'Tis the season to be reading

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It’s been another year of big stories in the children’s book world. Bookshops opened at midnight to sell the long-awaited fifth instalment of Harry Potter and the public’s appetite for fantasy seems to be as sharp as ever with such writers as Eoin Colfer, Jonathan Stroud, Diana Wynne Jones, David Lee Stone and Cornelia Funke providing a high-quality diet for readers from nine years upwards.

This year adults and children have not only been reading the same books, some have even written books together. Ariel Dorfman and his son Joaquin co-wrote The Burning City (Doubleday, 10.99) for older readers, while a mother-and-daughter team writing as Zizou Corder produced the circus fantasy adventure, Lionboy (Puffin, 12.99). Madonna made her children’s book debut with The English Roses (Puffin, 12.99). Her second book, Mr Peabody’s Apples (Puffin, 12.99), is based on an old story and is a more substantial tale; the striking Edward Hopper-style illustrations by US artist Loren Long are by far the most impressive thing about it.

Of course, as well as the books that grab the headlines, there are hundreds of great books being published without fuss and this is the time of year to discover them.

BABIES AND TODDLERS

Picture book and soft toy sets make good gifts and there are some more exotic creatures to be found among the traditional mice and bunnies. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s popular creation The Gruffalo (Macmillan, 10.99) has been successfully transformed into a loveable cuddly toy, complete with a green wart on his nose. The Meg and Mog boxed set (Helen Nicoll and Jan Piekowski, Puffin 12.99) has a plastic cauldron filled to the brim with colourful, rubbery snakes, frogs and newts. But the prize for the most unusual plush has to go to The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business (Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch, Chrysalis Books, 9.99). If you’re not familiar with this instructive picture book about a mole who sets out to discover which animal has left the unwelcome deposit on his head, you might think that the cute little mole toy is sporting a jaunty, brown hat ... Children will love it!

This is also the season for attractive anthologies and The Kingfisher Book of Nursery Tales, by Vivian French and Stephen Lambert (12.99) is perfect for reading aloud to little ones. Text and illustrations are well-matched and the inclusion of plenty of lively sound effects means that a subdued performance isn’t an option.

If your family was saddened by the recent demise of Mog the cat in Judith Kerr’s Goodbye Mog (Picture Lions, 4.99), you’ll be delighted by the reissue of Mog’s Christmas (Collins, 4.99), first published in 1976. Upset by the strange smells and bustle in the house, Mog escapes to the roof, until she makes a sudden and sooty re-appearance by way of the chimney. There’s more seasonal fun in Rory and his Christmas Surprise, by Andrew Wolffe and Tom Cole (Keppel Publishing, 4.99). I was relieved to see that Rory has swapped his trademark tartan shorts for a cosy pair of tartan trews, because it’s snowing in Sandy Bay and he has to help Santa deliver his presents. And if the weather really does keep everyone inside, then Jan Ormerod’s clever board book Kiss It Better (Walker Books, 9.99) with its page of jazzy, reusable "plasters" to stick on the illustrations of poorly toys, will keep toddlers happily occupied.

FOR 4 TO 7-YEAR-OLDS

The Hutchison Treasury of Stories to Read Aloud (19.99) is bursting with more than 40 picture books and stories first published last century. Selected by New York publisher Janet Schulman, this is a marvellous collection and many of the American favourites, such as Make Way for Ducklings and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel will be new discoveries for British readers. Bang up-to-date but already a cult classic is Olivia, the little pig with the enormous ears, who always appears in black and white and her favourite colour, red. In Olivia … and the Missing Toy (Simon and Schuster, 10.99), by Ian Falconer, Olivia goes in search of her missing toy and discovers in a moment of brilliantly illustrated gothic horror that Perry the dog has ripped it to shreds. Falconer is spot-on with his observations of a toddler’s speech, body language and sense of justice, "Only books about cats tonight, Mummy." The Scots language imprint Itchy Coo goes from strength to strength. In A Wee Book of Fairy Tales (Itchy Coo 6.99), attractively illustrated by Deborah Campbell, Matthew Fitt and James Robertson retell six well-known fairytales in Scots. The authors’ sense of humour and straightforward way with the Scots language give these familiar stories a fresh, contemporary twist.

For 7 to 10-year-olds

Two equally exciting, but very different activity books next. Nick Denchfield and Steve Cox have created the spectacular pop-up Spooky Castle (Macmillan 14.99), with a fantastically detailed 3-D castle straight out of a Hammer horror movie, press-out characters, a game to play and a creepy story to read. The American publisher Innovative Kids has come up with Bubbleology (14.99) the latest title in their excellent Hands-On Science series. This kit combines colourfully illustrated scientific information about bubbles and provides all the equipment you need for your experiments.

Hazel Townson is a prolific and reliable author who doesn’t always get the recognition she deserves. So it was good news when Andersen Press reissued two of her most popular titles this year, The Deathwood Letters and Two Weird Weeks (both 3.99) with new jackets by Tony Ross. Both are fast-paced, humorous and cleverly constructed thrillers told from two different viewpoints. Just as each chapter in The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler, Gene Kemp’s best-known book, started with a joke, so every chapter in her latest novel, Seriously Weird (Faber 5.99), is headed by a mathematical game or puzzle because numbers are both Troy’s obsession and his talent. The engaging narrator of the story is Claire, Troy’s big sister, although she often feels more like his keeper and Seriously Weird is as much about the effect Asperger’s has on Troy’s family as it is about Troy himself. A lively and thought-provoking read.

