Book Advent – 17th December The Christmas Truce – The Place Where Peace Was Found by Hilary Robinson illustrated by Martin Impey

This lovely picturebook, a sequel to Where the Poppies Now Grow, is a celebration of the historical moment when men reached out the hand of friendship to the enemy and found peace on Christmas Day 1914.  A beautifully touching story highlighting the power of hope and friendship in dark times, this book is wonderful at any time but especially at Christmas.

The Christmas Truce cover

It is Christmas Eve 1914 and in the German trenches a group of soldiers start singing “Stille Nacht”. The British soldiers spot the lights appearing in the distance and, hearing the voices, join in with “Silent Night.” The next day, on Christmas Day itself, both sides briefly put down their weapons and approach each other in No-Man’s Land where, led by Ben and Ray and Karl and Lars, they reach out the hand of friendship to each other. Enemies briefly become friends and join together in a friendly game of football.ChristmasTruce4

One hundred years later this historical event seems scarcely believable but yet it still has a poignant significance and demonstrates that the human spirit can be a power for good even in these dreadful circumstances. This very special book has captured that spirit perfectly for children. Hilary Robinson’s poetic text flows with an ease which makes it a joy to read aloud. I like the way the repetition builds gradually as the story unfolds adding to the sense of climax at the key point in the story. The illustrations by Martin Impey are wonderful with so many details for children to pore over and spot. They show the reality of the situation with the barbed wire and explosions but also glimpses of joy such as the Christmas robin and the dove of peace. The soldiers look young, as most of them were, and the smiles and hopeful expressions as the two sides come together for the historic meeting are extremely moving. There are thoughtful touches such as the photo of a wife and baby clutched in one of the German soldier’s hands.  All of this adds to the sense of these being people plunged into a situation not of their making.

As an adult it’s impossible not to be moved by this and despite the sense of loss this is very much a celebration of the triumph of humanity at a time of despair.  This stunning picture book will introduce children to this theme in a sensitive and thoughtful way and this would be a valuable addition to primary school shelves.

Strauss House Productions have created a beautiful video linked to this book which will give you a taste of what it is like. You can watch it here.

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Book Advent – 16th December Lost Christmas by David Logan

Although I somehow managed to miss the film when it was originally shown I was persuaded to read this book, based on the screenplay, by a lovely review I read and I am so very glad I discovered “Lost Christmas.” This is a wonderful story and a perfect Christmas read for children of about 10 or 11 and older but is one of those books that has an appeal for all ages. In all honesty I think it is a perfect Christmas read full stop. Although heartbreakingly sad in places it is one of those stories that you feel better for having read.


Lost Christmas

Goose, the main character, around whom the story revolves, is a troubled boy following the death of his parents in a car crash on Christmas Eve. Living with his increasingly senile Nan, his dog Mutt is the only thing keeping him sane. His only other friend is Frank, a former friend of his father who has problems of his own and whose influence on Goose leads the boy astray. As the first anniversary of his parents’ deaths approaches Goose’s life is unravelling and he is in danger of going seriously off the rails. Then he meets the mysterious “Anthony” whom Goose finds himself drawn to, despite his strange manner and peculiar habit of littering every conversation with random facts. Can this stranger help Goose, his desperate Uncle Frank and his confused Nan to find some happiness in their lives?

I’ve always been drawn to stories that contain “what if” scenarios and in Lost Christmas David Logan uses this to perfection with the individual character’s stories intertwining extremely well. This makes you think about what really matters in life with parallels to A Christmas Carol or the film A Wonderful Life. Although clearly ideal for Christmas time it would be a thoughtful read at any time of the year.

There is sadness, adventure, magic and love all wrapped up in this book and I couldn’t put it down because I cared about the characters and wanted very much to know what would happen to them all. As a reader I was willing these people on to a happy ending. I love this book because it made me care and made me think too. This was a moving read but a very satisfying one.

