Review: Grandpa Christmas by Michael Morpurgo and Jim Field
Mia’s all grown up and she has a family of her own, but every year at Christmas she takes out the letter her grandfather wrote when she was a little girl. Grandpa had one big wish for his little grandchild – that she would love the earth and learn to respect it. That she would inherit a world of clean air and water. A world where people take only what they need, a world where no-one ever goes hungry again and where animals have nothing to fear from humans.
It’s quite a big wish but every year Mia and her family remember Grandpa and his letter.
A gentle and touching narrative about caring for our planet, which captures the love we feel at Christmas towards people who are no longer with us.
Mia remembers the time she and her grandfather spent together in the garden, planting seeds and digging for words and looking at frogs. This gentle and loving introduction shows the reminds the reader the ways in which they may have experienced the joys of nature. This is a clever way to make the environmental narrative accessible. It may be a difficult subject but it relevant to everyone – even the smallest child.
This section also shows us the relationship Mia held with her Grandpa. They spent time together when she was young. One of the most poignant parts of Christmas is the feeling that some of our loved ones are missing. Nothing brings that loss back like a missing Christmas card. This story gently reminds us that, although people are gone, we may have messages that they gave us in life. Mia’s routine of reading Grandpa’s letter to her children shows us that, although grief never goes, we find ways to keep those people close to our hearts.
Jim Field’s illustrations capture the warm memories, big thoughts and poignant emotions Mia experiences as she reads Grandpa’s letter. Seeing the contrast between the environmental damage and Grandpa’s dream world helps us understand exactly what we’re doing – and how different it could be. I love the landscapes. Every leaf and every blade of grass is full of life and movement.
Certainly one which will make older readers emotional. It moved me to tears as swiftly as the end of The Snowman. I think it is important to acknowledge Christmas as a time of reflection and change, and this picture book does it so beautifully it deserves to be a classic read by many generations.
Thanks to Egmont UK for my copy of Grandpa Christmas. Opinions my own.
Author Q&A: HS Norup, author of The Missing Barbegazi, talks about mountains, fairytales and Christmas traditions.
The Missing Barbegazi is one of my middle-grade hits of 2018. It is the story of a friendship between a girl and a mythical, fairylike creature which lives in the mountains. The story is about family, friendship and trust and it is set in the days shortly after Christmas. If you are looking for a magical story to read in the build-up to Christmas, I can’t reccomend this enough.
I was delighted when author HS Norup agreed to answer some questions about her work, about the snowy landscape which inspired her setting and about fairytales in general. It is a pleasure to share her answers. Thank you Helle for your time.
Q: Barbegazi are mythical creatures who come out at first snowfall but are rarely sighted by humans. Did you want to write about Barbegazi, or did these creatures fit into your story?
A: When I began writing THE MISSING BARBEGAZI, I had never heard of barbegazi. I wanted to tell the story of an eleven-year-old girl, Tessa, who was desperate to win a ski race. A story set entirely in the real world without any magic or mythical creatures. But I had not written more than one chapter before Tessa met a strange furry creature in the snow. After some research, I discovered that the creature Tessa had encountered was a barbegazi. And everything about them fit perfectly into the story.
Q: Aside from the Barbegazi, do you have any favourite stories set in snowy landscapes? What is it you love about these stories?
A: Snow is magical! I still get excited every winter when I see the first snowflakes floating down, and there’s nothing quite like waking up to a newborn glittering world after a night of snowfall. In a novel, the dangers of snow and cold weather immediately raises the stakes. A landscape covered in snow can become a character in its own right and influence the story through the opposition or help it gives the protagonist, as is the case in THE DARK IS RISING by Susan Cooper. Other favourite stories that are set in the snow includes: C.S. Lewis’s THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, Philip Pullman’s NORTHERN LIGHTS, Sinéad O’Hart’s THE EYE OF THE NORTH, Vashti Hardy’s BRIGHTSTORM, Piers Torday’s THERE MAY BE A CASTLE, and Katherine Rundell’s THE WOLF WILDER.
Q: Mountains play a huge part in your story. Why did you choose this setting?
A: I love the mountains and find them immensely fascinating—perhaps because I grew up by the sea in a flat country. From afar, the mountains present this beautiful, serene panorama, but up close they are wild and unforgiving. Add snow, and the mountains become both more beautiful and more dangerous. I have a deep respect for these dangers, especially avalanches, and they played a role in the story even before I discovered the avalanche-surfing barbegazi.
