The best children's books for Christmas

Melanie McDonagh picks The River Singers, The Demon Dentist, Rooftoppers, The Fault in Our Stars, Knight Crusader — and several beautiful Folio editions

30 November 2013

9:00 AM

30 November 2013

9:00 AM

Animal stories for children are always tricky; as J.R.R. Tolkien observed in his essay on fairy stories, you can end up, as in The Wind in the Willows, with an animal mask on human form. Watership Down has been described as a nice story about a group of English public schoolboys with occasional rabbit features. But if you get too true to nature, the animals don’t have much to say to us, and no reason why they should. Admittedly, The Wind in the Willows does try to capture some of the mole-ness of Moley (he perks up underground) and the water-rattiness of Ratty (restive away from the River). And, as we all now know, Ratty is no water rat but a water vole. Which makes all the braver a new story about these very creatures.

Tom Moorhouse is an ecologist so he knows all about water voles. But although The River Singers (Oxford, £10.99, Spectator Bookshop, £9.89) is peppered with references to spoors, territory, scents and feeding grounds, it’s essentially a story about a group of siblings, led by a feisty little fellow called Sylvan, who leads his brother and sisters to a new home after their mother is killed by a scary new predator. It has enough of natural reality to satisfy didacts, but it’s really all about the human values of heroism and friendship, including an unlikely alliance between the voles and an old rat, as well as a nice touch of snobbery on the part of settled voles towards the arrivistes. It’s even got religion; where Ratty worshipped Pan, the voles worship the Great River, which makes sense. It’s illustrated with verve by Simon Mendez, which is quite something, given that water voles look pretty much alike.

I take the view myself that if a child’s book is good enough for me it’s good enough for them. But I do use in-house readers, who assure me that The Demon Dentist (Harper Collins, £12.99, Spectator Bookshop, £11.69), the latest from David Walliams (whom you’ll know as a comic actor but is actually a phenomenally successful children’s author too, chiz, chiz) is a cracker. It’s about a bad version of the Tooth Fairy who has designs on the teeth in everyone’s heads but who leaves horrid things under the pillow instead of 50p. I can testify that it’s a compulsive read, but don’t ask me; ask a child. It’s illustrated by Tony Ross, who has something of the subversive genius of Quentin Blake; for me there is no higher praise.

Rooftoppers (Faber, £6.99, Spectator Bookshop, £6.49) is the second book for children by Katherine Rundell, a young fellow of All Souls, and it’s delightful. It’s about a baby girl who survives a shipwreck in a cello case and is rescued by a lanky gentleman scholar called Charles, possibly an All Souls man, who names her Sophie and raises her to the age of 12 at which point the social services ( Victorian version?) intervene to take her away. The pair make for Paris in search of Sophie’s mother. There she encounters the unexpected residents of the city’s rooftops, a beautiful and dangerous world. Utterly charming, and as near as I’ve come to the late lamented Joan Aiken in ages.

If you had told me before reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Penguin, £7.99, Spectator Bookshop, £7.59) that I’d be captivated by a book about teenage cancer sufferers, Americans at that, I’d have laughed at you, and not in a nice way. But you know, this story about a girl with, yep, terminal cancer who falls for a boy called Augustus she meets at a support group, is feisty, funny, touching and subversive of all the pieties. There’s also an interesting literary obsession that takes our heroine to Amsterdam. The sex is delicately touched on, but it’s no big deal. It has, I may as well tell you, a sad ending but it’s an uplifting read.

For those who just want a good adventure story, you could do much worse than Ronald Welch’s Knight Crusader (Oxford, £7.99, Spectator Bookshop, £7.59) about a boy growing up in the Crusader kingdom of Outremer, and his vicissitudes in the war with Saladin and on his way home. It won the Carnegie medal in 1954, and has the original drawings by William Stubbs.

It’s dispiritingly rare for contemporary publishers other than the Folio Society to commission illustrations for children’s books apart from picture books for the very young, so it’s heartening that Oxford have reprinted, in big, slim, paperback format, three books at £7.99 each (Spectator Bookshop, £7.59 each), hauntingly illustrated by the late Charles Keeping: Beowulf (Kevin Crossley-Holland’s version), The Lady of Shalott and Alfred Noyes’ fabulously recitable The Highwayman. His trademark style features ghostly, occasionally corpselike, and menacing figures in black and white: just right for Grendel and indeed for the horrible ostler in The Highwayman. We don’t get picture books like this nowadays: it’s our loss.

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