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EVERY now and again, Christmas brings along a new festive classic, and Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas (Canongate, £12.99) is an irresistible new entry into the world of wintry heartwarmers. Poor Nikolas, though he was born on Christmas day, life for him is grindingly tough – his mother was killed by a bear, he has only ever been given two Christmas presents and one of them was a turnip doll, and now his father has gone off to prove the existence of elves leaving him in the care of his nasty Aunt Carlotta.
But though Haig’s tale begins in gloom, not just for Nikolas, but for all, including the elves of Elfhelm where the political slogan of the day has been “Tough on Goodwill, tough on the causes of Goodwill”, A Boy Called Christmas delivers an utter blast of joy. The author of The Radleys, and bestselling depression memoir Reasons To Stay Alive, knows how to bring uplifting cheer to the darkness, as he delivers this tale of how Nikolas ends up making it his mission to spread happiness on Christmas Day.
Christmas is also a time for new books by comedians, to bring a bit of “ho ho ho” into our children’s lives. While some deserve squeezing into a stocking, Russell Brand’s The Pied Piper Of Hamelin (Canongate, £9.99) is not one of them. Halfway through I was overwhelmed by the feeling that, though he has credentials for writing a kids’ book, namely he’s a comedian, someone should have stopped him. It’s not just that it’s full of the rude and graphic, of boogers and “badass” rats, that we have a loathsome character sticking a wasp into a baby’s mouth and a baby rat jazzing “himself dizzy until he was sick out of his bottom”.
So, thank goodness for Julian Clary, whose The Bolds (Anderson Press, £6.99) is a gem, full of light, absurdist charm. This is the story of two hyenas, who coming across the clothes and belongings of an English couple after they have been eaten by a crocodile in the Masai Mara, decide to pop on the outfits and head off to England, where they take up residence in a very ordinary town. The biggest challenge is stopping themselves from laughing too much.
There is, too, David Baddiel, growing in flair as a children’s writer with The Person Controller (Harper Collins, £12.99), a tale of a brother and sister who find themselves in command of a very special type of video game controller. Here he has written a compelling tale of two siblings, in which the gags enhance rather than dwarf a heart-twanging narrative.
There are also plenty of laughs in Pugs Of The Frozen North by Philip Reeve, illustrated by Sarah McIntyre (OUP, £8.99). Shen, a cabin boy finds himself shipwrecked and looking after the cargo of sixty pugs as they wander across the ice of a frozen sea. A pleasure, for the illustrations of the pugs alone.
In all these tales, the real world seems to have faded from view. But it does erupt, in potent form, in Rebecca Stead’s coming-of-age novel Goodbye Stranger (Andersen, £10.99). For older children, it’s a book about love and friendship, burgeoning sexuality and peer pressure, featuring Bridge, survivor of a near-death accident, on the brink of leaving childhood, but, wearing cat-ears, and, perhaps, a little left behind. As they vault into adulthood, will she and her friends remain “a set”? “Bridge,” Stead writes, “understood that life didn’t balance anymore. Life was a too-tall stack of books that had started to lean to one side, and each new day was another book on top.”