Q: You write about a world which is very like ours, except for the magical creatures who live in the mountains. What drew you to magical realism and how do you think fantasy elements help us to tell a story?
A: I have always loved reading magical realism and low fantasy stories. The idea that there might be magical or otherworldly creatures around us is both enticing and scary. I can’t go for a walk in the forest without secretly looking for fairies and I’m still afraid of the dark—my imagination often runs wild. I think fantasy elements can help us create story worlds that are fresh and interesting. At the same time, the presence of fantasy elements signals to the reader that this is a pretend world, which they can safely explore along with the protagonist.
Q: Family plays a huge part in The Missing Barbegazi. Tell us a little about how the two main characters fit into their families.
A: Tessa and Gawion are tweens (although Gawion is 154 years old) and both are part of loving families, but with very different family structures. Tessa’s parents are divorced, but she and her mum lives in the same house as her grandmother (and until recently her grandfather) and near other relatives, so she has a wide family network around her. Gawion’s family lives in complete isolations, far from other barbegazi, so they are a very close-knit family, and Gawion’s twin sister is his only friend. It’s important for the plot that they are isolated, but it’s also a situation I know well and wanted to describe. Whenever we, as a family, have moved to a new country, we have experienced 6-12 months of being each other’s only friends, and, since we left Denmark a long time ago, we have not had any family network to depend on. All family structures have positive and negative sides, and it’s important to show diversity without judgement in children’s fiction.
Q: Your story is set in the days after Christmas – the days when the presents have been unwrapped and the crackers have been pulled. Was there a reason you set your story after Christmas, and not during the festivities?
A: There are a couple of reasons I didn’t include the Christmas festivities, but the main reason is that it would have distracted from the story I wanted to tell. Tessa’s grandfather died shortly before Christmas, and the family is grieving, so I can’t imagine their Christmas was a jolly affair. Also, for many of the locals in a skiing resort, the week between Christmas and New Year’s, is the busiest week of the whole year. Tessa’s mum and Uncle Harry were both working over Christmas, catering to the needs of guests instead of their own families, but I’m sure Aunt Annie took good care of Tessa, Felix and Oma.
Q: Fun: Favourite cracker joke? Best Christmas jumper?
A: We have neither Christmas cracker jokes nor jumpers in Denmark, so I can’t really answer these questions, but we have other fun traditions. We celebrate on Christmas Eve. For dessert we always have Risalamande, a kind of rice pudding with almond slivers and one whole almond. Whoever finds the whole almond receives a small gift, but the fun lies in hiding the almond if you have found it or pretending to have found it if you haven’t. After dinner and before opening presents, we all dance around the Christmas tree, singing first psalms then jolly songs, usually ending with the whole family chasing each other around the house.
Q: Which animal would you have on the front of a Christmas card?
A: Mountain goats! We sometimes see them in the snow, springing around the steepest mountain sides, defying gravity. They’re more interesting than reindeer and deserve to be on Christmas cards.
Many thanks to HS Norup for taking the time to answer my questions. The Missing Barbegazi is available from Pushkin Press.
Review: I’ll Love You Forever by Owen Hart and Sean Julian
Though seasons may turn,
bringing sights new and strange,
My love is the one thing,
that won’t ever change.
A polar bear guides a cub out of the den and across the landscape, from winter to spring and through the first year of life. All along, adult bear reassures the cub of unending love.
A gentle rhyme to share with the very smallest children.
Reading is about so much more than language acquisition. It is a bonding time, and books like this give children the space to ask very big questions. Will you always love me? Even when I’m grown up? As adults, we take these things for granted but children need the space to ask these questions.
Little bear gains confidence, exploring for himself and straying further from the adult but at the end of the book, the bears are cuddled back together. This gives the reader an important message – even when they spend time away from their loved ones, the bond is never broken.
The bears are not gendered or named as parent and child. This makes the book accessible to all sorts of family units. It would be a lovely book to gift to a new baby or to give to a child on the edge of a new milestone who is nervous about the changes.
This is also a lovely story for talking about seasons. Winter turns to spring, and then summer. Big polar bear introduces different features of the seasons – snowflakes, blossom, migratory birds and golden leaves indicate that the seasons are changing. The soft colour-pallette and gentle brush strokes match the tone of the rhyme. This is a safe landscape. A landscape ready to explore.
A warm and comforting narrative which will make a beautiful gift for small children. A must-have for any early bookshelf.
Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of I’ll Love You Forever. Opinions my own.
