Christmas books for children: Sara Keating’s family favourites

In December, I read nothing but winter- and Christmas-themed books with my children, which I take down from the attic on December 1st. Here are some of my favourites

The Snow Queen: my favourite version is illustrated by Harry Clarke, right. The glorious art nouveau illustrations are a brilliant introduction to his work, which can be seen in churches all over the country. I am also fond of PJ Lynch’s more realistic illustrations of the tale, left

The Snow Queen: my favourite version is illustrated by Harry Clarke, right. The glorious art nouveau illustrations are a brilliant introduction to his work, which can be seen in churches all over the country. I am also fond of PJ Lynch’s more realistic illustrations of the tale, left

 

I still have a copy of several books that Santa Claus brought me when I was a child. Hardback illustrated copies of The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll and The Fairy-tales of Hans Christian Anderson, whose stories, printed on paper-thin pages, kept me rapt until school began in January. Christmas is a bumper time for the books industry and publishers take advantage by releasing new titles especially for the Christmas market, while classic children’s books are wrapped in sumptuous, cellophaned covers as attractive propositions for the future collector.

In December, I read nothing but winter- and Christmas-themed books with my children, which I take down from the attic on December 1st. Here are some of my favourites.

My top winter-themed books

(Please note: happy endings are rare. To those with a sensitive disposition – sorry.)

The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde

Obviously the snow-shrouded garden makes this an appropriate winter-time tale, but the Christian overtones of the ending invoke the Christmas season too. Did you know the new playground in Merrion Square was inspired by the story? Bring a copy with you next time and settle down inside the giant’s fist for storytime.

The Snow Queen

It is the bewitched mirror that gets me: distorting all good and magnifying any flaws, it is the source of the story’s evil, when it shatters and a shard of glass pierces a young boy’s eye. The Snow Queen is a bit long to be read with the toddler in one sitting, but the seven story/chapter breaks make it easy to pick up again. My favourite version is illustrated by Harry Clarke. The glorious art nouveau illustrations are a brilliant introduction to his work, which can be seen in churches all over the country. I am also fond of PJ Lynch’s more realistic illustrations of the tale.

Letters from Santa by JRR Tolkien

A seriously heart-warming book from the maestro of Middle Earth. This is a collection of letters to Tolkien’s children from Santa, who takes care to write back every year. Tolkien sends Santa and his troublesome reindeer on lots of adventures as the decades pass, and they are a touching record of his children’s lives and also a reminder of his skills as an artist as well as a writer. A tradition we have borrowed for our children.

The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen

One of Hans Christian Andersen’s shortest, and bleakest, fairy-tales, The Little Match Girl is a heartbreaking meditation on poverty. Disney made a beautiful animated short of this, which did not make it to mainstream release. If you know what happens at the end, you will understand why. My favourite edition is Jose Sanabria’s version (Minedition), with its crowded cities and elongated bodies. The contemporary feel will help you find the altruistic moral in the dying little girl’s desperate fate.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Complete, abridged, adapted for film by Muppets, you will be able to find a version of this that appeals to all ages. Scrooge’s comeuppance is one of the most effective moral fables of Victorian literature, while Tiny Tim would melt even a heart of stone. This year we have been listening to the story in an abridged audio version recorded by the BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/xmascarol, and reading Disney’s 1970 cartoon version, which we found in a second-hand shop and turned out to be remarkably fairthful to the original.

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

Briggs’ wordless, comic-book-style classic has been partially eclipsed by the animated version filmed by the BBC, but I love the slow pace of improvisation when I am forced to re-read it aloud. The panels on the board book version don’t really do justice to the grandeur of the Snowman’s death, so I would recommend getting a large paperback copy if you can.

The Night Before Christmas by Clement C Moore

I actually know this narrative poem by heart. In fact, I even wrote a song based on it for the Late Late Toy Show when I was a child. (I didn’t get on the show, but Gay Byrne did play it on his radio programme). I have several illustrated editions, my favourite of which is Arthur Rackham’s, for the slightly sinister elves. British poet Carol Ann Duffy has a lovely modern version, Another Night Before Christmas.

“The Christmas Tree posed with its lights in its arms,
newly tinselled and baubled with glittering charms,
flirting in flickers of crimson and green,
against the dull glass of the mute TV screen.”

There have been various illustrated editions since its release in 2005, but Rob Ryan’s (Picador) whimsical, pocket-sized, paper-cut version is a stylish winner. The Night Before the Night Before Christmas by Richard Scarry subverts the seasonal favourite with a bit of inspired disaster. Scarry’s books remain unmatched for their illustrative detail – pickle-cars, banana-mobiles, and dozens of miniature and man-sized diggers. A great talkabout book for toddlers.

Sara Keating blogs about culture for children at kidscultureireland.com

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