Cracking Christmas Books

Christmas is a magical time of year and that magic is only enhanced by sharing festive books with those children in your life at home or in school. Below, in no particular order, are some short reviews of Christmassy recommended reads to share.

  1. How Winston Came Home For Christmas – Alex T. Smith
  2. Operation Nativity – Jenny Pearson
  3. Christmas Dinner of Souls – Ross Montgomery
  4. The Night Before Christmas in Wonderland – Carys Bexington
  5. Father Christmas – The Truth – Gregoire Solotareff
  6. A Boy Called Christmas – Matt Haig
  7. Pick a Pine Tree – Patricia Toht
  8. The Girl Who Saved Christmas – Matt Haig
  9. Dasher – Matt Tavares
  10. Farther Christmas and Me – Matt Haig
  11. A Mouse Called Miika – Matt Haig
  12. The Empty Stocking – Richard Curtis
  13. Alfie’s Christmas – Shirley Hughes

How Winston Came Home For Christmas – Alex T. Smith

Written in 24 and a half chapters, this book is designed to be read over the period of advent and I can see it becoming a Christmas tradition in our house. It is also good to read with any primary aged classes as well. If you follow Alex T. Smith on Twitter, I’m sure you’ll be kept informed of which day to start reading, depending on when you break up for Christmas.

Throughout the story Winston visits a number of European countries on his quest understand a vision he has had and his heritage. In each country he encounters a variety of indigenous creatures who are all exceptionally helpful and aid Winston in piecing together the clues he needs to complete his journey. We also learn about Christmas traditions from all over the continent.

As well as daily chapters during advent, there are also craft and recipe ideas for each day. These are all lovely and add to the magic of the book. The only downside is the pressure I put on myself to read a chapter with the children everyday. I find it hard enough to remember to always light the advent candle. Weekends are pretty good for catching up on a chapter or two though, and it really doesn’t detract from the overall loveliness of the story.

Operation Nativity – Jenny Pearson

We are already Jenny Pearson fans as this is the 4th book of hers that we’ve read. We’ve enjoyed them all because they all centre around children going on ridiculously exciting adventures. Operation Nativity is no different.

Oscar and Molly are visiting their family in Hampshire this Christmas, which means they must be part of the famous family nativity play that Grandma puts on at the church every year. It’s a big deal, especially for Grandma, but one night, the children discover a rather lost Angel Gabriel outside the house who they agree to help to save Christmas.

Gabriel has accidently transported Mary, Joseph, a Wise-Man, a shepherd and Donald THE Donkey from Bethlehem 2000 years ago to the modern day village of Chipping Bottom, Hampshire, England. The mission is to round them all up, keep them hidden from the rest of the family and then help to get them back to where they are meant to be all in time for the 25th of December.

Much hilarity ensues as the children and their growing team of helpers set about their task while trying to keep the whole thing a secret from the rest of the family. All of this happens while rehearsing a play which includes a heavily pregnant aunty playing Mary. What could possibly go wrong?

Pearson has a wonderful knack of intertwining very funny stories with poignancy, covering delicate issues in a really sensitive, child-friendly way. I got a little misty-eyed towards the end when the family return to Chipping Bottom a year after their fateful Christmas, just in time to say goodbye to a loved one. This chapter led to a lovely conversation with my daughter about remembering all the things that we love about people when they are gone.

One quirk of the book that we particularly enjoyed was the fact that each chapter title takes the lyrics from a famous Christmas carol or song and adapts them comically to loosely describe what is about to happen. We found ourselves really looking forward to discovering what the next chapter would be and singing the title out. It was great fun.

At the end of the book Jenny Pearson has added a great range of additional resources – a quiz, some crafts, some jokes, some nativity facts and interesting information from Christmas around the world. It’s like she’s planned the last day of term before the Christmas holiday for a KS2 teacher.

This book would make an excellent Christmas movie and it’s perfect for children aged 8-12.