Little Robin is excited about Christmas. He has seven warm vests washed and ready for the festive season. When he sees his friends shivering in the cold, Little Robin gives away all his vests. His generosity has left him warm inside but freezing cold. Is there a present for Robin this Christmas?
There are two things at the heart of this story – an origin story for how robins came to have a red vest, and a message about sharing and generosity. This beautiful edition has been printed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the story. With its warm take on the festive season, it is little wonder that this book has endured.
With so much emphasis on receiving, Little Robin Red Vest reminds us that the thing which will leave us warm inside is giving to those in true need. The animals Robin gives to are without warm clothes. This would make a lovely, gentle introduction to the difference between need and want, and the difficult fact that a lot of people are currently going without the things they need.
Blue and grey snowscapes make a lovely soft background. Robin’s red vest stands out bright and warm in the cold, just as it does when we see a real robin on a snowy day. The animal’s facial expressions speak louder than the words -desperate, longing eyes turn to hugs of joy and gratitude as the animals receive the warm clothes they need.
Every time I see a robin now I think of this story. It captures the joyful spirit of this bird and uses it to remind us that generosity will bring us greater happiness than want. A true Christmas classic and one I recommend to all my friends.
Thank you to Nosy Crow Books for my copy of Little Robin Red Vest. Opinions my own.
What is the Christmas shake-up Q&A? Basically, it is a little game I devised where participants mix things from different books to create a festive situation. So clothes from three books to make a party outfit or objects from one book gifted to a character from another.
Amy is one of my earliest blogging friends. She’s the one who keeps me sane when I have 460 blog posts to write on a Friday evening. Her knowledge of middle-grade fiction is second-to-none and she has cheered on my writing from the early, shapeless stories through to the third edits of a 45,000-word manuscript.
I love Amy’s blog too – it’s a mash-up of Disney and middle-grade fiction and exceptionally cute dogs.
Gift an object from one book to a character from another and explain why.
Oooh this one is definitely the hardest! I think I’d give a certain very expensive spoilery object from the Children of Castle Rock to Joni’s family from Skylarks so that they could sell it and have a really special Christmas with the proceeds.
You’re hosting a Christmas party – pick your fictional guests and explain why you put them together.
I want a party with basically all the Geek Girl characters, Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells from the Murder Most Unladylike books because I think they’s be brilliant company and Ade and everyone else who lives in his tower because they deserve a really special Christmas because they go through so much in the book!
If you could try a Christmas tradition from any story, what would it be?
I loved the sound of the royal Christmas in Maradova, and I’d love to give those a go! We see them in Princess in Practice, and they sounded wonderful! Or some of the Covey family’s from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before!
Pick the setting from one book and a celebration from another. Why would you host that celebration in that setting?
Much like Fergus from the Children of Castle Rock’s decision to sabotage Alice when she first arrives at Stormy Loch, my choice for this question is inspired by literally nothing other than to see what would happen: I want to move Daisy and Hazel’s present opening scene from the end of Mistletoe and Murder to a fantasy world. Really any, but I think something where the animals speak like in Narnia, would be HILARIOUS to see Daisy especially navigate. I can’t imagine her putting up with the White Witch for long!
Make your New Year’s resolutions with messages from three books.
I need to embrace what Gracie learns throughout You Only Live Once- you need to have a healthy balance between doing school work and other things you love.
‘Nobody ever really metamorphoses’- this is from Geek Girl (I’ve mentioned them SO many times in this post alone, but they’re such faves so why not?!). It’s something I try to remember constantly- you can’t really change yourself that much, and as such you really should like yourself.
I also liked the Great Diamond Chase’s message of trying your best to be good to the people around them and do the best thing for them, so I’ll go for that as my last one I think.
Make up a Christmas ball outfit with clothes and accessories from different books.
I think for a dress I’d go for the polka dot dress from the Polka Dot Shop by Laurel Remington, or perhaps one of the party outfits from A Sky Painted Gold- which all sounded gorgeous! For jewellery, I seem to recall Harriet wearing lovely expensive earrings in one of the Geek Girl books, so I’d have those too, and for shoes I’d probably go for strappy sandals (which are mentioned in loads of books, and I’m almost certain they pop up in several of Cathy Hopkins’) even though it’s December, because I can’t wear high heels. I can’t think of any characters off the top of my head who wear red lipstick, even though there are probably loads and I just can’t remember them, but I’d finish off the look with that because I wear it with just about any outfit it even vaguely goes with!
Do you have a great answer for one of these questions? Let me know in the comments below.
