Vicky Allan

IF you’re going to pick a Christmas themed book this season, you’ll struggle to find one more festively atmospheric than Pick A Pine Tree by Patricia Toht (Walker, £11.99). There’s nothing wildly imaginative about this simple tale of a family going out to pick their tree and then decorating it, but this is a comforting book whose illustrations seem to conjure up the smells, sounds and feelings of Christmas. One spread crackles with the chill of winter air. Another surprises with the thrill of the arboreal make-over moment in which the decorated tree is revealed in all its glory.

Many of the stand-out books this year, however, are not just for Christmas: they’re for all seasons. Such as Oliver Jeffers’ Here We Are: Notes For Living On Planet Earth (HarperCollins, £14.99), which goes through all the basics any small being who had just arrived in this world might need to know about themselves and everything around them. Jeffers, who began creating the book after he became a father at 40, is like a gentle parent or uncle, doling out advice, calmly, and with lines that stick in the head. A picture of the human body, for instance, is followed by the line, “Look after it, as most bits don’t grow back.” A refreshing draught of sanity in today’s frenetic world.

David Walliams and Tony Ross are back with another picture book, which, like The Bear Who Went Boo, features a polar bear – though this one isn’t quite as cute, and happens to find herself in trouble. Here, in Boogie Bear (HarperCollins, £12.99), Walliams delivers a rollercoaster tale brimming with messages about the planet, friendship and difference. Boogie bear finds herself swimming for her life after she wakes up to find the iceberg she fell asleep on has melted away and she’s adrift in the big ocean. Bad as it is, it’s not nearly as bad as making shore only to discover the land is populated not by white bears like herself but unfriendly brown ones. Funny as ever.

Meanwhile, for those who have overdosed on elves, the best antidote, in my book, is trolls. They’re meaner, dirtier and slimier, and, in Ron Butlin’s Day Of The Trolls (BC, £6.99), they deliver plenty of comic disgust. Here in the second of his troll books, it’s “Troll day” on which the tangle-haired characters feast on rat-on-a-stick, which they eat and eat “till we’re sick”, then go on to graffiti the town, smash things, and treat the mall like a fun-park. Beat that elves and Christmas over-indulgers!

Cats, also not just for Christmas, feature strongly among the children’s book joys. Particularly delightful is Katinka’s Tail (HarperCollins,£12.99), a magical new creation from the marvellous Judith Kerr who delivered us one of fiction’s finest pets, Mog, and whose feline characters are inspired by her own cats and their quirks. Katinka, however, is a little different from her predecessor, whose hilarious adventures were firmly grounded in reality. She has a very special tail and, with it, takes the reader on a trip even more fantastic than The Tiger Who Came To Tea.

For those who like a bit of feline comedy there’s also Porridge The Tartan Cat and the Unfair Funfair (Floris, £5.99), the latest in a series by Alan Dapre and Yuliya Somina which is worth it for Somina’s hilarious cartoons alone. In them we are delivered the comical Porridge, big-eyed, constantly tartaned (following an incident with a tin of paint), and frequently alarmed.

For young readers craving a Christmas tale, there’s little more charming than Katherine Rundell’s beautifully illustrated One Christmas Wish (Bloomsbury, £14.99). Theo’s parents are busy with their work and have no time to buy a turkey or any fancy personal presents, and he’s lonely on Christmas Eve. But a wish upon a shooting star changes all that, and he finds that the figures he has just put on the tree – the tin soldier, the robin the angel – come alive and he is no longer alone. A book that already feels like a classic.

The challenges of being a normal human plunged into magic training have been well worked in the Worst Witch series. But perhaps not thoroughly enough explored is what it means to be a witch thrust into a banal ordinary world in which she’s not even allowed to cast spells. Enter the entertaining Ruby McCracken: Tragic Without Magic, by Elizabeth Ezra (Floris, £6.99). The young heroine, after her parents become redundant in a world with few jobs for witches, finds herself hauled off to live in Edinburgh, where even the “snack spells” don’t work, and The Hex Factor is sadly missing from the television schedules.

Anyone even vaguely aware of the Marvel films will know that both Thor and Loki are all the rage, so the time is ripe for Norse Myths: Tales Of Odin, Thor and Loki (Walker, £18.99) a full delivering, for the younger generation, of the Scandinavian myth cycle, in its pre-superhero form. And Kevin Crossley-Holland, translator of Beowulf and teller of traditional tales, proves the ideal man to do it. His book with its dark, ominous, monochromatic images by Jeffrey Alan Love, is a keeper – one for the coffee table, or pride of place on the book shelf. A heroic creation.

A story to turn your heart to mush is Kate Saunders’ The Land Of Neverendings (Faber & Faber, £10.99). There is so much grief and loss, but also joy, in the pages of this tale of Emily, a girl whose beloved disabled sister, Holly, has died. Emily is stricken not only by the loss of her sister, but also Bluey, the bear, the toy she used to entertain Holly with, and who was cremated with her. But, it turns out, there’s a place to which toys like these go, a place that Emily calls Smockeroon, also known as The Land Of Neverendings. Hankies to the ready.

Also a tearjerker is Lauren St John’s The Snow Angel (Head of Zeus, £10.99), a tale which delivers its character Makena, a Kenyan girl who begins the story living happily in Nairobi with her mountain guide father and science teacher mother, a devastating series of difficulties and hardships. But none of this is fantastic. St John was inspired to write her tale by learning of the sheer number of young people in Africa orphaned, often by war and disease. There are 60,000 child-headed communities in Harare alone. But The Snow Angel is also uplifting, and a reminder of nature’s healing power, as it takes Makena, ultimately, and startlingly, to the Scottish Highlands.

And, for those who like a searing and fantastic epic romance, Scottish Young Adult writer Claire McFall’s follow up to The Ferryman ticks all those boxes and more. In Trespassers (Floris, £7.99) she continues the tale of Dylan, previously killed in a horrific car crash, and Tristan the ferryman she fell for, as they emerge from the underworld, and begin their trespass among the living.

But, if there’s a book that had me most captured, and which I want most to pass on, whether to adults or older children, it’s Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage: The Book Of Dust Volume One (David Fickling, £20). The much-anticipated prequel, or as Pullman calls it ‘equel’ to the His Dark Materials series, arriving after a 17-year-wait, is more than equal to its hype. The premise itself seems unsurprising. We are taken back to the start of his heroine Lyra’s life, when the girl is just a baby hidden, with her daemon companion, in a nunnery. But there’s something in the way that Pullman drives his fictional world down further into reality, creating a new hero, Malcolm, the son of pub owners, an observant boy, good with his hands, who knows how to handle hot plates and fix things, and then lovingly describing the detail of some of those tasks, that makes it yet more vivid than the original series. Strangeness still haunts his tale, intensifying as the Oxford countryside is swept by massive flooding and a chase ensues. And, above all, Pullman’s daemons, animal-spirit companions to humans, remain among the most transfixing creations of recent children’s fictions. Dust is a must.