Children’s books of the year: Warm words for the coldest of days

Ernest and Celestine.
Ernest and Celestine.
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The Man from the Land of Fandango (Frances Lincoln, £11.99) is a joyful romp. The late great Margaret Mahy’s poem is full of rhyme and assonance and onomatopoeia.

Babies and Toddlers

The text loops and sweeps and swooshes over the page. Polly Dunbar’s illustrations echo the magic as they swoop through the book in a glorious maelstrom of colour. “The man from the land of Fandango is coming to pay you a call.” Make sure you’re in to receive him.

Translated from French, Ernest and Celestine (Catnip, £10.99) by Gabrielle Vincent is a simple story of friendship. While on a walk in the snow Celestine loses her toy penguin and blames Ernest. The next day he goes to look for the toy but the news is not good. But Ernest has a plan and the story ends happily with a party and renewed understanding. It is the beautiful intricate illustrations that make this such a delightful book full of muted and pastel shades and gleams of light. Sensitively drawn, Ernest and Celestine are characters we warm to and care about.

What About Bear? (Alanna Books, £11.99) by Suzanne Bloom is a sweet, gentle tale of friendship. Goose and Bear are happily playing, when Fox appears and wants to play too. But Fox takes over not only the game but one of the friends. Will Fox and Bear and Goose ever be able to be friends together? This is a simple story about how to include friends which makes wonderful use of colour, posture and expression to get its message across.

Imagination is a wonderful thing and in The Night Pirates (Egmont, £12.99) there is plenty of it. Peter Harris, Deborah Allwright and Corina Fletcher have created a marvellous pop-up adventure. When Tom goes to bed one night little does he think that he will become involved in a pirate adventure. But when a pirate ship steals the front of his house, he has no option but to follow.

The result is an entrancing book with an adventurous story, astutely chosen colours and wonderful engineering. Small children will love the far-fetched plot just as much as the illustrations, static and moving. And the book is sturdy enough to withstand attacks from impatient small hands.

4-6 Years

Mac’s Christmas Star (Picture Kelpies, £5.99), wrtten by Margaret Forrester and illustrated by Sandra Klaasen, is an ideal book for new readers and ideal for Christmas. When Catriona sneaks an early look at her present and then loses it, Mac comes to the rescue but not before Catriona learns a valuable lesson. This short story has seasonal warmth and charm and is enhanced by the expressive and detailed illustrations.

There are more stars in James Mayhew’s Katie and the Starry Night (Orchard, £11.99), which tells of Katie’s visit to a van Gogh exhibition. She is entranced by The Starry Night. Trying to catch one of the stars in it, she climbs into the painting. What happens next brings that picture and others by van Gogh to life for heroine and reader. Mayhew’s illustrations are exquisite whether they are of van Gogh’s masterpieces or his own story. A welcome addition to his Katie series, this deserves to be cherished.

Little Grey Rabbit’s Christmas (Templar, £5.99) is a seasonal tale from more than 70 years ago, written by Alison Uttley and illustrated by Margaret Tempest. Little Grey Rabbit buys a special gift for Squirrel and Hare but one night Hare loses it. Will he ever be able to find it again or will Christmas be ruined? This neat little hardback edition of the classic story would itself make a lovely gift. It is full of old-fashioned charm and pictures of the kind of Christmas one would like to believe might once have existed.

The Tobermory Cat (Birlinn, £9.99) by Debi Gliori tells us that all over the island of Mull are some very special cats, each with tourist-pulling attractions. But the cats in Tobermory are ordinary and not interested in becoming special. So no tourists visit. Only one cat wants to change things but he can’t see how. He asks everyone how he can be special but no-one listens. Will he ever be able to change the fortunes of Tobermory? Gliori’s gentle story is appealing but her clever illustrations steal the show. Full of detail , allusion and charm they can be returned to time and again. What an ad for Tobermory – and cats!

7-10 Years

Meet Atticus Grammaticus Cattypus Claw, world-renowned cat burglar! Relaxing in Monte Carlo, he is summoned by carrier pigeon to a job in Littleton-on-Sea, a small seaside town. Who has summoned him? What is the job? And will Atticus ever see the error of his ways? The answers are to be found in Atticus Claw Breaks the Law (Faber and Faber, £5.99) by Jennifer Gray, a hilarious story of criminal cats, malicious magpies and a police inspector called Cheddar.

As part of a series in conjunction with the WWF comes Polar Bear Wish (Red Fox, £4.99). Emily and her parents travel to Ny Ålesund in Svalbard so that her mother can photograph polar bears. They spot a cub that has become separated from its mother and try to rescue him. The purpose of the series is to introduce young children to rare animals and the story includes information about polar bears.

For more information about our world children need look no further than My Pop-Up World Atlas (Templar, £14.99) by Anita Ganeri and Stephen Waterhouse. The book contains maps of the continents with pop-ups and flaps to lift. The maps are bright, colourful and appealing and the pages are strong and sturdy. For so short a book (only eight maps) there is a surprising amount of detail and it is presented in a quirky and accessible way. This does not pretend to be a comprehensive atlas; it is rather a fun introduction to the world of maps.

Adult readers will need no introduction to the great Astrid Lindgren or her most famous creation. From OUP comes Pippi Longstocking (£7.99), illustrated by Lauren Child. This chunky paperback is a beautiful thing in itself, designed to last. Pippi’s spirit and vivacity have ensured her popularity with successive generations and there is no reason to suppose that 
today’s young readers will be anything other than delighted to meet her. Lauren Child’s 
excellent illustrations capture the book’s charm and imagination and its heroine’s cheerful 

9-12 Years

‘Nothing ever happens in the winter holidays’, says Nancy Blackett. But how wrong can she be? When the lake freezes over, the Swallows and Amazons decide the time is right to race to the North Pole. Clearly this is no weather for boats so they set out on sledges. The children discover that lakes without boats can be exciting after all. But a sudden blizzard turns excitement to danger as two new friends go missing. Winter Holiday (Vintage Classics, £6.99) by Arthur Ransome is 80 years old but it remains a delightfully fresh read.

Too Many Blooms (Scholastic, £5.99) is the first in Catherine R Daly’s Flower Girls series about a family florist’s. Delphinium has always loved working in her grandparents’ shop, finding it an escape from her chaotic family. When her grandparents move away, leaving the business to her parents to run, Del is upset, sad and confused. Can the shop survive not only her scatterbrained family but also some new competition? And who is the new boy at school? Probably one for the girls, this is an entertaining story of family, friendship and flowers.

In 1941 Barry Malone is sent from Liverpool to neutral Dublin to escape the Luftwaffe’s bombs. After beating the school bully, he enjoys his temporary life in Ireland with his grandmother, making friends and joining in local excitements. But then the war creeps nearer when Barry begins to suspect that his Polish teacher, Mr Pawlek, might be a German spy. Worried, Barry sets a trap… Secrets and Shadows (O’Brien, £6.99) by Brian Gallagher is a story of friendship and suspicion, excitement and intrigue.

Charlotte Campion is bored with her circumscribed life. At 16 she has travelled no further than a few miles from her grandfather’s country vicarage. And then suddenly, amazingly, she finds herself in Zermatt climbing the slopes of the Matterhorn. Released from her benign prison, Charlotte’s world opens up in new and shocking ways as she gets to know her brother’s friends – and falls in love for the first time. Snowfall (Scholastic, £6.99) is a novel about defying conventions and following one’s dreams set in the late Victorian period. It is written by that most consummate of storytellers, KM Peyton, with sensitivity and élan.