For 9 to 12-year-olds

The Chaos Clock (Floris Books 4.99) is Gill Arbuthnott’s debut novel and the first of the new Contemporary Kelpies imprint, set in modern-day Scotland. Kate and David are ordinary 11-year-olds, researching their school project at the local museum. However, that’s where the ordinariness ends, because Gill Arbuthnott knows just what a strange and alien place a museum can be and she exploits that other-worldliness to spine-chilling effect. An unusual, enjoyable combination of fantasy thriller and psychological drama with a warmly satisfying ending.

Not quite so satisfying but it certainly looks good, is Lyra’s Oxford, by Philip Pullman (David Fickling Books 9.99). If you haven’t read the His Dark Materials trilogy this little red book will make no sense at all. Devotees, however, will enjoy every minute of this book, which is set sometime after the events of His Dark Materials, and Pullman has inserted fascinating little bits of business to pore over, such as a map of Lyra’s Oxford, a postcard and a leaflet advertising a cruise to the Levant.

Finally, you can’t get much more seasonal than fatherchristmas.con by Jamie Rix (Walker 4.99). Father Christmas’s adopted son, Mudrick, is itching to get his hands on the family business. He persuades his parents to take a year off and they retire to Herne Bay in blissful ignorance of Mudrick’s plans to drag Christmas kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Of course, it’s a disaster, but will Father Christmas make it back in time to save Christmas? Fun for all the family!

Children's event

IN time it may blossom into the place for literary events in Edinburgh outside the Festival, so the inaugural exhibition Scottish Book Trust is holding in its new headquarters in Edinburgh is an important "first".

Sandeman House, behind John Knox House on the Royal Mile, is the venue for an enjoyable free exhibition by Scottish children’s book illustrators. As well as the original artwork for Katie Morag and Maisie the Kitten, you’ll find Debi Gliori’s glowing illustrations for Forever and Always, carefully observed wildlife studies by Jill Dow and Shona Grant, lively cartoons by Scoular Anderson and Dave Sutton, finely detailed ink and watercolour work by Patrick Benson and a lot more - much of it for sale.

The exhibition runs until 19 December at Sandeman House, Trunks Close, 55 High Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1SR. It is open Monday-Friday 10am-4:30pm.

Teen Fiction

THIS has been a good year for teenage fiction. Many terrific books have not quite made the cut of my Top Ten which, it will not surprise those who know my tastes and prejudices, does not include a single fantasy or instalment of a trilogy. Three recently released titles are, as they say, chartbreakers - coming in at numbers six, eight and ten. A debut novel, which I didn’t review earlier in the year, is given a deserved Top Five slot.

1 The Fire-Eaters by David Almond (Hodder, 10.99)

A story about the dreams of good and ordinary people being endangered by power, corruption and illness. The ability to exalt rather than sneer at basic decencies is a mark of a truly great writer, and Almond’s books are always moving, uplifting tributes to the human spirit.

2 What The Birds See by Sonya Hartnett (Walker, 7.99)

Hauntingly poetic. Hartnett is the kind of writer who takes your breath away on every page. An unflinching account of how a careless, impersonal evil leads a timid, friendless child towards his fate.

3 Feed by M T Anderson (Walker, 4.99)

A nightmare vision of a Western world driven by technology and consumerism, and a youth culture enervated by a febrile pursuit of the bizarre. In the permanently affronted voice of Titus - "I was like, ‘What?’" - Anderson is lampooning, warning, empathising, all in a prose of quite exceptional vision and passion. It’s a mindblower. I can still feel its shockwaves.

4 Inventing Elliot by Graham Gardner (Orion, 7.99)

Best first novel of the year, without a doubt. A compelling account of the way a boy’s determination to present a powerful image and not be victimised draws him in to the bullying hierarchy at his new school.

5 Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier (Scholastic, 12.99)

Fabulously freeflowing coming-of-age-story about a girl from an Indian family growing up in New York. The author is also about to release a CD of songs based on the novel. See her website for details: www.ThisIsTanuja.com

6 I Is Someone Else by Patrick Cooper (Andersen, 5.99)

A 15-year-old schoolboy hitches a ride in 1966 that leads to adventure on the Hippie Trail. Perhaps it’s because this is set in the period of my own youth but for me this book about love and adventure on the open road is quintessential teenage reading.

7 The Braves by David Klass (Puffin, 5.99)

A sporty boy called Joe finds himself pressed into a corner from all sides, not least by the bullies who call the shots at his high school. This stands out from the crowd of teenage books about bullying by virtue of its sharp dialogue, the characterisation of its supporting cast and the convincingly tentative nature of Joe’s amatory ardour.

8 Locked Inside/ Black Mirror by Nancy Werlin (Hodder, 5.99)

Two highly original psychological thrillers, the first a kidnapping mystery, the second a murder mystery. Both riveting reads.

9 Malarkey by Keith Gray (Red Fox, 4.99)

Malarkey, a newly arrived "Year Eleven" boy at Brook High, soon discovers that the place is run not by the teachers, but by a manipulative, sadistic, Adidas-trainer-wearing gang called the Tailors. Opens with a breathless bag chase and doesn’t let up the momentum for a second.

10 Star by John Singleton (Puffin, 9.99)

Powerful first novel about a teenager being mistreated in a care home. Conveys the adolescent male nervousness of femininity very convincingly. Not to be dismissed as an "issue" book.

Michael Thorn

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