Ysenda Maxtone Graham picks the best literary stocking fillers for the next generation of readers.
Age 2 to 6
Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins Children’s Books, £20 *£18)
Another enchanting book from the author of last year’s favourite, The Day the Crayons Quit. Oliver Jeffers’s illustrations are arresting and utterly unboring. This is a witty alphabet book for any child who likes to personify things and can cope with surprise. Mr Jeffers can be slightly merciless. H is for Half a House: the half-house is on the edge of a cliff and its inhabitant rolls the wrong way out of bed one morning.
I Like Animals by Dahlov Ipcar (Flying Eye Books, £11.99 *£10.79)
First printed in 1960 using a hand-picked colour palette and traditional printing techniques, this book has a 1960s look, but has been strikingly remastered in 2014. It’s a pictorial celebration of the whole animal kingdom, with words under each animal so it can be read aloud at bedtime or enjoyed in solitude. For any child who would really like to own a zoo. Or a farm. Or, at the very least, a pet shop.
Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts (Abrams Books for Young Readers, £10.99 *£9.89)
A perfectly scanning story in verse (as perfectly scanning as The Gruffalo) about a hatmaker who loses her hat in Paris. The rhymes are pretty perfect, too, although ‘scone’ is made to rhyme with ‘alone’—John Betjeman would not approve.
Snow by Walter de la Mare, illustrated by Carolina Rabei (Faber & Faber, £6.99 *£6.64)
A short and beautiful poem by de la Mare stretched out to make a lovely picture book that celebrates the wonder of snow: ‘It heaps its powdery crystal flakes, of every tree a mountain makes.’ Outside, the world slowly turns to white.
Ladybird: A Cover Story (Ladybird Books, £14.99 *£13.49)
A perfect match for parent or grandparent and child: this is a wonderful collection of 500 Ladybird Book covers from the earliest days and, surprisingly for a book of book covers, it does make a very entertaining read, with lots to talk about with any visually minded child who might be interested in (for example) what televisions used to look like in the Olden Days.
The Little Train by Graham Greene, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone (Jonathan Cape, £14.99 *£13.49)
A ravishing new edition of this wonderful story of a train who (yes, definitely ‘who’ rather than ‘which’) yearns for adventure, runs away from Little Snoreing and is terrified on arrival at a city station with a blaring announcement that ‘the train on number 3 platform is the midnight to Grimborough, High Yelling and Tombe Junction’. It’s good to be reminded just how vivid Ardizzone’s illustrations were.
Matisse’s Garden by Samantha Friedman, illustrated by Cristina Amodeo, with reproductions of artworks by Henri Matisse (Museum of Modern Art, New York, £12.95 *£11.66)
For any child who loves colour and cutting out, this is a deeply inspiring book, telling (and showing) the story of Matisse in his later years, when he was addicted to making cutouts. Some of the book’s double-page spreads open out into sumptuous quadruple spreads: a feast of Matisse’s cutout works. Once a child knows this book, he or she will forever after know and love Matisse.
Age 7 upwards
Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill (Flying Eye Books, £14.99 *£13.49)
Picture-book sized, but suitable for the slightly older, historically and geographically minded, curious child who likes a British hero, this book tells in large, sparse illustrations and not too many words the whole story of the Shackleton expedition. One double-page spread is a mass of blue-and-white pack
ice: it looks horribly desolate. And then, the crushed boat and weeks and weeks of survival against all odds.
Mountwood School for Ghosts by Toby Ibbotson (Macmillan Children’s Books, £12.99 *£11.69)
A funny, atmospheric and well-told novel by the son of the children’s author Eva Ibbotson: son and mother planned the book together before Eva died in 2010. Ghosts aren’t scary any more, so the ‘Great Hagges’ Fredegonda, Goneril and Drusilla set up a school to remedy the problem. Despite the occasional hitch, things go smoothly until two human children, Daniel and Charlotte, turn up.
Plumdog by Emma Chichester Clark (Jonathan Cape, £16.99 *£15.29)
Actually, this book could happily fit into any age bracket from two to 101: it’s an irresistible diary of one dog’s whole year, from January 1 to New Year’s Eve, written from Emma Chichester Clark’s dog’s point of view, with marvellous illustrations by the author. For any dog-loving child, this book would be bedtime balm. Brimming with Miss Chichester Clark’s love of not only dogs, but also of London and of life, this is also a celebration of all our years at their best.
Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders (Faber & Faber, £10.99 *£9.89)
Comedy and tragedy run hand in hand in this enchanting sequel to E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It stories. The children in those much-loved Edwardian stories would have grown up at exactly the right time to join up in 1914 an almost unbearable thought. Kate Saunders beautifully re-creates the world and language of the Psammead, who is as touchy as ever, and he and the children visit Lt Cyril Pemberton on the Western Front.
Listen to the Moon by Michael Morpurgo (HarperCollins Children’s Books, £12.99 *£11.69)
He does churn them out, but Michael Morpurgo’s novels are reliably good and annoyingly unputdownable. This one (continuing his First World War theme) was inspired by the sinking of Lusitania in 1915. Many usual Morpurgo ingredients are here: the Isles of Scilly, likeable children free to roam and a nasty schoolteacher (this one is Mr Beagley), but who is the mysterious and silent girl, Lucy, whom the children find on the shore, half-dead?
The Glass Bird Girl by Esme Kerr (Chicken House, £6.99 *£6.64)
A highly readable novel set in a girls’ boarding school called Knight’s Haddon. Gripping for anyone who loves school stories and mysteries and for anyone fascinated by life in a girls’ dorm. Rescued from the misery of staying with her horrible cousins, young Edie is sent to board at Knight’s Haddon, where she’s required by her guardian to spy on Anastasia, an enigmatic Russian princess, who keeps claiming that her precious items are going missing. An intriguing story evolves.
Captain by Sam Angus (Macmillan Children’s Books, £6.99 *£6.64)
This is a moving and powerful First World War story about a boy, Billy Bayliss, who enlists at the age of 15 and goes to fight at Gallipoli. He meets an Egyptian boy known as Captain who has a donkey called Hey-Ho and the three become attached to each other as they live through the hell of war. Sam Angus knows how to make you care about her characters, both human and animal, and in this, her third war novel for children, she has really found her voice.
With grateful thanks to John Sandoe Books, Chelsea