For a brief taste of what the story is like you may like to watch the trailer for the film version starring Eddie Izzard as Anthony below…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLJZSOiVejg

 

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Book Advent – 15th December The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden

Set on Christmas Eve this well told story weaves together three plot strands in a magical tale of hopes, dreams and wishes coming true if you wish hard enough. Although originally published in the 1950s I had missed this gem during my childhood but quite honestly this is a lovely Christmas read for adults too.

Story of Holly and Ivy cover

Ivy, an orphan, is to be sent to the Infants’ Home for Christmas because “she has no-one”. Six year old Ivy has a quiet determination about her and says she will go to stay with her “grandmother” even though she knows she does not have one. Although she has never had a family to love her Ivy feels deep down that there is a family somewhere for her and once despatched on her journey she sets off alone to find them.

Meanwhile on a busy Christmas Eve the toys in Mr Blossom’s shop know it is their last chance to be sold. Holly, a little doll dressed especially for Christmas, wishes hard for her own special child to come and buy her. But the day ends and Holly is left in the window. In the same village a childless couple are preparing for Christmas. Mrs Jones has decided that they will have a Christmas tree and decorations but she longs for a child to share them with her. She sits and waits for her husband, the village policeman, to return home and wishes.

The way in which Rumer Godden tells these separate stories and then weaves them together is both clever and touching. I enjoyed this very much and think that children will do too. It has everything you could possibly want from a Christmas classic; an orphan, snow, talking toys and a happy ending. This is an absolute delight and I wish I had discovered it earlier.

My copy has the added bonus of illustrations by Christian Birmingham that complement the text perfectly.

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Book Advent – 14th December The Best of Times by Michael Morpurgo ilustrated by Emma Chichester Clark

A pocket sized book with a fairy tale feel and illustrations that are fitting and appealing this would make a lovely Christmas gift for a newly confident reader or a poignant read aloud for slightly younger children.

The_Best_of_Times

When Prince Frederico and the Princess Serafina marry, there are huge celebrations and joy rings out across the land. But as time passes the Princess grows sad but is not able to explain to the Prince why. Her unhappiness spreads to all at the royal court and a shadow hangs over the palace and indeed over the country.  The Prince continues to try to raise her spirits without success and the Princess starts to fade away.  As Christmas approaches, Prince Frederico must find a way to warm his new bride’s aching heart. He sets off across the land and comes across a group of travellers who offer him kindness, advice and hope.

This is a relatively short read but a thoughtful one and the manner in which the Princess’s despair is overcome is touching. Very young children may not understand all the implications but the theme of kindness and joy conquering unhappiness may prompt questions and thought. I think the illustrations by Emma Chichester Clark fit the tone of the story very well and they convey the Prince and Princess’s emotions beautifully.

Perhaps one of Michael Morpurgo’s lesser known books this a sweet story for Christmas time and would be a lovely present for competent readers of about 7+.

 

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Book Advent – 13th December Lucky Wish Mouse – White Christmas by Clara Vulliamy

This magical story starring Lucky Wish Mouse and her ten tinies would be a charming treat to share with pre-schoolers in the run up to Christmas complete with sparkly pages and a comforting theme.

Lucky Wish Mouse White Christmas cover

In this first of a series we meet Lucky Wish Mouse and her family of ten tinies (baby mice) who live in their little teapot house.  They are busy preparing for Christmas frantically baking, making last minute additions to lists and putting up decorations and stockings. Finally the ten tinies are snuggled up in bed waiting with great anticipation for Christmas to arrive. They wait and they wait. For a whole five minutes. Nothing has happened, no presents, absolutely nothing. They begin to fret that their presents will never arrive. So the smallest, tiniest mouse of all ventures out in to the snow in search of Christmas. She scurries on in darkness through the deep snow, a small determined explorer in a pink sleepsuit. There is just the right amount of mild peril for the very youngest readers (or listeners) until rescue in the shape of mum, Lucky Wish Mouse, appears. Safely home again and reunited with her brothers and sisters everyone decides that the most important aspect to a happy Christmas is everyone being together. Safe in this knowledge the whole family settle down to sleep just in time for an important visitor to arrive via the teapot lid ensuring that Christmas will arrive after all.

