Christmas book guide: Children and Teens

Elizabeth Wein, author of Codename Verity. Picture: Contributed
Elizabeth Wein, author of Codename Verity. Picture: Contributed
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A LOOK at some of the best Christmas books for children, teens and young adults

Teen Fiction: Winning combinations of sweetness and dark

THREE festive-themed romances are collected together in Let It Snow (Penguin) by Maureen Johnson, Lauren Myracle and John Green. Each story is set in the same small town in the aftermath of a severe snowstorm and several of the characters cross-over. UK readers will be most familiar with Green and his legions of fans will know exactly what to expect from his quirky, slapstick race to the local Waffle House. Johnson’s story is no less fun as we follow Jubilee from being trapped on a snow-stranded train to her brief encounter with Stuart in the Waffle House. And Myracle’s closer revolves around Addie, the heart-broken barista, finding unexpected seasonal redemption from a cheery old lady and a teacup pig. Nothing here is in the least bit challenging, but neither is it the least bit offensive. It’s shiny and light and screams Merry Christmas so loud you’ll be surprised the pages aren’t made from tinsel.

Dark and challenging is what readers have come to expect from Margo Lanagan and, for my money, she’s the absolute pinnacle of short fiction writers for any age group. Her latest collection Yellow Cake (David Fickling Books) includes a breathtaking yet disturbing story inspired by shipbreaking in Bangladesh, but filtered through Lanagan’s imagination becomes the breaking-up of giants for parts to be used by smaller folk. There’s a shopping mall that stands up and wades into the ocean, a uniquely skewed re-telling of Rapunzel and a boy who has an obsession for measuring the heads of corpses. I’m sure Lanagan has been compared to Angela Carter elsewhere but the often over-looked strange stories of Robert Aickman also spring to mind. Lanagan has a beguiling imagination while her prose is luxurious quicksand and its all too easy for the reader to become dragged under.

Anthony McGowan’s Brock (Barrington Stoke) is a remarkable book on several levels. The backdrop appears grim – with an absent mother, a father facing a prison sentence and genuinely spiteful bullies besetting Nicky’s life. His older brother has learning difficulties and Nicky spends much of his time keeping Kenny out of trouble. It’s Kenny who is the catalyst for much that follows after he gets Nicky involved in a horrific scene of badger-baiting. Yet the novel is a remarkably optimistic, even redemptive read. While Nicky’s choices are never easy, he has a sharp morality and blunt courage. Barrington Stoke books demand accessibility for dyslexic and struggling readers, but nothing about Brock feels compromised. The language is all Nicky’s: brash, plain-spoken but never simple, always heartfelt.

I’ll forever be eager to get my hands on a new Marcus Sedgwick novel, mainly because he’s one of those writers whom is impossible to second-guess. Each book is bound to delight with its uniqueness. The protagonist of She Is Not Invisible (Orion) may be blind, and although the depiction of what it perhaps feels like to be sightless is vividly portrayed, this book is in no way about 16-year-old Laureth’s lack of vision.

Her writer father has gone missing, so Laureth recruits her younger, gifted brother Benjamin to help her track him down. They travel to New York, where the discovery of their father’s notebook reveals a disturbing obsession with coincidences. It adds to Laureth’s fear that something truly terrible has happened. This is a compelling and inventive mystery with a memorable heroine, for so many more reasons than her happening to be blind. The multi-format publication of the book also sets a precedent in accessibility, being published simultaneously in hardback, ebook, audio, large print, Braille and Daisy (Digital Accessible Information System) format, and the unabridged audio edition has been read from Braille by the actor Anna Cannings.

The stunning, multi-award-winning debut Codename Verity by Elizabeth Wein was always going to be tough to follow. Rose Under Fire (Electric Monkey) is a loose sequel of sorts, again set in the Second World War with a female pilot telling her story epistolary style, with a few characters from the previous novel also making an appearance. Rose is American, but flies for the British Air Transport Auxiliary in and out of France. On one flight she is captured by the Luftwaffe and taken to Ravensbrück, in Germany. Of course, many readers may feel they know all there is to know about concentration camps already, yet Wein manages to enlighten as well as horrify with unflinching historical accuracy and sustained emotional resonance. I predict many more awards to come.

Some Christmas stocking-fillers to delight the younger reader, selected by Jane E Sandell


Imagine if you were settling down to read a bedtime story when all of a sudden it was ripped from your hands. All over the woods this is happening and no-one is able to stop it. Eliza Rabbit is determined to catch the thief. However, when she does, she begins to understand. The Snatchabook (Scholastic £6.99) by Helen and Thomas Docherty is a beautifully crafted advocate for the importance of reading together.

