Debbie Young picks out a number of excellent family reads for the Christmas period
There’s something irresistibly cosy about curling up with your children to share some seasonal books at this time of year. Each December, I enjoy the ritual of digging out our special Christmas library to reread old treasures, ranging from my daughter’s favourite when she was tiny, Mick Inkpen’s Merry Christmas, Wibbly Pig! to an anthology aimed at the other end of the age spectrum, Miss Read’s Christmas Book. Though we don’t so much as glance through their pages at any other time of year, they are as familiar and comforting as a favourite Christmas jumper.
Festive favourite poems
Like most families, we enjoy The Night Before Christmas, but if you find Clement Clarke Moore’s celebrated poem a little too American in tone, try poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s British alternative. In Another Night Before Christmas (Picador), Duffy gently dismisses the trappings of modern life that interfere with the true Christmas spirit, such as mobile phones, traffic jams and celebrity worship. Featuring Rob Ryan’s enchanting papercut illustrations, this small hardback makes an affordable stocking filler for children and adults alike.
For those who prefer a vintage tale, Dylan Thomas’ poetic prose in A Child’s Christmas in Wales (Orion Children’s Books) stands the test of time, as do Edward Ardizzone’s watercolour illustrations, which conjure up an old-fashioned snowy winter.
Advent calendar books
Christmas in our house always features an advent calendar. Though I prefer traditional designs, my daughter’s all-time favourite was Barbie-themed, with a tiny doll’s accessory behind each door. A great alternative to such crass commercialism is an advent calendar in book form called The Light in the Lantern by Swiss author Georg Dreissig (Wynstones Press).There’s a folksy short story featuring a small miracle for each day. These tales have the gentle moral tone of a fable or one of Kipling’s Just So Stories, yet they cleverly combine to tell the story of the Christian nativity.
A remnant from my own childhood in our Christmas library is a dog-eared copy of Joan G Robinson’s Teddy Robinson’s Omnibus. It was my favourite book year-round when I was little and features my favourite story, ‘Teddy Robinson Meets Father Christmas’. Like all the stories mentioned above, it reflects a less materialistic age. While celebrating the spirit of giving, presents are small, with typical gifts including paintboxes and drawing books. There’s not a PlayStation or Xbox in sight!
Personalised Christmas books
For me, a particular attraction of the Teddy Robinson stories was that, not only did the bear in the illustrations look exactly like mine, but his owner was a little girl called – yes, you’ve guessed it – Debbie, usually referred to by her full name, Deborah. Children love reading books about characters who share their name, especially if they have something else in common. My daughter Laura was given Klaus Baumgart’s Laura’s Star and its many sequels, including Laura’s Christmas Star and Laura Star and the Search for Santa (Little Tiger Press). Note to anyone thinking of buying a book with a child’s name in the title: check with their parents that someone else hasn’t already bought the same book!
You may have seen adverts for books that are custom-produced to match your child’s name. These can be easily manufactured these days thanks to the advent (ho ho) of digital print-on-demand technology, which produces one-off books at a relatively low price. However, the quality of the stories and illustrations is often poor. If you want to give a nicer alternative, try making one yourself. You can easily create a keepsake photo book via online services such as Blurb.com, or from high street photo processing shops, from around £10. What child could resist a book filled with photos of them enjoying previous Christmases? You’d better order extra copies for grandparents while you’re at it!
Personal Christmas stories
Though many of us follow the same seasonal customs, some Christmas traditions are unique to individual families. If I mention Tolkien, your first thought is probably The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. It was the same for me until my cousin Frances nominated his Letters from Father Christmas as her favourite Christmas book. Each year from 1920 until 1943, Tolkien produced handwritten letters, supposedly from Father Christmas, addressed to his children.
The HarperCollins hardback edition reproduces the originals in full colour, alongside typed transcripts. These painstakingly produced missives, in shaky handwriting purporting to be Father Christmas’, are clearly a labour of love. Reading this book might inspire you start a similar project for your own children.
This year, a new tradition will hit British shores with the official UK launch of The Elf on the Shelf. In a sturdy box set comes a small elf doll in a red-and-white suit plus a large hardback book that serves as an instruction manual. In chirpy verse, it explains to the young reader that, in the run-up to Christmas, your personal elf will monitor behaviour and report to Santa each night, whether they have been naughty or nice. We all know the likely consequences of his verdict! As proof of his journey, parents are expected to position the elf in a different spot for when the child awakes each morning.
While a cynic might wonder at deploying a gnomish Big Brother to put their children under surveillance, it’s all done affectionately and with a sense of fun, serving as yet another alternative to the advent calendar. The Elf on the Shelf has already sold an astonishing 18 million copies in the US.
However your family celebrates Christmas, I wish you a stocking full of good books to share with your loved ones. You might even like to try Stocking Fillers, my own collection of humorous festive short stories for adults, which readers have been kind enough to describe as the perfect antidote to the stresses of the season.