Torvil’s was most definitely one of the town’s richest elves. In fact, as the owner of its only toyshop, he had done rather well for himself. But whereas most people who make money are happy to share it with their family and friends, Torvil kept his fortune all to himself.
(The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller. P19.)
Jackson has always wondered where Father Christmas came from. How did he come to be the man who delivered all the presents around the world.
Then, one magical night, Father Christmas arrives and takes Jackson on the ride of a lifetime. Along the way, he tells a story. A story about a stingy elf who never thought of those less fortunate, until one night three strange beings showed him a different way of thinking.
A Christmas Carol meets the magic of the North Pole.
Join Jackson on the adventure of a lifetime as he searches for the answer to the ultimate question – how did Father Christmas get his position?
There are two parts to this story – the strand in which we see Father Christmas and Jackson, and the story of Father Christmas’s – or should I say Torvil’s – life. It is this second strand where the action and development takes place, so the story is about Torvil and not Jackson.
Let me be clear – this is a retelling of A Christmas Carol. Although the landscape is different and there are some minor changes (Torvil, does not, for example, face his own grave,) the plot builds in just the same was as the original Christmas classic. What Ben Miller has done is made it accessible to younger children, and added a bit of Christmas sparkle for bigger kids.
This narrative has never been more relevant – young Torvil’s claims that he will grow up to help the poor fade as he grows older and greedier. At a time when politicians are putting their own personal feuds and whims above the increasing number of Foodbank users, it is important for children to understand why the wealthy and powerful need to think about others.
The world is full of magic – think snowy hills and starry skies and reindeer.
Accepting that this is a retelling, I think it brings the story to a younger audience. Snuggle up and listen with wonder to the story of Father Christmas himself.
Join in the traditional carol with this beautiful new edition. Angels fly over the stable and animals gather on the hillside as Mary and Joseph await the birth of their Son. Recall the earliest Christmas story and celebrate the magic of the nativity story.
Silent Night is one of the best-known and best-loved Christmas carols of the past hundred years. It is also one which children learn at an early age, which makes it a lovely introduction to the nativity story. Whether you are a practising Christian or just exploring one of the best-known stories of all time, this edition captures the atmosphere of the nativity story.
The artwork is stunning. Black skies and white hills and buildings make the perfect backdrop for angels and animals and shepherds on the hills. The simple background means the eye is drawn to the characters and the activity of the story. There is very much a sense of the story happening on a hillside long, long ago – which of course is exactly where it begins.
The story follows Mary and Joseph from their arrival on a donkey to the moment where everyone gathers to pay respects to the baby. Jesus’s birth is marked by a stream of stars and an announcing angel. This would be a lovely book to read ahead of a nativity play.
An information section at the back tells us the history of the carol, from the moment it was composed in Austria in 1818 to the time it was sung by troops on all sides of the conflict in WW1. The folk-history of a beloved carol would be a lovely way to explore – without pushing any messages – the unity between European nations.
A striking book which captures the magic and joy of the nativity and of the Silent Night carol. This deserves to become a staple for many libraries.
Thanks to Quarto Children’s Books for my copy of Silent Night. Opinions my own.
Review: The Snow Rabbit by Georgiana Deutsch and Alison Edgson
Bear is always angry. So angry that the other animals keep away until one rabbit decides to find out what will make bear smile. Could it be a snow rabbit or will it take something more? Something like a friend?
A story about friendship and empathy set during a snowfall. I loved the message of patience and understanding – Bear is growly and his temper which makes the other animals afraid. The animals stay away from him and whisper behind his back … which makes him even more unhappy. Something has to break the cycle. I liked how responsibility and blame were not landed on one party. It takes one of the animals to attempt friendship, and a very broken snow rabbit for Bear to figure out what needs to change.
The illustrations and design are as cute as a John Lewis advert. Bear may be grumpy but there is something sweet about his scowl. This is a book of cosy cottages, stripy jumpers and glittery snow-animals. It is a comforting landscape filled with woodland animals. I love how the jumpers and bobble hats provide splashes of warm colours in the frozen landscape.
The text uses both sentences and speech bubbles, which will give young readers a chance to voice their favourite parts and act out the text. The speech bubbles add an extra layer to the text – for all Bear is in the wrong, there are times when the other animals are melodramatic. This is countered by the little rabbit’s attempts to engage bear in friendship.
A familiar narrative made fun with glitter and sparkle. Cuddle up with a mug of hot chocolate and read this one together.
Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of The Snow Rabbit. Opinions my own.