Lollipop is not impressed when her Mum and Dad tell her that there’ll be a new baby in time for Christmas. She’d rather have a bike. With everyone else busy getting ready for the baby, it’s down to Grandpa and Lollipop to make all the Christmas preparations. And eventually this turns into the best Christmas ever. Lollipop and Grandpa and the Christmas Baby (Phoenix Yard, £6.99) is a welcome addition to the series. Penelope Harper’s sensitive, but humorous, telling of the story comes to life in Cate James’ warm and bright collage-effect illustrations.

Every day as the Oliver goes out shopping, Troll tries to eat him. But the Oliver is too clever, too sneaky, too fast. Secretly the Oliver enjoys the challenge, though, and he is disappointed when Troll gives up. However, it turns out that the Oliver is also too smug. Adam Stower returns to delight with Troll and the Oliver (Templar £10.99), a funny turned-on-its-head tale of bad behaviour, annoying songs – and cake. No Olivers (or Trolls) were harmed in the making of this book.

One of the books I treasured as a child was Around the World with Ant and Bee (Egmont £4.99) by Angela Bannerman. So, I was delighted to see this slightly revised edition. Part of a series designed to help children in the early stages of reading, this title sees the two friends embark on a round-the-world search for Bee’s umbrella. The tiny duo travel far and wide until they finally locate the umbrella in a most unexpected place. The book is designed for parents and children to read together and offers hours of enjoyment in the company of two unlikely protagonists.

5-10 YEARS

In celebration of Richard Scarry’s books, HarperCollins has published Richard Scarry’s Biggest Word Book Ever! (£24.99) and at two feet tall, no-one is likely to argue with the title. The 12 huge laminated boards are full of illustrations of life in and around Busytown. Designed to help young children with their vocabulary, I think this book will be enjoyed even more by children who are able to read the scene-setting text as well as the descriptions of the illustrations. With hours of amusement on every page, there is also the challenge of trying to locate Lowly Worm in his trademark Tyrolean hat. A book, perhaps, for the family to pore over together.

Older readers will enjoy The Story of the Treasure Seekers (Hesperus Minor, £7.99) by E Nesbit. First published well over 100 years ago, this story about the Bastable children has lost none of its appeal. The Bastable family fortunes need restoring and, led by the somewhat pompous Oswald, the six children embark on various money-making schemes. The book’s world is much freer than today’s young people might experience but they will recognise the family relationships and revel in the adventures without worrying that they are reading of times long gone.

Pandora’s Granny is a witch. Sometimes that’s fun and sometimes it’s not – but it is always exciting. And it always seems to be down to Pandora to save the day because, to be honest, Granny is a little bit reckless. Hubble Bubble: The Glorious Granny Bake Off (Nosy Crow, £5.99) is a collection of three short stories written by Tracey Corderoy and illustrated by Joe Berger. In each of them Granny’s magic gets slightly out of control but it’s hard for Pandora not to enjoy it. The engaging, funny stories are ideal for newly fluent readers and are expressively and generously illustrated.

Fortunately, the Milk (Bloomsbury £10.99) is a ridiculous riot of a book written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell. Their combined talents produce a far-fetched adventure as told by a father to his children as an explanation for taking so long to nip out for some milk. It’s a book to read and enjoy and laugh over – and then to read again, paying special attention to the pictures. It’s hard to see how you could go wrong buying this beautifully produced book as a Christmas gift.

10-12 YEARS

Right from the prologue of The Last Minute (David Fickling Books, £10.99), the reader knows that an explosion has taken place on Heathwick High Street. The rest of the novel recounts the events of the minute before the explosion. We are introduced to a diverse selection of people and competing explanations for the coming explosion with a creeping sense of horror for what lies in wait. In a few sentences Eleanor Updale makes us care about the characters’ fate and hope passionately that our favourites will be spared. I found myself willing some of them to move more or less quickly to ensure their survival. This is an outstanding novel for mature readers of any age and adds lustre to Updale’s established brilliance.

Devotees of Asterix will be delighted by the news of a new title, available in a choice of languages. Asterix and the Pechts (Itchy Coo, £7.99) is translated by Matthew Fitt from Jean Yves Ferri’s original. The English edition appears as Asterix and the Picts (Orion £10.99) and both are illustrated by Didier Conrad.

This excursion into Pictland is the first adventure by Ferri and Conrad. It is also the first time Asterix and Obelix have appeared speaking Scots in a book where dialects differentiate groups of characters. In whichever language you choose, the duo’s attempts to make smooth the course of true love (and outsmart the glaikit Romans) will have you in stitches.

To celebrate Judith Kerr’s 90th birthday, HarperCollins re-issued many of her much loved books this year. So Mog, Pink Rabbit and that Tiger who dropped in for tea are doubtless being enjoyed by many children for the first time. But older readers who already know and love Kerr’s work will be delighted with Judith Kerr’s Creatures (HarperCollins, £25). It is her autobiography, written in such a way that it can be enjoyed by older children, teenagers and adults. Throughout the book there are references to her love of art and included are many sketches, photographs and published illustrations. It is both a superb introduction to her life and work and a joy and treasure for those of us who have grown up loving her books.