Christmas Books to Please Every Taste

If dinosaurs, skeletons, ballet dancers, little creatures, poems, advent calendars, or Christmas around the world is your thing, there’s a Christmas picture-book here to please you. 

The dinosaurs book is not so much a Christmas book as a winter book – indeed, more of an Ice Age book – and it is gloriously ridiculous. Brrr! Where did the dinosaurs really go? by Kes Gray, illustrated by Nick East, offers an alternative explanation for the disappearance of the dinosaurs. It involves knitting. As temperatures drop and the Ice Age approaches, the dinosaurs need jumpers but the only dinosaurs who have the right sort of arms to knit them are the Tyrannosaurus Rexes: ‘YOU WANT US TO KNIT JUMPERS?! WE’RE THE TOUGHEST, MEANEST, WELL-HARDEST DINOSAURS ON THE PLANET! WE’RE NOT ABOUT TO KNIT JUMPERS!’

Eventually, they do – and they are brilliant at it. So brilliant, in fact, that they can knit anything, including a new, woolly, lovely and warm ‘Pla-Knit’. Surely this will become a winter classic?!

Already a winter classic, though not for the faint-hearted and scarier than The Grinch, is Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas, first published in 1993, and re-published last year with additional illustrations by the author. Jack Skellington is the man-about-Halloweenland but he is getting bored with all his usual macabre tricks. One night he is out on a walk when he stumbles into bright, colourful Christmas Town. He is amazed and decides to bring Christmas to Halloweenland.

‘Why is it they get to spread laughter and cheer

hile we stalk the graveyards, spreading panic and fear?

Well, I could be Santa, and I could spread cheer!

Why does he get to do it year after year?’

It doesn’t go well. Jack Skellington’s ideas for good presents are horrible: ‘A monstrous train with tentacle tracks, a ghoulish puppet wielding an ax…’ and Jack is upset that his goodwill just brings terror and havoc. But Santa forgives him and all ends well.

Fans of Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, and Mars Attacks!, all directed by Tim Burton, will know what to expect in this book with his trademark scratchy creepy illustrations of skeletons, ghosts and ghouls. Some of you may even remember being scared by it when you were children. I’m afraid that I wimped out of buying it for my children when they were young but you and yours may be made of sterner stuff!

Far more sweetly charming, though with its own moment of ‘mild peril’, is James Mayhew’s delightful retelling of The Nutcracker story in Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker, which begins with Ella Bella’s ballet class dancing like snowflakes to Tchaikovsky’s glittering music. Once Ella Bella has dealt with the wicked Mouse King, and the wooden nutcracker has turned into a handsome prince, the festivities can begin in the Land of Sweets as James Mayhew brings to life the magic of this famous ballet. Beautifully illustrated in James’s trademark style, this will appeal to anyone who has ever worn, or wanted to wear, a tutu. Why not play the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, or any other excerpts of the music from the ballet while you’re reading the book, to complete the delight!

For the youngest nature spotters, there’s a wonderful version of the traditional Christmas counting song in The Twelve Days of Christmas by Rachel Piercey, illustrated by Freya Hartas. Join Bear as he sets off through the wood to find and count twelve presents brought to him by Santa. For example, ‘On the first day of Christmas, Santa gave to me, a robin in an oak tree’. I have to admit that it took me ages to find the robin in the joyfully busy and lively illustration, so distracted was I by all the other details in the picture. I left younger eyes to count the ‘ten snowballs flying’ later on in the rhyme! This is a lovely little board book which will keep children entertained for a long time. Just beware if you are called in to help spot the presents!

I have just noticed a very special feature of my next book choice for you. Cut in the shape of half a Christmas tree, this Christmas countdown rhyming board book opens up to create a free-standing Christmas tree with a magnetic closure. Brilliant! The book is called It’s Christmas Everywhere: Celebrations from Around the World by Hannah Barnaby, illustrated by João Fazenda. On each double-page spread it depicts a pine tree being festooned with the traditional Christmas decorations of different countries, from apples wrapped in lucky red paper in China to Ukrainian magic gold and silver cobwebs. For younger children there are simple rhymes on each page, for example, ‘Five days until Christmas/And who’s at my side? A friend with a nutcracker / Grinning with pride’. For older children, there is a short explanation of the tradition: ‘In German tradition, a wooden nutcracker will bring good luck to your family and protect your home’. Brightly coloured and on sturdy board, this is a book to bring out and stand up year after year.

I’m not sure if you can get away with an Advent Calendar without chocolate but Usborne Books’s Advent Calendar Book Collection is another fabulous idea. This is a big format Advent Calendar (45cm by 30cm) and inside each of the 24 windows is a little classic storybook – a miniature library to treasure. The stories include The Wizard of Oz, Aladdin, Chicken Licken, The Nutcracker, ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, and other classics, all in the brightly coloured gentle format of Usborne Books’ usual productions. It is super!

If it’s a traditional nativity story you’d prefer, I didn’t spot a new one this year – but my all-time favourite, which you’d have to search for as a preloved copy (though I can’t imagine anyone wanting to give theirs away), is Babushka, a traditional Eastern European folktale retold by Sandra Ann Horn and illustrated by Sophie Fatus, first published in 2010. Babushka lives on her own in a cottage where everything is as neat as a pin. But she is so busy cleaning and polishing that it is a long while before she notices the angel who is trying to tell her about the birth of a very special baby in a stable. The thought of all that dirty straw and dust horrifies her so Babushka sets out to go and clean it up, taking with her gifts for the baby and its parents. On her journey, she learns that the more you give away in love, the more you will receive. 

Readers of all ages and beliefs will be charmed and captivated by the retelling of this poignant folk tale and the beautiful folk-art illustrations of all the characters who Babushka meets along her way. Every year I get this book out to read (and bear in mind that my youngest child is now 20) and every year we are all entranced and moved by it again.

Finally, for older children, and adults too, new this year there is We Wish You a Merry Christmas and Other Festive Poems, chosen and illustrated by Chris Riddell, the 2013–2017 UK Children’s Laureate. This is an excellent collection of festive poems with everything from classics like Clement Moore’s ‘ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ and Benjamin Zephaniah’s ‘Talking Turkeys’ (‘Be nice to yu turkeys this Christmas / Cos’ turkeys just wanna hav fun’) to the hilariously despairing ‘On the Thirteenth Day of Christmas My True Love Phoned Me Up’ by Dave Calder, and the moving prayer, ‘Let there be Peace’ from Lemm Sissay. Many of these poems are new to me and I’ve been distracted from writing this review as I dip into the book to read and re-read them. I’ll leave you with the final lines from ‘Angels’ by Jan Dean:

Only once we touched you

And felt a human heat.

Once, in the brightness of the frost,

Above the hills, in glittering starlight,

Once, we sang.

I hope that angels sing for you and your families this Christmas and wish everyone peace and goodwill on earth.

All these books (except Babushka) can be found on the shelves at Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden ( Do go and browse – and ask, if you’re not sure what you’re looking for – as there will be books there to please every taste this Christmas.

Jo Burch

Founder of Words in Walden