lwmchristmas1

This is such a sweet story and has always gone down a treat with pre-school listeners in the school library at storytime. It has a charm and magic that appeals to the very young. They love the illustrations and the enchanting miniature world with the chocolate box bed and the paper clip mobile. There is opportunity for counting games with the ten mice and their accessories too. Young children also love being aware of the aspects of the story line before the characters with lots of calling out and pointing as they realise that things will turn out happily in the end.

White Christmas is a lovely book for sharing, with a comforting and reassuring feel for little people at Christmas time.

 

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Book Advent – 12th December The Christmas Eve Ghost by Shirley Hughes

This story is everything you would expect from an author and illustrator who has come to be regarded by children’s book lovers as the “Queen of Picturebooks.” A tender and thoughtful story set in 1930s Liverpool with lovely illustrations in Shirley Hughes’ unique style, this has a kindly theme of acceptance and friendship that is particularly fitting at Christmas.

Christmas Eve Ghost cover

Young Bronwen and her little brother Dylan live with their widowed Mam. Every day, in the early hours of morning, Mam leaves the two alone as she gathers other people’s laundry to bring back to their house to wash. Each night at bedtime, if she’s not too tired, Mam tells the children stories. Not fairy tales read aloud from books but exciting stories of dragons and ghosts, for their mother is a proper storyteller. Each Sunday, the little family go to the local chapel, perhaps a reminder of home in Wales.  The O’Rileys, who live next door also go to church, but a different sort of church and one that Mam warns the two small children is not a church for them. Although polite to Mrs O’Riley and her sons Bronwen and Dylan’s mother keeps her distance from them.

Christmas Eve Ghost plonkBut then on Christmas Eve, Mam has to go out to the shops for some last minute items and leaves her children alone for a little while. Bronwen and Dylan hear a ghostly plonk! plonk! plonk! from the washroom that sends them running into the street. They run straight into the arms of Mrs. O’Riley. Far from being scary or “different.” Mrs O’Riley reassures the children and takes them into her home until their mother returns. Once next door the children not only find the family are kind and welcoming but they also solve the mystery of the ghostly plonking. Better still Bronwen and Dylan’s mum makes a new and kind friend.

The wonderful illustrations are so full of detail that you want to slow down as you read Christmas Eve Ghost bye byethis book and take it all in. Young children would learn quite a lot of historical information from this lovely book without actually realising it. Shirley Hughes has a gift for conveying the emotions of small children in their expressions and general demeanour that encourages young readers to empathise with the characters.  Little children can become very worried by the unknown or something they don’t understand despite there often being a very straightforward explanation for it.  Both the story and the illustrations capture this perfectly. As with all this author’s picture books there is a feeling of comforting kindness and reassurance. We all need a bit of that sometimes.

I must confess to a personal reason for liking this particular Christmas picture book even more. My parents are a similar age to Shirley Hughes and were born and brought up in Liverpool too. In fact my dad has memories of visiting T J Hughes’ department store, founded by her father, as a little boy. This book and the illustrations in particular remind me of my own childhood visits to Liverpool and my dad’s stories of life in pre-war Liverpool so I have always felt an affinity to the story and the characters. However you don’t have to be a Scouser to love this, a lovely thoughtful message of kindness and community spirit is wonderful for everyone.

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Book Advent – 11th December Snow Sister by Emma Carroll (illustrations by Julian de Narvaez)

A thoughtful novella with a classic feel by my favourite writer of historical fiction for children this is a perfect Christmas treat. Set in Victorian England it is a story of families, love, loss and ultimately of hope.

Snow Sister cover 2

It is Christmas Eve and for Pearl the preparations are tinged with sadness as she thinks of her sister Agnes who died three years previously. Each year to try to ease the pain she builds a snow person outside her home, her own snow sister. This year the figure is dressed in her sister’s shawl but Pearl knows that it won’t bring her sister back. But a snow sister is better, she thinks, than no sister at all.

