By Vicky Allan

THE festive season always brings on that urge to look back, to return to old things. This year, however, more than ever it feels as if the standout books are all about revisiting the ghosts of stories past, whether it’s bringing the comforts of the classics or traditional tales, or remaking them anew for now. Modern perspectives - feminism, environmentalism and identity politics – are working their way into these tales, and it’s fascinating to observe how the push and pull of conservative and progressive politics has emerged in children’s books.

Among these revisitings is a marvellous version of the folk tale of how the Robin got its red breast. A Wee Bird was Watching (Birlinn, £6.99) is the product of an inspired collaboration between Karine Polwart, the acclaimed musician -songwriter, whose Wind Resistance show spellbound audiences with its stories of her life and the natural history of Fala Moor, and Kate Leiper, brilliant illustrator of all things wild, both real and mythical. Leiper’s Book Of The Howlat was a magnificent treasure. Here we follow a mother and daughter who go out into the woods, fleeing who knows what, as if refugees from some other fairy tale. All wildlife is watching, particularly a little grey bird, who sees everything, including the wolf approaching, in this tale of our debt to nature.

The Old Woman Who Lived In A Vinegar Bottle (Picture Kelpies, £6.99) is actually a reissue by the Scottish publisher of the first book Katie Morag creator Mairi Hedderwick ever illustrated – and what a lovely book it is. Published in 1972, a retelling of a Grimm fairy tale by Rumer Godden, author of Black Narcissus, it is one of those cautionary fables about knowing when enough is enough. The old woman, painted in wild, vinegary watercolour, is poor and lives in a vinegar bottle, which looks as if it comes straight from some lost part of Katie Morag island. When she goes down to the water, she calls for the magical “little fish” and asks, “I’m tired of living in a vinegar bottle. Would it be too much trouble to give me a little cottage?”

For wintry picture books with a message it would be hard to find anything more inspiring and gorgeous than Snowboy And The Last Tree Standing (Walker, £7.99). This gem is an eco-aware story by Hiawyn Oram, with atmospheric, other-worldly illustrations by Birgitta Silf. Snowboy is involved in his own imaginative heroic adventure when he’s lured away by Greenback boy, a greedy troublemaker, whose plan is a game involving cutting down all the trees in the forest and catching all the fish in the ocean. There is hope here, though – and a message that so long as some life is left there is still possibility of growth.

But there are laughs too to be had at Christmas, and among the funniest festive tales is Fred Blunt’s Santa Claus vs The Easter Bunny (Penguin, £11.99). It’s essentially a tale of neighbourly discord and envy. Jolly Santa and grumpy bunny live next door to each other, and while Santa is always full of cheer, Easter bunny is not happy. He looks over his fence and sees the old man next door has a much easier time of it ¬ he even has a workshop of elves and reindeers to pull his sleigh. Meanwhile, this exhausted rabbit has to do Easter all by himself, and without even a reward from the children he visits. “Even the dumb reindeer get a carrot!” he says. “I’d settle for a carrot.”

Also among the top funnies is the ever-prolific David Walliams. Geronimo! (Harper Collins, £12.99), a tale of a quirky young penguin who, from the moment he hatches, complete with aviation goggles, is determined to fly, is full of slapstick comedy and heart-warming moments.

A report earlier this year found that only 1% of children’s books feature a black or minority ethnic main character. Among those few is the wonderful Billy And The Beast by Nadia Shireen (Penguin, £6.99). Billy is a girl with a huge curly head of black hair in which she can secrete many useful items, including donuts. On a walk through the woods with her “trusty sidekick” Fatcat, she comes across the terrible beast. A riot of fun and inventiveness.

Among my favourite types of stories for young children are “I can do it myself” tales. The Way Home For Wolf (Hachette, £12.99) by author Rachel Bright and illustrator Jim Field, is one of these. A little wolf called Wilf wants to lead his pack. “Look at me! I’m big! I am tough!” he says. But the pack aren’t having any of it, and the little wolfling ends up being the one that gets left behind. Here, though, is a story about how there are often others out there to offer help.

For early readers, on this 40th anniversary of Raymond Briggs’ classic, Michael Morpurgo’s new version of The Snowman (Penguin, £12.99) is a must-read. Briggs’ original was, of course, a wordless visual and, on animation, also a musical wonder. Morpurgo has had to build a tale from words – accompanied by Briggs-like illustrations by Robin Shaw - a difficult task. Yet, it’s utterly compelling, bringing depth to his central character, a boy called James, as well as capturing the transformational wonder of snow. Does it have the magic of Briggs? Moments certainly. Above all, it’s a great tribute to the power of the original, acknowledging from the start that James’s favourite story is The Snowman. “He loved that story so much. He wanted the Snowman story to happen again. But every time he looked out the window there was no snow.”

One of this season’s most explicitly gender-political updatings of a traditional story is The Restless Girls (Bloomsbury, £14.99) by the dazzling Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist. It’s based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Twelve Dancing Princesses, which Burton has said she found deeply disturbing. “The princesses are essentially stalked, one of them is married off and their kingdom is given to the stalker. So many fairy tales are problematic. I know parents who read them to their children but change the endings, because they find it deeply awkward if the climax involves a girl marrying a prince.”

Here then, she has brought her changed version of the story, filled with sparky young women, who want to be everything from an aviator to a vet, written with breath-taking tonal changes. With its illustrations by Angela Barret, it’s stunning. Burton transports the tale into the realm of magic realism, ever conveying the sense that this might also be something happening somewhere now.

Into the Jungle (Pan Macmmillan, £16.99) by the excellent Katherine Rundell, is essentially a collection of origin stories for The Jungle Book characters, approved by the Rudyard Kipling Estate, and one that gives the tale a strongly beating contemporary heart. These tales gently repopulate Kipling’s jungle with the diversity and politics of now – fleshing out and adding female characters, including Mother Wolf, Raksha, and Bagheera’s sister, with whom the panther was imprisoned in a palace as a young cub, and the tale of their escape together from their captors. Above all, though, Rundell makes us feel the jungle and the characters within it, capturing its smells and sounds.

The Legend Of Sally Jones by Jakob Wegelius (Pushkin, £12.99), is a rich graphic novel prequel to The Murderer’s Ape. Best for older readers, though the drawings and narrative detail are absorbing for almost any age, it’s a thing of beauty and baroque intricacy, as it tells the tale of Sally Jones from birth in the jungle, how she is caught by Belgian officers during an illegal hunting expedition, bought by an ivory merchant who smuggles her onto a passenger liner by disguising her as a baby in a pram, purchased then by a widow who was an animal lover who teaches her to be a burglar – and that’s just the beginning of a book with a moral heart and a twist on every wonderful, though often dark, page.