7 classic picture books to share with your child this Christmas
Published on: 18 December 2018 Author: Jan Fearnley
Author and illustrator Jan Fearnley talks us through the picture books for babies, toddlers and children that she turns to every Christmas – books that have stood the test of time.
There is nothing like the joy of receiving a coveted book. One of the best presents ever! It was always easy – even on Christmas Day – as a little girl, to slip away to a quiet corner, usually behind the sofa or my mam’s dressing table, and become utterly lost in another world. The stillness of reading and being engrossed in a story, while the Christmas tumult is going on all around is a wonderful thing.
Here are 7 classic books to return to this Christmas
1. The Jolly Christmas Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
This book is wonderful in so many ways. Its narrative is simple and satisfying for young readers: the Postman making his rounds on Christmas Eve. Every stop at each nursery rhyme character’s house reveals a new delight for eager little hands to coax out of the beautifully and wittily detailed envelopes: a Christmas card, a game, a puzzle, comic book, poster and peep show. I adore the wit and the sheer amount of detail, from the delicate pen and watercolour illustrations on each page even to the postmarks and stamps. I’ve always felt that this book is an act of love on the part of its creators.
2. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
I love that the story is wordless, its narrative unfolding through the many small and exquisite illustrations. It’s a book to pore over; quiet and beautifully paced. I love the whimsical, grainy, "pencil style" of the artwork. It is gentle and moving, ultimately faces the issue of mortality, and I think is a nice one for all readers because there is no pressure and yet the silent storytelling is superbly paced and profound.
3. The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Chapter 5 of Wind in the Willows is set in December, at Christmas time. It resonated deeply with me when I first read it – and it still does, many, many (!) years later.
One December evening, Mole and Rat are returning home after a busy day, when Mole suddenly senses – smells – that he is near his old home, the home he left behind when he went off adventuring with his friends. The anguish he feels, knowing that his beloved home is tantalisingly close, and that Ratty insists they ignore it and keep going, wrenches at my heartstrings as much as much as poor Mole’s!
I used to love making dens when I was little, and I found these descriptions of Mole and Ratty creating a warm place to rest hugely satisfying. The opening up of the cold, empty house, the lighting of a cheering fire, the raiding of cupboards for bits and pieces for supper, and the subsequent visit of the field mice carol singers, is richly descriptive and evokes the joy of coming home. It’s moving and funny and joyous to read – especially at Christmas.
I have never forgotten these few pages, and their evocation of the simple practical pleasures of "making do", of cheering up a cold place with warmth and food, singing and good company. One can imagine being there, in front of the roaring fire, singing carols with the field mice and drinking mulled ale. It’s delightful.
4. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
The Polar Express is an especially lovely tale for those children who are at that tricky age of being faced with the awful possibility that Santa Claus is not real. That pivotal part of childhood, where becoming older risks losing one’s sense of enchantment and innocence, is deftly handled when one rides aboard The Polar Express.
Told in the first person, the drama of the narrator, a little boy, listening out for the tinkling sound of sleigh bells on Christmas Eve, but instead being confronted by a surprising behemoth – a magical steam train, complete with mysterious conductor – is spectacular.
I adore the full and vibrant illustrations, their varied and dramatic perspectives. There’s something exquisitely exciting – verging on sinister – about children going off on a mysterious train, thundering through the quiet wilderness to see Santa Claus at the North Pole.
5. Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs
Ah, the enduring Christmas antihero! Briggs was so clever to make Father Christmas a salty old curmudgeon! There’s no pristine ice palace bedecked by bright lights and bustling with smiling elves, here!
I love the details and backgrounds that capture a particular moment in British history: Father Christmas’s little two-up, two-down terrace, which reminds me poignantly of my Grandad’s house.
There is so much humour in this book: Father Christmas grumpily complaining about tight chimneys, ‘blooming snow’ and the stingy offerings left out for him. Funny and lovely, and ultimately quite moving in an understated way, you even get to see Santa sitting on the toilet! Father Christmas is tremendous fun for confident, and not so confident readers, because of the wonderful storyboard style. There are many engaging details in the artwork – including beguiling cutaways – for children to appreciate, plus plenty for parents to enjoy and perhaps explain, too.
6. 'Twas the Night Before Christmas: An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas by Anonymous
I wanted to include a poem in my Christmas selection, and this classic offering is available in all sorts of versions today: mine is illustrated by Matt Tavares, and is beautifully bound and published by Candlewick Press.
It’s my understanding that it first appeared in print by an anonymous author in 1823 in an upstate New York newspaper called the Troy Sentinel, and this was the first time that many children had ever heard of St Nicholas.
At a time of the year when absolutely everything seems to be screeching and beeping in super-saturated Technicolor, or hyped remorselessly by celebrity culture, the quiet elegance and virtuosity of the black-and-white illustrations of this edition, written anonymously, is a necessary breath of fresh air.
The artwork is figurative, incredibly delicate and the lighting and perspectives are stunning. It’s very important that as readers we embrace all kinds of illustration: this is an absolutely stunning book, well worth searching out and the Candlewick version is a joy to hold in one’s hands.
It’s always been a tradition in my family to enjoy this rollicking rhyme and I am certain that it will become one for you, too.
7. Busy, Busy World by Richard Scarry
This book has everything. Each spread takes us to a different country and a different cast of characters. The stories come thick and fast and are perfect for sharing and for poring over the wonderfully funny illustrations. From Pip Pip in London to Sneef the Best Detective in Europe, there is much to enjoy, and Scarry’s depictions of iconic landmarks around the globe are probably what instilled in me a desire to travel. This was a Christmas gift one year and remains a favourite today.
I have to say that even as a little girl, I questioned the role that females play in these stories – it is of its time, I’m afraid – but I forgive Scarry anyway, because I enjoy the stories so much. The snapshots he gives in his wonderfully expressive animal characters all around the globe are delightful, and piqued in my younger self an awareness of other places, other cultures, and strange animals. I love this book for the generosity of it’s content and the detail in the backgrounds. I may even have started to love drawing because of it.
The sense of community is most engaging. All the indigenous creatures from around the world, living together peaceably, struck a huge chord with me as I hid behind the sofa – or was it my mam’s dressing table? – reading this book so many Christmas mornings ago.