Snow Sister internal page

Pearl’s family don’t have much money and already owe money to the local shopkeeper and Christmas will be difficult for them. Then the postman brings a letter for Pearl’s father and it brings unexpected news of an inheritance following the death his estranged brother. As her husband sets off to find out the details Pearl’s mother sends her to town for the ingredients of a Christmas pudding. Can the family dare to hope that this Christmas will be a happy one for them all? When Pearl is refused more credit by Mr Noble the greengrocer she acts rashly and events that then unfold ensure that there is plenty of drama and tension in this short story.

 

The Snow Sister internal 2This is a perfect read for the Christmas season.  I think the combination of snow, adventure, family, love and mention of ghostly events in the night work extremely well. Yet again Emma Carroll ensures that with the use of historical detail she conveys beautifully a sense of time and place. The setting, the characters and the themes covered are almost Dickensian and this adds to the appeal of the story for me.  The wonderful illustrations by Julian de Narvaez add to the enjoyment of the book. Once or twice I was reminded of the Little Match Girl and there is a poignancy to the writing too.

Finally, the importance of appreciating what really matters in life, not just at Christmas, is captured with sensitivity and care.  Without being didactic in tone Emma Carroll makes this a thoughtful and inspiring story with an important message for children.

My copy has the original cover, which I love. However the book has since been reissued with a new cover that is even more appropriate for the Christmas season.  I think this would be a wonderful stocking filler for booklovers of about 8+. It would be a treat to read aloud in schools too and at just 100 pages would be a perfect quick read. Just lovely!

 

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Book Advent – 10th December Refuge by Anne Booth illustrated by Sam Usher

This poignant retelling of the Nativity was published in 2015 in response to the refugee crisis sweeping the world.  A donation is made from the sale of each book to the charity War Child. At the time of publication the book felt both timeless and timely and sadly two years later it is as relevant now as it was then.

Refuge cover

The story is told from the point of view of the donkey and from the first words on the opening pages we know that this is the journey made by Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. The illustrations by Sam Usher show tiny figures looking vulnerable as they make their way to the distant city.  The sensitivity of the text and the simplicity of the illustrations combine beautifully to make this a short read but one with a big impact. The family scene in the stable is both loving and movingly poignant.  The visitors arrive as we expect, first the shepherds and then the kings but there is no heavenly choir of angels and it feels very much like the kindness of friends recognising and celebrating the significance of a baby’s arrival.

Refuge nativity

The threat of danger means that the little family must flee to safety and as the mother prepares to leave, the baby nuzzling at her neck, the story has a sense of reality to it. So the little donkey and the family set off through the night “hoping for the kindness of strangers.” A subtle but telling reminder that Jesus was a refugee too.  As they progress the illustrations change and the family are depicted in a warm orange glow. This biblical family find refuge, kindness and a warm welcome.  The reader is left wondering whether or not they would receive the same response now in our 21st century world.

This is a book that I have on my bookshelf even though I don’t have children the “right age” for it.  I think this is a thoughtful and important book and one that probably should be in all primary schools.

This lovely story would be very special read aloud to a wide age group and would prompt discussion with older children too. A wonderful Christmas gift.

 

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Book Advent – 9th December The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski illustrated by P J Lynch

I think that this moving story of kindness and warmth conquering grief and sadness is utterly gorgeous. The text with its fable like feel is matched perfectly by illustrations of such breath-taking beauty that this has become a Christmas classic for every age and everyone. It is quite probably my very favourite Christmas picturebook.

Jonathon Toomey cover 20th Anniv

Jonathan Toomey is the best wood-carver in the valley however he is always alone and never smiles or laughs.  As he makes his way around the town he frequently grumbles and although a young man he walks hunched over as though weighed down by a great burden. The villagers don’t know it but there is a reason for Jonathan’s despair. It is grief. Jonathon does not talk about his loss but keeps it hidden deep within him. One day a young widow and her little boy call at his house. She has a request that requires Jonathan to use his great skills as a wood-carver. This request, the kindness of the young woman and the earnest enthusiasm of the small child gradually break down the barriers that the heartbroken man has put up to protect himself.

