Advent Calendars can be a little controversial. Should there be chocolate behind those windows or just a picture? Well, that dilemma can be solved. Forget the calendar and try this book. It has 24½ chapters, one for every day from the beginning of December. It opens with a young boy, Oliver, heading off to post his letter to Father Christmas. Mysteriously, his letter slips from the safety of the pillar box and blows along the snowy streets until it finally lands upon a mouse. It is a small but big-hearted mouse called Winston. Despite his tiny size, and though Father Christmas lives so far away, Wnston embarks upon a mission to deliver Oliver’s letter himself. Each chapter recounts an episode in the remarkable adventures he faces and the friends he makes on his journey. And for each day there is an activity to help prepare for Christmas; making cards, mince pies, decorations and all things festive. This is a beautifully illustrated book to share as Christmas approaches.
PanMacmillan hardback, £14.99
It was back in 2005 that New Zealand songwriter and children’s entertainer, Craig Smith, heard the joke, ‘What do you call a donkey with only three legs?’ The answer is, of course, ‘a wonky donkey’. Smith used this as a springboard to compose a song, adding more and more characteristics to the peculiar donkey’s description. In 2009 the song was turned into a book with wonderfully lively and characterful illustrations by Katz Cowley. The book enjoyed considerable success down under but made little impact here…until a video of a Scottish grandmother struggling to read it to her grandson went viral. With each page turn the string of rhyming adjectives gets longer and increasingly absurd and the grandmother collapses in hysterical laughter. Two weeks and over three million you-tube views later, reprints of the book have been rush released around the globe and ‘The Wonky Donkey’ looks on track to top the charts for Christmas.
Scholastic paperback, £6.99.
The Gruffalo has been the most popular children’s picture book over the last twenty years. It is a collaboration between English writer Julia Donaldson and German illustrator Axel Scheffler, who originally came to the UK as a student and has made his home here for 36 years. With Brexit, his future here is uncertain. He realised that without easy movement of people across Europe’s borders the world-famous Gruffalo might never have been born. Scheffler has invited children’s book illustrators from across Europe to draw a picture that expresses their thoughts and feeling about Europe.
One shows a group of children all playing together……. except one who plays alone in the corner. Another has a baby dinosaur asking its parent, ‘Do grown up dinosaurs always know what is best for little dinosaurs?’ This is a collection of 45 pictures, touchingly simple but with a powerful and passionate message.
PanMacmillan Hardback, £12.99
This is a big book. It is long. It has a vast gallery of characters and spans centuries. But most importantly is big in ambition. The novel opens with introductions to a range of separate characters. There is a family of Iowan farmers who, over generations, tend a single giant chestnut growing in the middle of the treeless plains. There is a soldier in Vietnam whose life is saved when, falling with a twisted parachute, he lands in a Banyan tree. There is the daughter of a Chinese immigrant who inherits a jade ring with a delicately carved image of a mulberry tree.
The lives of these characters and others eventually converge as they join forces as eco-warrios to save the last virgin forests from commercial logging.
Throughout this sprawling novel the most important presence is really the trees themselves. The complex interconnected forest community exerts its influence over all the characters and over us as readers in this powerful ecological fable.
Heineman, Hardback £18.99
Homelessness in Colchester is nothing new. At the turn of the 20th century two of our town’s most well-known residents were Emma and Grimes, an inseparable couple, devoted to each other though famous for their bickering, who slept in ditches and toured the streets scrounging for food.
This book describes itself as ‘an anthology of new poetry in aid of Colchester’s homeless’, but it is so much more. It contains a wide, varied and endlessly interesting collection of poems all on the theme of Colchester and its history by poets both well-known and unknown. But interleaved are many fine paintings and drawings by local artists as well as photographs that complement the poems. Added to that are fascinating articles on Colchester’s history and on homelessness and vagrancy over time, making this a book that really does have something for everyone. Author and historian, Alice Goss has done a splendid job in shaping poems, pictures and history into a coherent themed anthology to raise funds to help Colchester’s homeless people.
Anyone who has spent much time in Colchester has quite likely encountered an elderly chap with flowing white hair and moustache, sitting beside his easel with paintbrush in hand. Charles Debenham was born and raised in Colchester and has been painting the buildings and street scenes around the town for most of his life – as well as straying over the border to Sudbury.
He doesn’t seek out just the pretty buildings and he doesn’t wait for the sun to shine before he paints – always with his distinctive palette of muted colours. Here are pictures of corner shops, pubs, tattoo parlours and simple terraces with wheelie bins. For Charles Debenham, painting a building is like painting a portrait – each one has a story to tell, but it can take the fresh eyes of an artist to reveal that character. And some also record the life of people in the streets. Buskers and mothers pushing buggies; shoppers and friends talking at the roadside. Together these pictures form a portrait gallery of the people and buildings of Colchester and Sudbury.