very impressive set pieces of animation and a heroine as brave as the Hans Andersen character who inspired her. But I won’t be neglecting to tell the toddler the real stories too – when I look at where it led me, how can I resist?

2015/01/p1010608.jpg

Me at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, 2011

2015/01/p1010498.jpg

The day before, we’d been on a boat trip to see ICEBERGS! See what I mean about where a love of fairy tales can lead you? Icebergs, that’s where! I rest my case.

Building a library for children, part 1

Having no new house updates to share, and a garden still mainly off-limits in the wild meteorological conditions we’ve been having, I’ve been rather stumped as to what to blog about, but then inspiration struck.

I haven’t blogged about books for a while, and I’ve never really tackled the subject of children’s books – and considering I spend a lot of time reading children’s books and reading ABOUT them (many, many good children’s book bloggers out there who have inspired me), I realised I was missing a trick.

As an adult BC (before children), I still clung fondly to my favourite childhood books, and actively tried to replace copies which had gone astray or got damaged; when I was pregnant, like any hopeful bookish parent, I dreamed of sharing most-loved books with my child, rediscovering old friends and generally getting swept away by the nostalgia of it all.

The reality, of course, when you’re reading Topsy and Tim or Charlie and Lola for the umpteenth time, is quite different – but I still have some of my classic and most treasured picture books stashed away for the future, and I have tried to make sure the toddler gets exposed to real poetry as well as nursery rhymes.

For anyone becoming a parent soon, or buying a present for a young child, I do have some book-based guidance which may be of use – there are many, many lovely poetry and rhyme anthologies which you may think would look beautiful on a nursery shelf.

Which they will – but if you are from a bookish family like ours, you might find that you’ve ended up with *many* anthologies and treasuries, and next to picture books, they rarely get a look-in during the toddler years, which is a shame.

If you are considering buying an anthology as a gift, maybe check first with the parents that they don’t already have several. I would also check a poetry book for age-appropriate content, too – I had a poetry collection as a child which contained the highly depressing and unsuitable poem ‘Flannan Isle’, about a mysterious real-life tragedy at a lighthouse, exactly the sort of thing calculated to give me nightmares, I can’t imagine why it was included in a children’s collection.

Having said that, there are some poetry books no child should be without, and these I can wholeheartedly endorse. The poetry book I loved most as a child is the classic collection edited by Kaye Webb of Puffin Books, ‘I Like This Poem’. It was published in 1979 in support of The International Year of the Child, and to my complete joy is still in print.

2015/01/img_1991.jpg

The poems were all selected by children for children of their own age, so everything is arranged in chapters for 7 year olds, 8 year olds, etc, up to 14/15, and each poem is followed by a brief comment from the child who selected it explaining why they like it (and how odd to think that these ‘children’ from 1979 are now adults older than me!)

It was from this book that I discovered some of the poems that have stayed with me for years – Night Mail, Ozymandias, and Tarantella.

I discovered romance and death in The Highwayman, laughed myself silly at When Daddy Fell Into the Pond (unbelievably, these two by the same author, Alfred Noyes) and was entranced – still am – by the opening line of John Masefield’s Cargoes: ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir’. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what a quinquireme was, it was the magic spell cast by the rhythm and the fascinating, unknown words that stayed with me.

If you have a child, and they don’t own this book, buy it for them now. Just do it!

The second poetry book I love most will be familiar to anyone who encountered the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber in the 80s – Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I had the cassette tape of Cats, and the mug, and the t-shirt and the souvenir programme, but I had the poetry book first – and having known and loved Old Possum for so long, it didn’t feel quite so daunting when I had to tackle TS Eliot for adults later on. (The Waste Land was the very first thing I studied at university – a long way from Jellicle Cats, but it now has as fond a place in my heart as Old Possum does).

2015/01/img_1992.jpg

The legacy of ‘Cats’ the show being so closely associated with the poems is rather a bittersweet one – in some cases, I can’t read the poem without hearing the song in my head, but in others, the cat jumps right off the page and is alive in my mind without any need for Bonnie Langford prancing around in tights. Bustopher Jones, for instance, ‘The St James’s Street Cat’ – who hasn’t known a black cat with white spats swaggering through your garden like they own it, just as he makes his stately progress down Pall Mall in the poem?

Reading the poems aloud as an adult, you find yourself having to stifle a giggle at odd places, especially in Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer – ‘after dinner, one of the girls/Suddenly misses her Woolworths pearls’ – and Growltiger’s Last Stand, which slightly terrified me as a child, is actually hilarious, I now realise.

My favourite poem in the collection is still, as it’s always been, Macavity the Mystery Cat. As a child, I was fascinated by this rangy, mangy, wicked ginger cat, but it was only as an adult that I realised who was the true inspiration for Macavity: it was, of course, James Moriarty.

I was reading Sherlock Holmes about 4 years ago, and the description of Moriarty – domed forehead, sunken eyes, head moving from side to side like a snake – and it jumped out at me, Macavity IS Moriarty! And how cheeky of TS Eliot to have lifted the character so blatantly from Conan Doyle, though obviously it’s an homage rather than sheer plagiarism – though wouldn’t it be great if Eliot had written a sequel where Macavity gets his comeuppance at the hands of a consulting detective cat?

This is our second copy of Old Possum, by the way – the one I actually read to the toddler.

2015/01/img_1990.jpg

The illustrations by Axel Scheffler are great fun, though I do find the faces a little too human – I like my cats to be cattish, not humanoid – but as a picture book for a toddler it’s perfect.

The other area of poetry no child should be without is the nonsense rhyme – the best exemplar being the mighty Edward Lear. Shamefully, we don’t have a Lear collection in the house yet, though the toddler does already know and love The Owl and the Pussycat. We do have a copy of another nonsense classic, Spike Milligan

2015/01/img_1993.jpg

– which has gems including The Ning Nang Nong and the unfortunate tale of the soldier called Edser, (‘Edser in bedsir/Was deadsir’) but some that go into rather (unsurprisingly for Milligan) bleak territory.

I feel like I’ve barely skimmed the surface of my favourite poems here, but it’s a start, and I haven’t even got on to fairy tales or picture books yet. More to follow on this topic – much more – and if you have favourite children’s books or recommendations, please share them!