A review of the year - Children's books: The year imagination ran riot

The year imagination ran riot

All-ages entertainment

ALL About Me (Michael Neugebauer Publishing 24.99), compiled by John and Juliette Atkinson, is all about Santa Claus - and Christmas. This beautifully produced book is full of facts about Christmas throughout the world and across history.

There are recipes, letters, a pop-up snowflake and never-before-seen extracts from Santa's diaries. And there are some more quirky items: a copy of the Sleighway Code, a speeding ticket and a sixpence for your Christmas pudding. In fact, every time you open the book you'll come upon something new. A book for families to share over many years.

Another book for everyone to treasure is The Church Mice at Christmas by Graham Oakley (Templar, 10.99). This re-issue by Templar is as beautiful as you could wish for, with its intricate, detailed characterful illustrations. The church mice are trying to raise money so that they can have a Christmas party. They come up with a number of ideas but, as Humphrey says, "everybody knows that the best-laid schemes of mice and thingummies often end in a mess". Young children will enjoy listening to the gentle story and older ones will be entranced by the way the words and pictures work so beautifully together.

Clement C Moore's Night Before Christmas (Macmillan, 10.99) is illustrated in a new edition by Eric Puybaret. Against a background of dark blues and greens and black he uses bold strong blocks of colour to depict the well-known story. His use of light and shade give action and atmosphere to the unfolding tale and the characterisation draws the viewer in. Accompanying the book is a three-track CD by Peter, Paul and Mary. One of the songs is Twas the Night Before Christmas, a suitably festive touch.

From OUP comes a re-issue of Brian Wildsmith's modern classic A Christmas Journey (OUP, 5.99). Through the eyes of a host of animals, he creates anew the story of the birth of Jesus. The artwork is intricate, with more than a nod toward medieval. His skilful use of colour clearly defines the changing seasons and settings as well as bringing light to the pictures containing Jesus. This is a book to be read together, to be looked at again and again, a book to treasure.

Babies - 6 Years

The Night Iceberg by Helen Stephens (Alison Green Books, 6.99) is the suitably wintry tale of Tofta. A baby brother has arrived and seems to be taking over her things and her place. Tofta is unhappy and decides to sail away on a passing iceberg. She thinks it's her iceberg but the local penguins have other ideas and Tofta gradually realises the importance of sharing. The bold, cold colours of Tofta's adventure are surrounded by the muted warmth of those showing scenes in her home. Together with the simple story they make for a delightful book.

There are presents for everyone in Jingle Bell Christmas by Julie Fletcher (Campbell Books, 9.99). It's a sturdy padded board book with, of course, a jingling bell! Santa Claus has made it back home after delivering presents all round the world. But he still has a few left. To find out what they are the reader must lift the flaps. This is a vibrant book full of stylised drawings, strong colours and a handful of sparkle!

From Kenneth Steven and Louise Crowe comes the charming Fergus Finds a Friend (Picture Kelpies, 5.99). Fergus is a young otter leaving home to begin his own adventure. As he follows the river, he meets many other creatures. Most are friendly but a few are scary and Fergus begins to feel alone and afraid. However, all ends happily as Fergus finds a new home and a new friend. Steven's warm story is sympathetically illustrated by Crowe as she brings the countryside to life.

Another tale of friendship is Three by the Sea by Mini Grey (Jonathan Cape, 10.99). Dog, Cat and Mouse live together happily in a beach hut by the sea. Each of the three friends has his own responsibilities and everything to be running smoothly until, one night, a stranger arrives. He mixes things up so that nothing will ever be the same. But will this be good or bad? Mini Grey's story is captivating and thought-provoking. As ever, her illustrations are sensitive and expressive. Using a limited palette, she creates a strong and distinct setting. Not to be missed.

7 - 10 Years

Written by Ali Sparkes and illustrated by Ross Collins, the S.W.I.T.C.H series is funny, fast and furious. Spider Stampede (OUP, 4.99) introduces us to Josh, Danny and Petty Potts, the crazy scientist who lives next door. Miss Potts has always been a bit eccentric but one day the twins stumble into her lab and into her latest experiment, and eccentric turns into dangerous. Each book in the series sees the boys transformed into some sort of insect and creepy-crawly adventures ensue. Young readers will love the short chapters, the fast pace and the humour, not to mention the expressive illustrations.

When Joe-down-the-road goes away, Anna and her friend Suzanne decide that he needs rescuing. Why? You'll have to read The Great Rabbit Rescue by Katie Davies (Simon & Schuster, 5.99) to find out. And you'll find out about lots of other things as well, all told to you in Anna's inimitable style. This is a funny and true-to-life story with a beginning and an end. In between there's much more than just the rest of the story. Young readers will enjoy the tangents and sidetracks and the resolution when it finally comes. With illustrations by Hannah Shaw, Katie Davies' story is an excellent read.

There's a big market for re-issues of children's books of a bygone era at the moment. Here are two for confident young readers. The Wombles by Elisabeth Beresford (Bloomsbury, 5.99) was first published in 1968 and since then the lovable furry creatures have tidied their way into national life. Long before it was popular, these inhabitants of Wimbledon Common were reducing, reusing and recycling in an effort to clean up after humans. Time has not lessened their charm and children meeting them for the first time will be delighted.

A much older title is Just William by Richmal Crompton (Macmillan, 5.99). Generations of children have felt an affinity with William Brown and his Outlaws. Today, more than ever, their outrageous fun seems to happen in a different world where rules are to be broken and adults are largely absent. William, Violet Elizabeth and the rest jump off the page, helped by Thomas Henry's original illustrations. Each of the stories in the book is complete in itself and of a length to engross, rather than daunt, young readers.

