Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

From the Santa chimney mystery to the frozen children: the best new children’s books for Christmas

Festive stories by Mac Barnett, Maddie Moate, Tanya Hennessy, Eva Franz, Sophie Anderson and MJ Leonard

If you have a curious child questioning the logic of certain Christmas traditions, How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney? (Walker, £12.99, 3+) by Mac Barnett, with illustrations by Jon Klassen, has some inventive answers to that most fundamental issue. How does the chubby mascot of yuletide cheer manage to squeeze through the smokestack? “Does he tighten his belt? Or shrink himself down to the side of a mouse. Or stretch out like toffee one leg at a time ... And if you don’t have a chimney what happens then?” The ingenious ideas for entry are endlessly inventive and Barnett’s verbal suggestions and Klassen’s wacky visualisations will make children laugh so hard that any doubts about the magic of the season will be banished.

Maddie Moate’s A Very Curious Christmas (Penguin, £14.99, 7+) takes a more factual approach to children’s Christmas questions. For the child who wonders why Brussels sprouts make them windy, or why St Nicholas wears red, Moate has the answer. The book tackles Yuletide’s history, its traditions and cultures, the science behind decorations – the Christmas cracker pop, in accessible, fun-fact-filled prose. There are quizzes at the end of each section too, which are perfect for reading around the dinner table on long winter nights.

Speaking of Santa Claus’s sartorial choices, in Tanya Hennessy’s Pink Santa (Allen and Unwin, £6.99, 3+) a laundry disaster looks set to ruin Christmas, when Rudolf gets distracted taking a selfie on his phone and throws some red socks into the machine with Santa’s sooty suit. Luckily, Santa’s wardrobe isn’t the most crucial part of his Christmassy routine, and he sets a new trend delivering presents in his new coral-coloured clobber. Hennessey’s rhyming text makes the story skip along, while busy rose-blushed spreads are full of can-you-spot-it detail.

In Eoin Colfer’s Juniper’s Christmas (Harper Collins, £10.99, 8+), meanwhile, Santa Claus is a ghost of Christmases past. Grieving the death of his wife, fed up with all the greed and waste, it has been 10 years since he visited the children of the world on December 25th; so long that kids such as Juniper aren’t really sure he ever existed. Juniper is dealing with her own grief too – her father died two Christmases ago – but she and her mother channel their sadness into helping the homeless people who live in Cedar Park. Colfer’s rich story offers readers a many-layered mystery, vivid world-building, kooky characters and lots of wry Yuletide puns. It is a Christmas cracker of a tale, with an attractive cover and interior illustrations from Chaaya Prabhat, and a spangly surprise in the middle.


Flora Winter’s father has also recently died and to avoid Christmas – he was the family’s chief cheer-bringer – Flora’s mum has uprooted the pair of them to The Gatekeeper’s Lodge at Helmersbruk Manor, “a sad little house surrounded by vast, dense darkness”, for December. However, there are strange goings-on in the empty manor house next-door – the low strains of eerie music-box carols, a mysterious face at the window – that suggest this will not be a peaceful Christmas for Flora and her mum. With The Secret of Helmersbruk Manor: A Christmas Mystery (Pushkin Children’s, £16.99, 8+) Eva Franz, translated by AA Prime, has created an authentic classic ghost story that speaks to Victorian traditions, while also bringing an accessible modern sensibility to Flora’s personal journey. It is a beautiful hardback production too, with black-and-white pencil drawings from Elin Sandstrom. It would make an excellent advent gift.

Sophie Anderson’s The Snow Girl (Usbourne, £12.99, 8+) is a more secular seasonal tale with a high production value: a silver-foiled hardback cover and icy two-colour illustrations by Melissa Castrillón inside. Inspired by the classic fairy-tale, The Snow Maiden, it follows Tasha from the city to her grandfather’s farm in the countryside for the first snow. Tasha is lonely, her confidence scarred by a recent accident, and when she can’t bring herself to make friends with the local children, she builds a pal from snow instead. As winter drags on and her grandfather becomes ill, she realises she must ask her new friend to end the winter so her beloved grandfather can survive. Anderson renders the familiar fairy-tale in crisp fresh prose that feels new, even as the narrative draws from tradition. The Snowgirl is a wonderful, wistful, wintry read.

MJ Leonard’s modern fairy-tale The Ice Children (Macmillan, £12.99, 8+) maps an opposite magical journey: real children find themselves turned into ice. When her brother becomes one of them, Bianca sets out to investigate. Why, with the winters warming year on year, are children being frozen? There is an immediacy to Leonard’s prose that involves the reader from the get-go, with short chapters bringing an urgent pace to the evolving mystery and Bianca’s intrepid investigation. Suggestive references to The Snow Queen and The Selfish Giant enrich the subtext, but the story sings with present-day concerns too, in particular climate change, and the power that children have to change the story. Leonard’s tale empowers them to do more than just wish.

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer