CHRISTMAS is the time for old friends and familiar faces, so it’s always a delight when they come knocking at the door. One of the biggest picture book events this Christmas has been the return of beloved family favourite, Mog, out of retirement, thanks to the now 92-year-old mistress of children’s fiction, Judith Kerr.
Most people will now be familiar with the CGI version of Mog’s face, alarmed, puzzled or distressed, from the latest Sainsbury’s advert, which is loosely based on this new tale, Mog’s Christmas Calamity (Harper Collins, £3 from Sainsbury’s – £2 of which goes to Save The Children). But actually far more pleasurable is to see the fuzzy, pencil-drawn sketch of Mog herself, as she tears around her home, terrified by a piece of tinsel that has caught light, triggering in her wake a Christmas-trashing house fire.
Of course, poor Mog has done Christmas before. That time round, in Mog’s Christmas, she was confused and perplexed, as any cat might be, by the goings on inside her household. “Nothing was right in her house,” the story began, as her world turned festive. This time, though only accidentally, she gets her revenge on all that tat and trouble, in a tale that is alarming and heart-warming – that tells us Christmas is about togetherness not trimmings.
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Another classic, Elmer the patchwork elephant has also pitched up for Christmas this year. In Elmer’s Christmas by David McKee (Andersen, £6.99), he and the younger elephants are anticipating the arrival of Papa Red, the pachydermal version of Santa Claus – a creature almost as colourful as Elmer himself. But the real magic, of course, as always, is Elmer, a delightful guest any time of the year.
‘Tis the season also for sumptuously-illustrated gift books. Among the most prizeable this year is An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Mythical Creatures by Theresa Breslin, illustrated by Kate Leiper (Floris, £14.99). Breslin, who more commonly writes for older children young adults and won the Carnegie Medal for Whisper in the Graveyard, has a gift for bringing the old stories to life, and this is enchantingly enhanced by Leiper’s images. This follow up to their An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales, brings us Scotland as a land populated by strange creatures. There’s Nessie, of course, and the Selkies, but the real joy is in the lesser-known fiends: the Big Grey Man, the Island Beast, the “loathseome Nuckelavee” and the Wulver, a creature with the body of a man but the feet and hands of a wolf.
Also enjoyable is quite another type of bestiary. The creatures in The Zoomers Handbook by Ana & Thrago de Moraes (Andersen, £11.99), aren’t mythical, rather they are entertaining and hilarious inventions devised around the question of what do you get when you cross two different types of animals. “This is not a handbook for zookeepers,” the book declares. “This is not a handbook for farmers. This is a hand book for Zoomers. Zoomers look after very special beasts.” These include the goatrilla, the polar cow, the pigcock and the duckaroo. Delightful silliness.
The season also brings a blizzard of wintry tales, like Chris Judge’s The Snow Beast (Andersen, £11.99), a tale of two monsters, one the familiar Lonely Beast of many of his previous books, the other his snow-white twin who turns out to have stolen some tools from the nearby village. No longer is he on the hunt for another creature just like him, rather he’s doing his bit for the local community.
Susan Barton’s charming little redbreast in Robin’s Winter Song by Suzanne Barton (Bloomsbury, £10.99) isn’t finding friends but losing them. Autumn comes, the leaves fall, and he find himself perplexed by the way that all his avian friends are preparing to fly south for the winter. Luckily, though, mouse and squirrel are sticking around, and Robin discovers, dancing over Barton’s delightfully illustrated snowscapes, that winter is wonderful.
Seasonal change and migration is also the subject of Marianne Dubuc’s tale of the friendship between a lion and a wounded bird that he nurses back to health, The Lion And The Bird (Book Island). They’re an odd couple these two, both getting by and seeing winter through, as it takes over the pages with whiteness. A story of loss and return.
And, if you like your creatures resolutely Scottish, there is always The Grouse And The Mouse, by Emily Dodd & Kirsteen Harris-Jones (Picture Kelpies, £5.99) which follows Bagpipe the puffed up and pompous grouse and Squeaker the wood mouse, as they find out just who really is the most magnificent animal in Scotland.
One can’t help suspecting that The Prince And The Porker by Peter Bently (Andersen, £11.99), illustrated by the always magnificent David Roberts, must surely be one of those books whose whole existence came out of some mishearing of the prince and the pauper or family joke. Whatever its origins there’s great pleasure to be found in the daft wordplay and zany illustrations, as we follow Pignatius the pig, who wandering into a palace, tries on a few outfits and gets mistaken for a prince. His biggest thrill is ordering his tea, which includes among other things “chocolate and quince”, as well as “three tubs of syllabub, four treacle fools, five figgy puddings with custard (six bowls)”. And if rhyme is what thrills your kids, there is the hilarious You Can’t Take An Elephant On The Bus (Bloomsbury, £6.99) a book which launches itself with the lines, “You can’t take an elephant on the bus ... It would simply cause a terrible fuss!” Plus, queen of rhyme Julia Donaldson is back with round two of ladybird coming to the rescue in What The Ladybird Heard Next, illustrated by ever-colourful Lydia Monks (Macmillan, £11.99).
Finally, there’s the publishing phenomenon, The Rabbit Who Wants To Go To Sleep by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin (Ladybird, £7.99). The book declares itself as almost the Holy Grail of children’s books when it claims, on the cover, “I can make anyone fall asleep”. Possibly it could also be more properly-titled The Adult Who Wants To Go To Sleep. That “anyone” in our house, was me. Perfect for wearied or insomniac adults, and sleep-avoidant kids alike. Not that anyone will be needing that on Christmas day, when a flaked-out snooze is almost unavoidable.