Bella, age 7, says: “I like the book because it’s funny and it’s a clever twist on the nativity story. My favourite characters are Grandma the Turkey, Steve the shepherd and Molly because they are all funny. Molly is funny because she tells people what’s really going on but no one believes her because she’s just a little girl. She also always dresses in fancy dress and sometimes it’s different parts of different costumes. My favourite part of the story is when Grandma Turkey goes running around the house and attacks Hugo and Fenella.”

Christmas Dinner of Souls – Ross Montgomery

This is far from a traditional Christmas story. It’s set at Christmas and has the word Christmas in the title, but that’s about it. It’s more of a anti-Christmas book.

Monstrous characters who despise Christmas meet up at Soul’s College at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve every year. The tradition involves guests competing to tell the most terrifying, gruesome tales and dates back centuries.

Montgomery’s writing is fantastic. Each sentence is expertly crafted and my children wriggled, squealed and jumped with fear and delight as we read.

Tom, age 9, says: “I really enjoyed this book because it’s spooky and I really enjoyed listening to the different stories within the story. It makes a change to hear lots of different stories as part of the same book. The scariest story was probably Drybone Creathe’s because it was a good mystery.

It had a crazy twist that the author saved right to the end and I thought that was a great way to finish a book.”

The Night Before Christmas in Wonderland – by Cerys Bexington

This one is pretty clever. It’s a mash-up of The Night Before Christmas and Alice in Wonderland with the added festive message of, ‘be good or you’ll not get any presents.’ Children who are unfamiliar with the source material will still thoroughly enjoy this book, but those who know the Clement Clarke Moore poem and, particularly, the characters from the Lewis Carroll classic, will really appreciate the skill of Carys Bexington in crafting this updated version.

Father Christmas – The Truth – by Gregoire Solotareff

I love this book. Mostly because it’s really rather silly, but it also has many other qualities. It is a collection of ‘facts’ and stories about Father Christmas which are organised alphabetically. The book can be read in order, but you also can dip in and out of it, if you prefer. We’ve found it great for getting our young children to practice reading because there aren’t too many words on each page so they enjoy taking turns and making each other giggle.

So it’s a light-hearted, fun book that you can return to time and again, year after year. A perfect Christmas book really. Well worth adding to your collection.

A Boy Called Christmas – Matt Haig

Matt Haig is a master of his craft. He constructs stories brilliantly and each word is carefully chosen to induce a range of emotions in the reader. A Boy Called Christmas is the true origins story of Father Christmas (it really is, don’t argue) and it’s absolutely pack with festive magic and drimwickery.

While all does end well for Nikolas, the boy at the centre of the story, the book also has moments of real sadness and darkness. Like, at one point, when the boy unwittingly eats his only toy. Or when Nikolas is sent to the tower. To balance the darkness, there are also many warm and humorous moments.

A Boy Called Christmas is the first time Matt Haig introduces the characters of Miika the Mouse and the Truth Pixie, Both characters have gone on to be the central characters in others books, with the straight-talking Truth Pixie being a particular favourite of mine.

As well as a lovely story about Christmas, Haig also manages to mix in some social commentary about the media and how it controls and manipulates the world around us at time.

A Boy Called Christmas is my favourite Christmas book and it will take something very special to change that. I can’t wait to see the film.

Pick a Pine Tree – by Patricia Toht

The start of December, means it’s the start of Christmas books in assembly. Pick a Pine Tree is beautifully illustrated by Jarvis and charts the journey of selecting, decorating and enjoying the perfect Christmas tree.

By using this book we started conversations about why we bring trees into our homes and decorate at Christmas time generally. It was also great to discuss how we all have family traditions. Some are the same as everyone else, others unique to our families, all are special and help make Christmas a magical time of year.

The Girl Who Saved Christmas – Matt Haig

The is Matt Haig’s follow-up to ‘A Boy Called Christmas’, and it is filled with plenty more magic (or rather drimwickery). The first is an origins story for Father Christmas, and it’s good. Really good. And believable. It all makes sense and keeps to magic of Christmas very much alive for all children who read it.

In ‘The Girl Who Saved Christmas’ the big man goes in search of a girl who has the most hope, to help restore the magic which makes Christmas possible. Unfortunately, the girl in question (Amelia) has had an extremely tough couple of years and proves difficult to track down and has also lost a lot of hope.