There is one middle-grade novel I am extra especially looking forward to in 2019. Michelle Harrison writes folksy, magical stories full of black-cats, fairies and local traditions. I have loved every story she has written so far, and A Pinch Of Magic looks equally amazing.
It is the story of three sisters who must break a deadly curse which has haunted their family for generations. Each sister possesses an object which has been handed down the family – a mirror, a carpet bag and a set of wooden nesting-dolls. None of these objects is what it seems.
The Widdershins sisters kindly agreed to share their gingerbread recipe. It is a pleasure and a delight to welcome Michelle Harrison and the Widdershins to my blog.
The isle of Crowstone, home to the Widdershins sisters ‒ Betty, Fliss and Charlie ‒ is often damp and chilly thanks to the freezing fogs from the nearby Misty Marshes. So what better treat to stay cosy with than some warming, spiced gingerbread?
350g plain flour (plus extra for rolling out)
2 tsp ground ginger
1tsp ground cinnamon
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
175g soft light brown sugar
4 tbsp golden syrup
Makes approx. 20 pieces, depending on cutter size. I found this gorgeous Russian doll one on eBay which came with a stamp to press in the detail. I’ve used it several times and the shapes are always met with delight. Without further ado I’ll hand over to the Widdershins . . .
FLISS: In a large bowl, sift together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, ginger and cinnamon. Add the butter and rub together with your fingers ‒ CLEAN fingers, Charlie! ‒ until it looks and feels like sand.
BETTY:Sand? That looks more like shingle from the marshes. Rub it in some more.
FLISS: Shh. This is my recipe.
CHARLIE: No, it’s not. It’s Granny’s.
BETTY: Stop eating the sugar, Charlie.
FLISS: Stir in the sugar. I usually close my eyes and make a wish when I do this part.
BETTY: Can you wish not to burn it this time?
FLISS: *Snorts* Lightly beat the egg and the golden syrup together in a jug—
CHARLIE: Make sure it’s a free range egg. They’re tastier and kinder to the chickens.
FLISS: —then pour the egg/syrup mix into the bowl. Combine until it begins to clump together, then remove from the bowl and knead until smooth.
BETTY: Sprinkle some flour on to your work surface so the dough doesn’t get too sticky. When it’s ready, wrap it in cling film and chill in the fridge for fifteen minutes. This stops it spreading out too much and losing its shape while it’s baking.
FLISS: Ooh, yes. I always forget that part.
CHARLIE: Who cares what it looks like? Get it in the oven I WANT TO EAT IT!
FLISS: Pre-heat the oven to 180C/160C fan/Gas 4. Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper. Once chilled, roll out the dough to a thickness of about 0.5cm on a lightly floured surface, and cut out the gingerbread shapes. Place them on the tray with a gap between them and bake for 12-15 minutes until lightly golden brown. This usually gives me just enough time to write a little love poem.
BETTY: No, this is when you clean up the kitchen and keep an eye on the oven, feather-brain. The best gingerbread is a bit chewy, so don’t overdo it! Once it’s out of the oven, leave it on the tray for a few minutes, then move to a wire rack to finish cooling.
CHARLIE: IS IT READY YET?
FLISS: Once cooled, you can make your shapes look pretty by adding icing, and silver balls or sprinkles.
CHARLIE: Or just scoff it as it is. Jumping jackdaws, that’s good!
Huge thanks to Michelle Harrison for your time. A Pinch Of Magic publishes in February 2019. Pre-order here.
Review: The Twelve Days Of Christmas by Brian Wildsmith
Four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves … and a Partridge in a pear tree. Join in with the song with this beautiful gift edition, illustrated by artist Brian Wildsmith.
The Twelve Days Of Christmas is one of the most popular carols and one often taught to children. The repetition and the counting-rhyme make it an obvious choice to sing with the very young. This edition would make a lovely gift for children or adults. You almost don’t need the words because the illustrations speak so beautifully for themselves.
Originally published in the 1970s, the illustration style is in keeping with picture books from the second golden age of Children’s literature – the works of John Burningham and Eric Carle spring to mind. Some of the pictures are impressionistic and there is a heavy focus on pattern and colour. I love the colour-palette – the reds, purples and yellows have the quality stained-glass or paper decorations.
This new edition is a lovely size – it would fit into most stockings and would certainly make a lovely Secret Santa present or a table gift. A traditional rhyme with retro illustrations. Buy this for the arty friend in your life or for children who appreciate gifts which they will love equally in 40 years’ time.
Thanks to Oxford University Press for my copy of The Twelve Days Of Christmas. Opinions my own.