9 - 12 Years

Another re-issue is Triffeny by Dorita Fairlie Bruce (Girls Gone By Publishers, 12). Set, and originally published, in the immediate post-Second World War period, it tells the story of Triffeny, who lives with her aunts on the Clyde Coast. Used to getting her own way, she is alternately bad tempered and sulky when her aunts refuse to allow her to leave school and home to study art in London. What happens next is unexpected but, by the end of the book, spoilt Triffeny has reformed, matured and taken over the running of a pottery! Very much of its time, Triffeny endures thanks to the author's brilliance at describing place and character and her ability to tell a believable tale.

Bartimaeus is back! In The Ring of Solomon (Doubleday, 14.99) Jonathan Stroud brings us the earlier adventures of the demon who starred in the Bartimaeus Trilogy. Set in the Jerusalem of Solomon's time, in this book we meet Bartimaeus in a less than majestic situation doing dead-end jobs. His dismal circumstances have done nothing to quench his acerbic comments and caustic footnotes. With the arrival of Asmira, an assassin from Sheba, Bartimaeus' life starts to lose some of its tedium. But does our demonic hero really need this much interest in his life? Stroud is an accomplished and engrossing storyteller and you miss this latest book at your peril.

Love science? Then How to Make a Universe with 92 Ingredients (Scholastic, 12.99) is for you. Adrian Dingle takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the Earth and beyond, explaining how everything is made up from the 92 elements of the periodic table. The book is a riot of words, pictures and colours, and the information is shared in small and interesting bites. It's an entertaining and imaginative introduction to chemistry and comes complete with a periodic table on the reverse of the dustwrapper.

Confident readers will love Sigrun's Secret by Marie Louise Jensen (OUP, 6.99). Set in the age of the Vikings, it's the story of a double journey. Physically, Sigrun must leave her Icelandic home to atone for her father's past misdeeds. She finally settles in Jorvik and begins to realise where her strengths lie, gaining in confidence and maturity as she develops healing skills. All the while, though, her heart is back in Iceland. Can she ever return? Jensen's storytelling is enthralling and improves book by book.

Teen fiction (by Keith Gray)

What better on a dark Christmas night than the story of a Victorian orphan sent to spend the festive period in an ominous Gothic mansion full of gloomy passageways, spooky family portraits and terrible secrets? Chris Priestley's The Dead of Winter (Bloomsbury, 10.99) has it all, and then some. Hawton Mere stands in the dank marshes of East Anglia, haunted by its past.

After his mother's death Michael is sent here to live with the mysterious and half-crazed Lord Stephen. On his first night, Michael witnesses the ghost of a woman who seems to be calling for help, but that's only the beginning of the bumps and chills that go on after the lights go out. This is a wonderfully macabre tale, perfectly pitched for reading in front of a roaring fire, or simply wrapped-up under the duvet by torch-light.

There are more orphans in Gregory Hughes's Unhooking the Moon (Quercus, 6.99) which, although modern in setting, includes a touch of the supernatural too. Bob calls his younger sister the Rat and she is fearless, stubborn, at times otherworldly. She can recognise angels and foretells the murder of her best friend, the dog's disappearance and their father's death. They live in Winnipeg, a land "so flat you can watch your dog run away for three days" and when their father dies they run away too, aiming for New York. Everyone should follow Bob and the Rat on their poignant and uniquely exuberant road trip adventure.

The Truth is Dead (Walker 6.99) edited by Marcus Sedgwick is billed as a collection of "new truths" or "counter-factual" stories. Eight writers have taken an event in history and juggled one or two of the known facts, to find out what might have happened. The eight writers gathered, including Philip Ardagh, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Linda Newbery and Matt Whyman, have serious fun with their twisted snippets of the past. The events span 2000 years from Anthony McGowan's Jesus being tempted in the desert, to Mal Peet's bitter Austrian artist in 1912 Vienna and Eleanor Updale's millennium bug. Admittedly, not every story is perfect but it's a high hit-rate and each one leaves the reader pondering, wondering, imagining. Short stories could be an ideal medium for today's busy teenagers and this collection has a great premise, A-list talent, dollops of imagination and a decent sprinkling of mischievousness. More like it, please.

Malorie Blackman's latest, Boys Don't Cry, (Doubleday, 12.99) is essentially the story of two brothers, Dante, who is a reluctant 17 year-old father, and the younger Adam, whose gay relationship ends with him being beaten almost to death. Two huge issues for a relatively compact book but Blackman handles them as skillfully as ever – avoiding both sentimentality and heavy-handed moralising, even finding humour in the most difficult situations. Dante is a top student with big ambitions and, you feel, the ability to achieve them. Tricked into looking after the baby daughter he didn't know existed he struggles to rearrange his life and priorities. Violence erupts before the end of Adam's story but baby Emma brings some resolution here too. Blackman's unfussy prose is a real strength when it comes to the emotional impact of her book. Readability is a virtue for such powerful and hard felt stories.

Gillian Philip's Firebrand (Strident 7.99) has set a blazing trail in the blogosphere and now with excited reviews in broadsheet book pages it's certainly the hottest fantasy this autumn. Seth lives in the land of the Sidhe, a warrior-like faerie folk, but when his father is assassinated both he and his brother, Conal, are exiled beyond the Veil into the full mortal world of 16th century Scotland. They attempt to avoid unwanted attention, Conal keeps his magic to a minimum, but this is a time of fear, persecution and witch hunts.

Philip's imagination is enviable and the settings and characters are solid, chunky, 3D creations. Seth is feral, loyal, vulnerable and real. This is adventure writing of immense and energetic skill. Being the first part in a series, it's all set to send Philip's career into the stratosphere and how wonderful that she was discovered, and nurtured, by the tiny Scottish publisher Strident. Although my guess is that thanks to Firebrand they won't be all that tiny for very much longer.

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