Haig skilfully and sensitively handles themes of loss, trust, love and hope and includes cameos from Charles Dickins and Queen Victoria, but it all works. We hoped and assumed it would all turn out alright in the end, but didn’t really know how it was going to get there until very near the end. It is a gloriously happy ending, but with another adventure to look forward to in the shape of ‘Father Christmas and Me’. Also, rather excitingly, ‘A Boy Called Christmas’ is being made into a film which will be released in December 2020. Can’t wait.

Dasher – Matt Tavares

This is the story of how Father Christmas began to use reindeer to help him deliver his presents instead of horses. Dasher and his family are stuck working for a travelling circus but he longs to escape and head north to the beautiful place his mother has often spoken of. When Dasher’s opportunity arises he quickly grasps his freedom. One thing leads to another and he ends up finding a better life for himself, his family and children all over the world.

Farther Christmas and Me – Matt Haig

This is the final instalment of Matt Haig’s Christmas trilogy and the festive magic is very much still alive in Elfhelm. We’ve read each of the books, in order, over the last 3 Decembers, and it’s been a lovely Christmas tradition we’re sad has come to an end.

On the surface, Father Christmas and Me, is another epic adventure for Amelia, who we met in the second book. She struggles to feel accepted in Elfhelm and find her place living amongst the elves. She thinks about leaving, but ends up trying to become a journalist, an honest one. For a timeless Christmas classic, this book is also pretty topical, exploring themes of immigration, fake-news, Trumpism (Vodalism) and nationalism.

Above all, Matt Haig is just a bloomin’ good writer. The arc of all three books are beautifully created and always leave the reader guessing how the loose ends will be tied up. The loose ends are tied up and although there are a lot of worrying moments throughout, hope always wins. What I particularly enjoy are the moments throughout the book that bring a wry or knowing smile.

Throughout the truth is important. The perceived truth and the actual truth are not always the same thing. But the Truth Pixie is on hand to make the distinction and, as with other Matt Haig books, she steals the show.

The first book, A Boy Called Christmas, has been made into a movie and will be released in November 2021. This means that our Christmas Matt Haig tradition can continued for one more year at least, but I very much hope that the other books will be made in to films as well.

Tom, age 7, says: “It was sometimes scary, but mostly fun. I liked that Amelia went back to London in the end and told the stories to the children in the orphanage that she had built. Father Christmas is my favourite character because he always tries to help everyone.”

A Mouse Called Miika – Matt Haig

We first came across Miika in ‘A Boy Called Christmas’ where he acts as a curious supporting character who narrates occasional thoughts about the extraordinary goings on that he witnesses. Released around the same time as the film of that book, A Mouse Called Miika gives a little more detail to the background of the mouse, but mostly focuses on events that happen shortly after the conclusion of the first book.

Miika is a friendly mouse with human, elf and pixie friends but only knows one other mouse – Bridget the Brave. Through the book, Miika tries to please Bridget and be a good mouse-friend but at the end realises that actually Bridget hasn’t ever really been a good friend to him. He realises, with the help of the ever-wonderful Truth Pixie, that he’s better off being disliked for who he is rather than being liked for who he isn’t.

As ever, Matt Haig writes fabulously constructed books for children with fantastic nuggets of wisdom interwoven for readers of all ages. I particularly liked the quote below which comes towards the end of the book. I can see myself using in when talking to Year 6 children before they move up to secondary school.

Tom, age 8, says: “I thought it was really interesting to listen to. He meets Bridget the Brave and to start off with it was a good relationship, then it wasn’t, then it was again, then it wasn’t again. Relationships can be like that sometimes. It was really courageous of Miika when he said that he was the cheese thief but sadly he got flattened by the troll’s foot. In the end he learned that it’s ok to be who you are and not try to be someone else. It’s a good message for children who read the book.

The Empty Stocking – by Richard Curtis

Richard Curtis, yes that Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings, Blackadder, Comic Relief, etc) is the author of this week’s Christmas book.

