Books for Christmas and Future Pleasures

October 17

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BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS PRESENTS AND FUTURE PLEASURES

How many of you had beautiful books on your shelf in your childhood bedroom which you didn’t read very often but, when you had a quiet moment, you’d take them down and pore over them for the sheer pleasure of recalling the first time you read them? 

For me, these tended to be the ‘grown-up’ non-fiction picture books I was given at Christmas – books which you wouldn’t necessarily turn to for help with your homework but which simply bubble with inspiration. A new publishing house, Big Picture Press, has recognised the importance of such books with their gorgeous new series of titles including Maps, Historium, Animalium, and Under Earth-Under Water by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski. The publishers describe them as ‘books to be pored over and then returned to again and again … created by and made for the incurably curious’. Perfect Christmas present material, in my view.

Under Earth-Under Water is a case in point. A big book anyway, it turns on its side to make even larger, longer illustrations of (in the first half) the ‘secrets of the underground world’ and read from back to front, the ‘secrets of the underwater world’. The whole of each page is illustrated with the text incorporated in bubbles. Topics underground include sewage, how geysers form, and underground utilities. The underwater section has pages on oil and gas platforms, anglerfish and lanternfish, and sink holes. It is all good serious information – and is bound to generate further questions, inspiring children to further research. This is a book to take time over – ideal for a rainy afternoon on the sofa either comfortably alone or with a parent, grandparent, or other caring adult, who will also enjoy it and learn something new every time.

More lyrical and even more beautiful is the stunning work of award-winning Coralie Bickford-Smith, an in-house designer at Penguin Books who has now published two of her own books, The Fox and the Star, and now The Worm and the Bird. Hardback and clothbound in black with bronze gilding, The Worm and the Bird won’t appeal to very small children but the breathtaking line drawings which fill each page and the minimal but intriguing text will draw the reader in, as will the sense of inevitability in the story as the worm dreams of having more space and struggles for freedom from the encasing earth, and the bird waits through sun, wind, and rain.

Details, such as the tiny alteration in the angle of the Bird’s gaze, are a delight – and will appeal to those who love Jan Klassen’s illustrations.

The end of the story, prefigured in the title, is, both unflinchingly obvious and movingly unexpected. 

Nursery rhyme books are another source of pleasure often returned to long after one thinks one has outgrown them. Three beautiful contrasting examples are the classic Lavender’s Blue: a Book of Nursery Rhymes compiled by Kathleen Lines and Harold Jones; Debi Gliori’s Nursery Rhymes; and Rosalind Beardshaw’s I See the Moon. Any one of these would make a lovely Christmas present for a younger child to grow up with.

When Lavender’s Blue was first published in 1954, The Times Literary Supplement reviewer said, ‘Even allowing for biased, and possibly rose-coloured memories of some particular collection of nursery rhymes of ten, twenty, thirty or even more years back, [this] new collection…should surely now be placed first among them’. It is still in print in 2017 and still has every right to claim first place today. All the traditional nursery rhymes are included, together with some delightful but now less-familiar ones.

The gentle line-drawn illustrations in muted tones, are perfectly old-fashioned, reminiscent of such Victorian picture-books as existed for children – such as Edward Lear’s illustrations for his limericks and nonsense rhymes. This wasn’t the nursery rhyme book of my childhood but it feels as though it ought to have been.

Debi Gliori’s Nursery Rhymes are gorgeous in her trademark brightly-coloured, highly patterned style. She includes 50 favourites and there’s a CD to go with them so children can sing along. Great humour, too – I love the picture of Little Bo Peep trying to sew the tails back on her lamb. There is a historical footnote to most of the rhymes which will inspire discussion. Did you know, for example, that the ‘pig’ stolen by Tom the Piper’s Son was in fact, not a real pig but a pastry pig filled with currants? Which explains how he could have eaten it so quickly, I suppose!

I See the Moon by Rosalind Beardshaw is a lovely small selection of lullabies and bedtime rhymes. I suspect that no parent will be allowed to put the book down until all the rhymes have been read each evening. But that’s no hardship. The book includes familiar classics such as ‘Golden Slumbers’, ‘Hush Little Baby’, and ‘Wee Willie Winkie’, all with very sweet illustrations, sparkling with gilded detail.

I can’t resist any of James Mayhew’s books and so can’t possibly let this issue of Salad Days go by without mentioning Mrs Noah’s Pockets, his latest collaboration with Jackie Morris. This is the wonderful subversive story of how Mrs Noah rescued the ‘troublesome creatures’ which Mr Noah wanted to leave behind in the Flood. He thinks she is making curtains for the Ark as she sits and snips and sews. But as he herds all the animals into the Ark, two by two, Mrs Noah slips away ‘for one last walk, wading through water, into the Mythico Wood, ‘on errands of her own’ in her new capacious cloak, lined with deep pockets. Lots of them. Which she fills with all those ‘troublesome creatures’ – unicorns, dragons, griffins, phoenix and more – to be released, ‘two by two, into the new land’.

James experiments with collages of his own paintings to illustrate Mrs Noah’s Pockets to create not only a 3D effect but also to disrupt the visual flow. This cleverly emphasises the unstated conflict between Mr and Mrs Noah who do not see the world the same way – and the reader can see the different (and delightfully conflicting) layers of the story played out in the illustrations. Who wouldn’t be delighted with a James Mayhew illustrated book for Christmas?

When James recommends a book, he is worth listening to. On his website, he mentions the work of Iranian illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi, who he met at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. Abdollahi’s work is superb, jewel-coloured and intricate, echoing the mosaic work which decorates the many mosques in his home country. The stories he has illustrated are unmissable and thought-provoking, bursting with hope and optimism in an imperfect world. When I Coloured in the World by Ahmadreza Ahmadi, illustrated by Ehsan Abdollahi is very special. A child is given a box of crayons which she uses to colour in and change the world. On the first page, she rubs out the word ‘desert’ and writes the word ‘roses’. ‘With my red crayon I made roses grow all over the world. I gave the world red’. The story continues, until, subtly, the child is no longer giving the world colours but ‘people’ in place of ‘old age’ and ‘hope’ in place of ‘despair’. This is a beautiful and simple book with a profound message about the potential for change. Everyone should read it and savour the message.

Also illustrated by Abdollahi is Pippa Goodheart’s A Bottle of Happiness in which a child called Pim goes over the mountain from his poor-but-happy village to the wealthy town on the other side. In exchange for a basket of beautiful fruit, he has to promise to bring the townspeople some happiness. He tries to bottle his uncle’s laughter and the villagers’ singing and dancing. Of course, when he opens the bottle what comes out is silence and nothing to see. But, remarkably, the townspeople begin to laugh and, once laughing, they sing and dance – and learn not to insist on an exchange of goods but to share and discover that there is always more good to be had. This is both a great new fable and a feast for the eyes in the rich, glowing patchwork of colours in the illustrations. If you can imagine Debi Gliori’s illustrations as interpreted by Picasso, you’re approaching the visual delights of this lovely story.

I hope that among my recommendations, you’ll find a Christmas present your children will treasure forever. Not a snowflake or reindeer in sight – at the time of writing, the usual crop of Christmas-themed books hasn’t appeared - but if you’ve followed my recommendations over the years, you probably already have quite a few to fall back on. If not, the lovely staff at Hart’s Bookshop (www.hartsbooks.co.uk,) in Saffron Walden will have plenty of Christmas treats on display for you to choose from by the time you read this.

Jo Burch

Founder of Words in Walden

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