13 DECEMBER 1986, Page 43

Children's Books for Christmas

Juliet Townsend

As co-proprietor of a bookshop, I cannot recommend too highly the attitude to Christmas present giving shown by one of our customers. She enters the shop each year at 4 o'clock on Christmas Eve, opens her cheque book and walks out later having both begun and finished her Christ- mas shopping in half an hour. This is really a perfectly logical approach. There is hardly anyone for whom it would be Impossible to find a suitable book. After all, for a number of books published today it is quite unnecessary to be able to read. In fact a sizeable proportion, particularly those aimed at the Christmas market, make few if any demands on literacy. A number of people claim to have no time for reading 'I'm always busy in the garden, cooking, tinkering with the car,' but with any luck they can be persuaded that they would like to read about these pursuits when they are not actually doing them. It is much more difficult to give books to keen readers, who tend either to have them already, or feel a deep-seated aversion to having their reading matter chosen for them. The only people, who actually need to have books given to them, for their own sake rather than the convenience of the donor, are children. One has only to look at the average child's bookcase to see why; a handful of much loved, much read favourites of Mummy's from the 1950s and 1960s, Monica Edwards, Violet Needham; perhaps a Biggles or two of Daddy's and a lonely Henty of Grandpa's, then an endless row of shabby disintegrating paperbacks. Paperbacks took a long time to dominate children's books, but now they are all Pervading — to the point at which some children find it difficult to read stories in any other form. The only way for a child to have any feeling for the pleasure of owning a new, well produced, well printed hard- back is for him to be given one as a present. They are now well beyond pocket money range and even elude any but the most generous book token. This has not been a vintage year for novels for older children, though I hope to return to these on another occasion, but there has been a good selection for the I've to eleven age group. I did a consumer test on nay eight-year-old daughter which proved either that I have a drearily con- formist child or that children are less avant garde in their taste than authors and in particular illustrators would like to think. Having loyally read her way through 20 books, while trying to imagine herself a boy or girl of a variety of ages, she arranged them in order of preference. All the top titles had a strong narrative and realistic, usually detailed pictures — the whimsy in paint or print was ruthlessly rejected. Top of her list came Old Bear (Jane Hissey, Hutchinson, £5.95). This new author/illustrator lovingly depicts her own old toys and their adventures in a style reminiscent of Honor Appleton's pictures in the old Josephine and her Dolls series. It provides comfortable bed time reading for small children. Less comfortable, because it is in the robust fairy tale tradition is The Clever Apple Pie (Francis Mosley, Andre Deutsch, £5.50) The apple pie hero shares the irritatingly cocky persona and the tragic fate of the Gingerbread Man. The illustrations are lively and humorous, with delightful glimpses of the English country- side through doors and windows.

Children find Sniff Sniff (John Talbot, A & C Black) amusing, with its noisome pictures of the chaos caused by .a mouse who gets shut in the fridge, but my frugal soul rebels at paying £5.95 for a text of little more than a hundred words. At exactly the same size and price I would feel better served by Gilbert and the Birthday Cake (Jack Harvey and Ann Thwaite, Hutchinson), the story of Gilbert the frog, who leaves his grandfather's birthday cake on a train — the whole saga being accom- panied by vivid rather primitive pictures.

For those who enjoy minute detail, Whodunnit (Caroline Browne & Helen Cresswell, Cape, £5.95) will give great pleasure. The clues to a burglary are hidden in the extremely complex illustra- tions — is Mr Fox, Mrs Rabbit or Mr Rat to blame? The detection would be fun for five-to-seven-year-olds and there are lots of details for younger children to enjoy. Two collections of Fairy Tales, both beautifully illustrated at £8.95, are A Bag of Moonshine (Alan Garner, illustrated by Patrick James Lynch, Collins) and A Treasury of Fairy Tales with Classic Illus- trations (edited by Michael Foss, Michael O'Mara Books.) The first is the more consistently satisfactory. Alan Garner's idiosyncratic conversational style is firmly rooted in the oral tradition and conse- quently reads very well aloud. The illustra- tions are strong and unsentimental with a touch of Rackham about them. Rackham himself is one of many distinguished illus- trators, including Dulac, Leslie Brook and Kay Nielsen, to figure in A Treasury of Fairy Tales, but this very richness is the book's weakness. The constant changes in style are distracting, particularly when different illustrators are used in the same story, so that Little Red Riding Hood's shoes have bows in one picture and buckles in the next, and the naked Emperor sports totally different crowns on consecutive pages. This is just the kind of thing which children notice and ridicule. Children be- tween eight and eleven vary so much in the fluency of their reading that there is a need for novels of every level of difficulty. The Chimney Witches (Victoria Whitehead, Orchard Books, £5.95) is straight-forward, fast moving and funny, helped by the amusing silhouette illustrations of Linda North. Josh's Panther (Fay Sampson, illus- trated by Jill Bennett, Gollancz, £5.95) tells how Josh fakes the footprint of a huge cat — a sort of super Surrey puma, and the disastrous and comic events which follow.

For slightly older children and in a more sombre mood Joan Lingard's latest novel The Freedom Machine (Hamish Hamilton, £6.50) belongs to the new school of social realism. Mungo's father is in prison, his mother in hospital, his life in a mess. His only reliable friend is his bicycle, Gulliver, his freedom machine, on which he tries to escape from all his problems. There are echoes of Victorian children's stories, for Mungo finds sanctuary with what is virtual- ly the Old Squire and his grand daugh- ter, but it is a perceptive picture of a loner looking at life through 11-year-old eyes. I will finish with two old favourites revived in a new form. Imaginative chil- dren have always enjoyed the poems of Walter de la Mare, and Catherine Bright- on's illustrations in The Voice (Faber, £5.95) capture their other-worldly, eerie atmosphere perfectly. Flora Thompson s Lark Rise has long been a cult book among those with dried herbs hanging over their wood burning stoves. I am irritated by the de luxe edition bound in a red spotted handkerchief and featuring Helen Ailing- ham illustrations of rosy cheeked children dwarfed by hollyhocks beaming at the doors of idyllic thatched cottages — 3 picture totally at odds with the unsen- timental realism of the book itself. The spotted handkerchief theme has been con- tinued in the new series of little books by Sarah Harrison and Kate Aldous based on the Lark Rise Stories so far, all simply told and well illustrated. They would make admirable stocking fillers for five to seven- year-old girls.