Although originally published in 1995 this wonderful book has a feel of a classic story of a bygone age. The stunning illustrations add to this as, to me, they have the appearance of old masters with their depth and use of light and shade. That P J Lynch won the Kate Greenaway Award for these in the year of publication is entirely understandable.  The combination of text and picture is wonderful and conveys emotion in a powerful and moving way.

Toomey illustration

Susan Wojciechowski’s story unfolds gently and slowly and as a reader you are drawn in to Jonathan’s world. I love the calm, quiet kindness of the young widow, Mrs McDowell, as she slowly brings warmth into the home. However it is the little boy and his insistence on the recreation of his beloved nativity figures who really works the magic. This is a wonderful way of introducing the Nativity story and the author has created a tale of redemption that is both meaningful and readable.

My current copy is the 20th Anniversary Edition which has a gentle snow scene on its cover. However it was an earlier edition that first enchanted me. The picture of the wood-carver and the boy seen below captures, for me, the essence of the story and it was that cover that caught my attention as I tidied up the library shelves. The man and the boy working together as one to create the wooden nativity figures are hypnotic. The care and guidance shown by the man and the earnest concentration on the boy’s face displayed in this picture sum up their relationship beautifully. When I saw it I had to open the book to find out more. For the next few minutes time stood still as I read. Since then I have always had a soft spot for Jonathan Toomey and the little family who saved him.

This is a remarkable and very special Christmas book. Please, if you haven’t already read it do give it a try. I’ve a feeling you won’t regret it.

The_Christmas_Miracle_of_Jonathan_Toomey

 

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Book Advent – 8th December The Jolly Christmas Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

This Christmas classic needs no introduction at all. Such is its originality and brilliance it is widely known and loved by parents and children alike. Why the need to include it in a bookish Advent Calendar you may ask? Well, this is why…

Jolly Christmas Postman cover

In preparation for this Christmas venture I asked my adult son which was his favourite Christmas picture book from childhood. Without hesitation he said “The Jolly Christmas Postman.” Why? “Because it’s brilliant,” was the reply. A little later I asked the same question of his brother. “Oh, A Jolly Christmas Postman, it’s got to be.”  His dad then joined in saying how much he had loved sharing the book with them and immediately recited the opening lines perfectly, lines which he last read aloud about twenty five years ago. Then three grown men sat down and chatted about “the little book”, “that great game” and “the brilliant concertina bit at the end.” That is why I had to include it. This wonderful book has become a touchstone in our memories of family Christmases long gone. It matters because it brings back recollections of very happy times and shared experiences and it takes a wonderful children’s book to do that.

Jolly Christmas Postman 1

From the opening lines when the Jolly Postman appears (him again!) this has a soothing familiarity to it. The references to fairy tales and nursery rhymes that small readers will recognise add to the reassuring sense of entering a world that you already understand. However it is the interactive element that young children find irresistible. In the days before book apps the Ahlbergs created the perfect tool for engaging children with a charming and inspired variety of treats. The card to Baby Bear, Red Riding Hood’s jolly game, the little storybook and the jigsaw of Humpty Dumpty that my sons reassembled over and over again ensured the longevity of this book’s success.

Jolly Christmas Postman 2

The final present for the Jolly Postman himself is the treat that our family remember and love the most. The concertina card is a joy and watching children’s faces when they look through the gap at the scene behind is a treat. Earlier this month I shared the book with a little girl who is learning to speak English. She loved it and examined the contents of every envelope carefully, her face lighting up when she saw each item. You don’t need to speak the language or understand the text to know that the Jolly Christmas Postman is a very special Christmas book indeed.

Jolly Chrismas Postman concertina

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