Spending Book Tokens – a New Year’s Treat

January 19

Spending Book Tokens – a New Year’s Treat

Another New Year’s issue of Salad Days and another opportunity to showcase for you some of the gorgeous books for which Book Tokens were invented. There’s always the option of investing Book Tokens in a stack of paperbacks and there’s a certain pleasure in the anticipation of all those good reads in the months to come. But if you want a big book to treasure, any of the following suggestions might fit your bill.

For the youngest readers, Julia Donaldson and Sharon King-Chai’s lift-the-flap and paper cut-out Animalphabet is, as you’d expect from that creative team, innovative, imaginative, very clever and highly entertaining. Not since Spike Milligan’s The ABC (‘Said A to B, I don’t like C; his manners are alack. For all I ever see of C is a semi-circular back ‘) have I seen an alphabet book which relates the letters to each other as this one does.

An example: ‘Here is an ant. Who is prettier than an ant? A butterfly. Who has more legs than a butterfly? A caterpillar…’ Wonderfully interactive, this will give children great pleasure guessing (or remembering) which creature comes next – and thereby learning their alphabet. An instant classic.

Next step up from alphabets, I was intrigued by the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary, subtitled from aardvark to zozimus, a real dictionary of everyday and extra-usual words. As a way of inspiring children to enjoy using a dictionary this could not be bettered. Take, for example, the entry for ‘aardvark’ – the first entry in the book. ‘An aardvark is an African animal with a long snout that eats termites and worms. Roald Dahl wrote about lots of African animals, like giraffes and monkeys and crocodiles but not about aardvarks. However, every dictionary has to start with aardvark; otherwise it would just start with aback, which is just too boring …

The entry for aback is actually not boring at all: ‘aback adverb: if you are taken aback by something, you are surprised and slightly shocked by it. Mrs Phelps, slightly taken aback at the arrival of such a tiny girl unaccompanied by a parent, nevertheless told her she was very welcome. – Matilda

This is not a dumbed-down dictionary. As you’ve seen above, it is properly useful and has all the features of the OED including clear examples of word usage – it’s just that they’re all related to Dahl’s novels. It is only a very short step from here to a love affair with the riches of all ‘proper’ dictionaries and an abandonment of the arid plains of unbrowsable online ‘quick fix’ versions. Hooray!

On the subject of small beginnings leading to love affairs, how about I am the Seed that Grew the Tree? This is a gorgeous collection of short nature poems, one for each day of the year, selected by Fiona Waters and illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon. I took this book to heart when I read the introduction by its publisher, who writes about a book of poetry she was given aged seven. It was a ‘small fat book with no pictures’ which, she says, she didn’t at first take to but on a wet afternoon after school she dipped into and discovered ‘the way that poetry squashed big feelings, big thoughts, big things, into tiny boxes of brilliance for the reader to unpack.’

When she grew up and became a publisher, she wanted to make a book ‘as rich as the one I loved so much, but to make something that was beautiful and easier to find your way into.’ And she has. Children must be encouraged to read the licence she gives them: ‘You could read it from beginning to end quickly, or you could read a poem every day … and think about whether the things in the poem matched, or didn’t match, what you had seen that day … You could just look at the pictures. You could leave it on your shelf until you are ready for it …’. This last is, I think, one of the most important things to understand about books. They wait for you. A book which ‘baffles and bores’ you aged seven may enthral you aged seventeen. Books are for keeps – particularly this one.

The selection of poems is exquisite. Most of them are short. Some are classics; some less familiar, but all have that raindrop clarity of image and idea which makes great poetry. The simple, bold, gloriously coloured illustrations add a further richness. I think everyone would be proud to own the poem chosen for their birthday.

If that volume sows a seed, the sapling will flourish with Chris Riddell’s Poems to Live Your Life By, which he has selected and illustrated in black and white pencil sketches. I’d say this was for young or mid-teens though adults would also love it. Some of his drawings are in his trademark style: others are more lyrical sketches. All capture the spirit of the poems he has chosen on themes such as ‘Musings’, ‘Youth’, ‘Family’, ‘Love’, ‘Imaginings’, ‘War’, and ‘Endings’. He has chosen some of the best poems in the English language, including Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Last Goodnight’, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘The Windhover’, Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Jabberwocky’, Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and Simon Armitage’s ‘I am Very Bothered’. As an introduction to what poetry can really do, I don’t think this can be improved on. It isn’t a massive, daunting collection: there are less than 50 poems. But if this was the only volume of poetry a child ever owned, they would never exhaust its delights.

Non-fiction delights now. I spotted Famous Family Trees by Kari Hauge illustrated by Vivien Mildenberger, which I thought was a brilliant idea, superbly executed. It provides in graphic form, some of the people and back stories behind a range of historical global figures from Julius Caesar to Ghengis Khan, Elizabeth the First to Abraham Lincoln, and Ned Kelly to Nelson Mandela. Children who have done family tree projects at school will enjoy this; children interested in history will enjoy it; and it will, I hope, inspire children to think about some of the ‘invisible’ figures in history who may, nevertheless, have interesting stories to tell.

History from a different perspective is also the theme of Peter Frankopan’s adaptation for children of his bestselling book, The Silk Roads, illustrated by Neil Packer. The book’s inspiration was Frankopan’s concern to write about history ‘looking for connections that would help explain the past better than how I’d been taught as a child’. He suggests that we can think of the Silk Roads as a ‘web of networks that have allowed goods, people and ideas, but also diseases and violence, to flow east to west, and west to east’ like the ‘world’s central nervous system’.

If you’ve read the original, you’ll know what to expect here. If not, you can expect an enthralling account of the ebb and flow of civilisation and power across the world from ancient Mesopotamia, the beginnings of trade in the ancient world, the spread of faiths along the corridor, wars and the rise of the Mediterranean empire, the spread of scholarship, scientific and medical knowledge, trade in the Americas, the road to war in Europe, oil and war in the Middle East, and the current massive Chinese investment in transport links in Africa and Asia. This is not strictly a reference book but the insights into how global history fits together transforms understanding. It is a totally absorbing read for young or mid-teens.

At this stage of the year, there’s always the Christmas Book That Got Away. This year there are two which I missed and which I recommend to you now, based on reviews I’ve seen (I’ll be ordering copies for my own collection). 

One is The Night Before the Night Before Christmas by Kes Gray, illustrated by Claire Powell. Inspired by Clement C Moore’s classic poem, Kes Gray tells the story of Santa who is busy preparing for Christmas but has the nagging feeling that he has forgotten something. With Gray’s trademark quirky humour, rhythmic text and some wonderful illustrations, the review suggests that this is due to become a classic. As is Ben Miller’s The Night I Met Father Christmas illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini. Ben Miller, actor, comedian and former Physics PhD student, sets out to tell a story, based on the structure of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol,  which explains, with the help of science, all Father Christmas’s quirks – why he wears red velvet, why he comes down chimneys, how he carries and delivers all the presents to help sceptical children believe in the magic for as long as possible.

Ever since I used a school prize Book Token to buy The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson – a ‘scientific’ treatise explaining how dragons could have existed and actually flown, I‘ve loved this kind of indulgent fantasy. It is just what Book Tokens are for.


All these books are either on the shelves, or can be ordered from Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden (www.hartsbooks.co.uk). I wish you a very Happy New Year’s browsing.

Books suggested by Jo Burch, Founder of Words in Walden


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