I’ll admit I was a little dubious when this book was recommended to me as I’m not overly keen on the whole, ‘if you’re naughty you won’t get any presents,’ thing. But it’s handled really well. The ‘naughty’ girl in the story often misbehaves for innocent, misguided or misunderstood reasons and in the end she is able to make the right choice and receive a stocking full of gifts.

Alfie’s Christmas – Shirley Hughes

Shirley Hughes does heart-warming, nostalgic books, and if Christmas isn’t a time for heart-warming nostalgia, I don’t know when is. Dogger is an all-time favourite children’s book of mine (and my mum for that matter) and Alfie’s Christmas is another beaut.

It’s the countdown to Christmas and Alfie and his sister are preparing for the big day. They experience an exceptionally traditional English Christmas with all it’s chocolate-box awe and wonder.

Brilliant books by Jenny Mclachlan

The Land of Roar – Jenny McLachlan

We LOVED this book. It’s a magical adventure featuring dragons, a wizard, mermaids and a particularly scaring scarecrow. The journey Arthur and Rose go on is truly epic as they venture through a portal in their Grandfather’s loft into a realm created by their own imaginations.

The adventure they go on in order to save their Grandfather is incredible and full of danger and excitement. However, it is how the relationships between the characters develop that I really enjoyed. The twins at the centre of the story are growing apart at the beginning. This is often the case with siblings, as they mature at different rates and find different interests. It’s lovely to see them grow closer together as they find a new respect for each other and remember how much fun they can have when they believe.

The Land of Roar is a modern classic and I’m sure it will be made into a major feature film at some point soon. The follow up, ‘Return to Roar’, has recently been published, and it’s already in the pile of books next to my bed, waiting to be enjoyed.

Tom, age 7 says, “It was very, very dangerous at times, but I liked it lots.”

Return to Roar – Jenny McLachlan

This is the second in the trilogy of Roar books which we were desperate to read as we had enjoyed the first one so much. Expectations were high, and I’m relieved and delighted to announce that it did not disappoint.

Arthur and Rose have now started secondary school and are navigating their way through Year 7 and the changes and challenges it presents. The friendship issues are brilliantly handled by McLachlan who excellently describes the complexities of relationships within peer groups that are familiar to us all.

Back in Roar, the children are looking for an adventure over their half term break, and they certainly find one. Their nemesis, Crowky, is back as well as a new dark, character of Hati Skoll (a nod to Norse mythology). Both are menacing characters and just the right side of terrifying for KS2 children.

Fortunately for the twins, they are joined on this adventure by their friends Win and Mitch. This is the first time we meet Mitch (a mermaid/witch) and her particular set of skills prove to be most useful along the way. Win (wizard/ninja) is back and is probably my favourite character. He can be over enthusiastic at times, which leads to more than more problems, but his enthusiasm and humour make him particularly loveable.

Return to Roar is all about facing your fears and standing up to people who try to control you. Everyone with children should buy these books and read them together. They are simply brilliant.

Tom, age 7 says, “My favourite character is Arthur because he is really brave. I enjoy the books because they are quite scary, but they have loads of adventures along the way. I can’t wait for the next book.”

The Battle for Roar – Jenny McLachlan

We adored the first two Roar books, so the third in the series had a lot to live up to. However, we’ve come to trust Jenny McLachlan’s writing, so we knew it wasn’t going to disappoint.

The first hundred or so pages are a pleasant journey where the main characters get back together and explore, as yet unvisited, parts of this imaginary world. All the while there is the looming sense of uncertainty surrounding Crowky and the reader just knows he’s out there somewhere. The biggest twist in this story though, is that he turns out to not be the greatest danger to our heroes.

I won’t give anything more away, just to say if you’ve not yet discovered Roar for yourselves, it’s definitely time you gave it a go.

Tom, age 8, says: “Wow, that’s an amazing book, I hope there’s a fourth! It’s fun because it can be scary (like when Arthur gets trapped with Crowky) but it always ends up fine. There were loads of best bits but I loved it when they flew on the Crowgon. Win is still amazing and it was brilliant that he ended up with a dragon.”