THERE are really only two types of picture book to be bought around Christmas time. One is the obvious gift for the day itself, arriving in stockings or wrapped by loved ones, to be cracked open again and again over the year. The other is the Christmas book, best shared under a blanket in the lead-up, as the excitement grows and requires a little more explaining or story-telling. The latter category offers much competition, but there are several that stand out this year. Among them is an atmospheric tale, reminiscent of The Snowman, Nicola Killen’s Ollie’s Christmas Reindeer (Simon & Schuster, £11.99). A little girl, dressed in a furry antler suit, is woken from sleep by the jingle of bells. As she wanders out into the snow, she discovers they are coming from a reindeer, gorgeously rendered in a monochromatic palette, but for the occasional flash of red or sumptuous glint of foil.

Most of the popular children’s books characters are featured in some kind of Christmas book adventure, from Elmer through to Emily Mouse, and each year brings new arrivals. A cracking addition in 2016 is Winnie And Wilbur Meet Santa by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul (Oxford University Press, £12.99), in which the madcap witch and her cat find Santa stuck in their chimney on Christmas night, and their help is enlisted to deliver the presents.

Also hugely entertaining is How To Catch Santa, from the creators of How To Babysit Grandad, by author Jean Reagan and illustrator Lee Wildish (Hodder, £6.99). This gives tips for the amateur Santa detective, from setting a trap so that Santa leaves a trail of glitter and listening out for the sound of Santa stretching on the neighbour’s roof, as well as words of warning – lassoing him like a steer, the author notes, will not work.

Particularly enchanting are the seasonal wintry books. Snowflake In My Pocket by Rachel Bright, illustrated by Yu Rong (Walker, £6.99), for instance, conveys the excitement of the first arrival of snow with a tale of friendship. Sadly when the snow comes, Squirrel’s friend Bear has the sniffles and is confined to bed, and all the fun of rolling around in the snow and making snow angels isn’t quite the same without him. Hence, Squirrel tries to take some of the magic home to Bear, in his pocket in the form of one perfect snowflake.

When it comes to filling a stocking, however, it’s the funnies that often satisfy best. A great pictorial laughathon, after all, can brighten up the dark nights. For those who are tired of the endless reindeers, polar bears, penguins and Christmas sentiment, there’s Andy Stanton and Neal Layton’s hilarious Danny McGee Drinks The Sea (Hodder, £12.99). Set on a glorious hot day, this is really a summer tale, though perhaps that’s what we all need in the chill of winter. Little Danny McGee, it turns out, has an even bigger belly than the old woman who swallowed a fly, and one sizzling day, as he stares out at the sparkly sea, he decides to drink it all – and then goes on to consume a tree, a bird, a bee, a cat, American, and ultimately almost everything else in existence.

Also delightfully and eccentrically funny is Carson Ellis’s Is Du Iz Tak? (Walker, £11.99), which follows the lives of garden insects narrated through invented insect-language itself. Like Ellis’s charming Home, it shows whole worlds in quirky, intricate detail, and invites us to contemplate the existences of others. Much of the fun comes from parents reading out loud and pretending to speak “insect”.

Meanwhile, Penguin Problems, by Jory John and Lane Smith (Walker, £11.99) ditches Christmas whimsy for a comical examination of the trials of life in Antarctica. Penguins, it turns out, just like kids, have a whole load of problems they have to deal with. Little Penguin is frank about his daily irritations, what with the cold, which gets to his beak and having to deal with the fact that everybody is the same as you. Author of The Terrible Two, Jory John’s minimal text is funny, but more than anything else it’s Little Penguin’s constant puzzled and alarmed expression, as the pages turn and we follow his torments, that beguiles.

Penguins are also the subject Petr Horacek’s marvellous and atmospheric Blue Penguin (Walker, £11.99). However, here not every bird is the same: one is blue and different from all the others. Horacek’s dream-like pictures tells the tale of a lonely blue penguin, one of a kind and his yearning for a friend like him – till along comes a beautiful ghostly white whale.

It is just one of many gorgeous and sumptuously illustrated books that deserve a place in a stocking this year. Among the very best is Scottish author Meg McLaren’s Life Is Magic (Andersen Press, £11.99). This follows Houdini the magician’s rabbit as he makes his own bid for stardom and takes over the stage and a whole troupe of comically-sketched bouncing, mischievous bunnies – each of them a chubby, expressive ball of hilarity. The inside of the cover slip even contains instructions for performing your own magic trick: a cut-out thaumatrope, which delivers a “topsy turvy bunny transformation”.

Kylo Maclear and Julia Sardar’s The Liszts (Andersen Press, £12.99), is a little like a Grand Hotel Budapest of the children’s picture book world. Eccentric and baroque, it’s a tale which introduces us to a family of Liszts, who simply love to make lists, starting with Mama Liszt whose preferred topics are “ghastly illnesses and the greatest footballers of all time”. Ideal for slightly older children, who are perhaps beginning to read and write, and are ready to be initiated into the joy of list-making, this explores both the limits of lists – the fact that they cannot contain everything, even if you fill your whole house and life with them – and their pleasures.

For younger children, a gem of a present comes in the form of Owl Bat Bat Owl (Walker, £11.99) by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick. Wordlessly, it tells the story of an owl family and bat family who find themselves neighbours on the same branch, owls on top, bats hanging below. Will the two get along? It takes a wild, stormy night to bring them together.

But even older readers deserve the odd picture with their words, and for delectable artwork you can’t get much more of a treat than the Harry Potter illustrated versions. This season sees the publication of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets (Bloomsbury, £21), the second book illustrated by Jim Kay. Highlights are the anatomical-style drawings of the flame-feathered Phoenix and the portrait of lop-faced Rubeus Hagrid.

Christmas is also a time for classics, books providing a way of connecting our childhood with that of our children. No literature is quite so beloved as AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books – recently the bear beat Harry Potter in a poll of favourite characters – and as much as the words and philosophy of Milne have won a devoted following, the original illustrations by EH Shephard have also been an important part of that love affair.

This year, to celebrate 90 years of Pooh, Egmont have published Winnie-the-Pooh: The Best Bear In All The World (£14.99), a collection of new stories by Paul Bright, Brian Sibley, Kate Saunders and Jeanne Willis. Among its delights are the illustrations by Mark Burgess, in the spirit of Shephard. There is also a new addition to Pooh Corner, and it’s a creature that seems to be everywhere this season. Author Brian Sibley was inspired by a photo of the real-life Christopher Robin, in which he is pictured playing not just with a bear, but also a stuffed penguin.