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Why children's books are still a success story

It seems self-evident, perhaps, that books should be about stories.

But this season, there is a pervasive sense that the tales told in pictures are about bringing alive words spoken. They have the art of passed-down yarn-telling at their heart, and are to be heard, not just looked at: shared, as bedtime reads, or in a clump of heads peering over pages on the sofa. The best of the books one could give this Christmas are also gifts that seem to pass on some of the spirit of performance.

Dragon Loves Penguin (Bloomsbury, £10.99), the latest from the fabulous Debi Gliori, is, in its own small way, a little tearjerker. "One story," it begins in true story-telling fashion, "and then it's night, night, sleep tight." I can barely get through this tale of a dragon who raises a penguin after stumbling across a deserted egg - dragon is childless herself, and never got her own dragon egg - without having a wee blub and needing to give my son a big hug. Little penguin struggles with the skills dragons are supposed to develop, but somehow grows up with courage instead, and a few of her own innate instincts and talents - all because her mother dragon knew the best gifts to give her, "time and love".

It's that "time and love" that always gets me. Maybe it is because I fear I work too much and do not give enough time; or maybe it is because it really does get to the heart of it all - what parenting is all about, whether we adopt or have our own biological children. Or, maybe, too, it is because Dragon Loves Penguin is about love passed down. Penguin has her own baby penguin. The cycle, not of deprivation, but of bounty.

I have always loved the idea of Itchy Coo, the publisher of books in Scots. But in my household, it is not just the fact that I am from just over the border (England) that is the problem, it is that the kids, who speak like genuine Leithers, do not always get the whole Scots thing and seem confused about whether all this talk of lugs, een and whuskers teuch as wire should be theirs or not. There can be a lot of stopping and translating.

Not so, when you get hold of James Robertson's translations of The Gruffalo series. The Gruffalo's Wean (Itchy Coo, £6.99) seems so made to be spoken in Scots you will forget you ever heard o' the Big Bad Mouse and think forever of that beast sae awfie strang as the Muckle Mad Moose. Since The Gruffalo is so familiar, and read and re-read as part of the mainstream of modern childhood, these make great entry books to the Itchy Coo experience. You know where you are at. These are books to be recited, kissed into your children's ears at bedtimes. And it feels awfie guid.

Also from Itchy Coo, though as much for big grown-up kids as actual children, is the much awaited Asterix And The Pechts (Itchy Coo, £7,99), "screivet by Jean-Yves Ferri", illustrated by Didier Conrad and translated into Scots by Matthew Fitt (author of But n Ben a-Go-Go). The spirit of Asterix seems to lend itself quite well to Scots, particularly in the hands of Fitt, as Asterix and Obelix find a Pict on the beach, and we "travel wi oor gallus Gaulish heroes tae Bonnie Scotland".

Sir Mouse To The Rescue (Book Island, £11.99) , by author Dirk Nielandt and illustrator Marjolein Pottie, is a series of tales about a girl mouse who wears armour, carries a sword and calls herself "Bold Sir Knight", and her friendship with Dragon, also a female. It is a charming and funny little book of stereotype-busting, but there is no air of right-on political-correctness here: just wit, quirkiness and the kind of dialogue that somehow captures the essence of children's pretend play. Bold Sir Knight likes to rescue Princes from towers - though sometimes she finds it annoying the way that they cry "help, help" without exactly explaining how to help or why. Although there is a lot of text, and not so very many of the cutely designed pictures, actually it is a dream to read even to pre-schoolers - perhaps because it partly inhabits their world and sounds like them. My older son was puzzled. He kept calling this Bold Sir Knight a "he", in spite of the fact he could plainly read the "she" word. But this mouse is too funny, and a character to be enjoyed by girls and boys alike.

For younger children, Max And The Won't Go To Bed Show (Harper Collins, £12.99) by Mark Sperring and Sarah Warburton, is the kind of book whose "roll-up, roll-up" theatrical, ringmaster-style lines quickly becomes part of your own daily banter with the children - particularly, when, as I do, you have one child called Max and another who believes he is never tired and that sleeping represents defeat.

Little Max is a magician, capable of pulling out every trick in the book in his "putting off bed-time as long as possible show!". Delightful illustrations of Max in action, by Warburton, take us through the various acts in this extravaganza. One for all those parents out there who know that nightly combat, and for all those kids who already have developed their own tricks.

Books of folk tales are often beautiful things to have on the shelves, but rarely the first thing, at least in my household, that kids want to read or have read to them. Breaking The Spell: Stories Of Magic And Mystery From Scotland (Frances Lincoln, £14.99), by the fabulous storyteller Lari Don teamed with illustrator Cate James, however, is charmingly different and was much requested and voraciously devoured by my boys.

There is a reason for this, and it is that these are tales honed by countless tellings to a contemporary young audience. They are, writes Don in an afterword, "very much what I tell, so the stories are not exactly as I first heard or read them, they are the versions that have grown in my head, the versions that have come to life as I tell them to real audiences."

So, we learn, in her telling of Tam Linn, that "the fairies in the forest weren't little and twinkly, and they weren't interested in granting wishes. They were as tall as the Earl's soldiers and they carried sword and spears instead of wants and glitter."

We read a version of the selkie tale that is about a child left behind, separated from her parents. We follow, in School For Heroes, two battling opponents, a man and a woman who seem like some couple waging war, while a child keeps them going, bringing them drinks, sustenance and wisdom. And we find in The Three Questions a character to arouse any child's sense of injustice, the kind of teacher who shouts terrifyingly at children for even the smallest of accidents and incidents.

I have read versions of many of these tales before, but Don seems to have brought such humour, warmth, joy, delight and sometimes darkness to them that they create a new spell. They reach out. They make these old stories seem young.

But Don is not alone in doing this. Keeping those old stories alive and vital seems to be an aim shared by many of the picture books aimed at older children this year.

There is, out there, a glut of exquisitely illustrated new versions of both folk tales and classic literature. One series, published as part of Save The Story, a "library of favourite stories from around the world, retold for today's children by some of the best contemporary writers", includes Jonathan Coe's beguiling, accessible and absurdly funny version of Gulliver's Travels, The Story Of Gulliver(Save The Story, £14.99), and Alessandro Barrocio's Don Juan (Save The Story, £14.99).

And there are others too, reviving old tales. Philip Pullman is at it, with a witty, illuminating take on Aladdin And The Enchanted Lamp (Scholastic, £6.99), illustrated in sinuous silhouettes by Ian Beck (designer of Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album cover). Perhaps, indeed, "the story" does not need saving. Do not think of it, this Christmas, as saving a story but, simply, just giving.

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