Great new Christmas books for children

If you’re looking for Christmas books that feature new Australian stories:

Please note, Tea and Sugar Christmas is now out of stock at Readings and more stock cannot be supplied in time for Christmas.

Christmas books can get a bit samey, so when an original idea pops up you take notice. I can remember the moment I heard about Tea and Sugar Christmas.

I was at a children’s literature conference in May and happened to be standing next to a woman who introduced herself as Jane Jolly. She said she had a Christmas book coming out, about a girl who lives in the outback and is excitedly waiting for the special ‘Christmas train’ to arrive because it will bring one very special passenger: Father Christmas. I thought it sounded so unlike the standard fare. Then Jane told me it was being illustrated by Robert Ingpen – well, that sealed the deal, this was going to be one to look out for!

It’s a story you can take your time with – enough text for a really satisfying read-aloud, with the addition of fold-out pages for every scene where Robert Ingpen’s paintings can really shine. There’s also some very nicely done information at the back, with photos from the National Library of Australia, because this story is based on the real tea-and-sugar train that travelled from Port Augusta to Kalgoorie once a week from 1915 to 1996, servicing settlements with everything from groceries to medical care.

This is a book that you can talk about for ages, or simply sit quietly while you take in the gorgeous illustrations. And it’s definitely my joint top pick of the bunch this year – tied with Little Dog and the Christmas Wish by Corinne Fenton and Robin Cowcher; I couldn’t choose between these two.

Corinne Fenton’s picture books are a big hit in my house – particularly The Dog on the Tuckerbox (another wonderful ‘true story’) and Flame Stands Waiting. I’m certain Little Dog and the Christmas Wish will be as popular.

A little like Anna Walker’s adorable Peggy, Little Dog gets lost in Melbourne city centre, which is ‘all dressed up for Christmas’. Robin Cowcher adds atmosphere to this sweet story with a lightness of touch and recreates Melbourne in a lovely subtle way – spot the iconic Skipping Girl, the laneways, trams and Flinders Street Railway Station.

The ultimate message of the book is the importance of being with someone you love at Christmas and it’s very touching.

If you’re looking for Christmas books that are biblical:

One Night by Penny Matthews and Stephen Michael King is my strongest recommendation for a new Christmas book that celebrates the birth of Jesus. If it can melt my cold faithless heart, it must be special. I think children will be captivated because it very cleverly focusses on animals and the role they might have played at the birth in Bethlehem.

Present-day farm animals discuss what happened on that special night: a shaggy donkey proudly remembers the importance of a donkey in the story, a goose proclaims that feathers were donated for a pillow, sheep gave their wool, doves sang the baby to sleep, even a mouse wants to everyone to know what role her ancestors might have played.

It’s warm and friendly in both words and drawings; beautifully done.

If you’re looking for fun Christmas books:

Santa’s Outback Secret is a very jolly Aussie number from Mike Dumbleton and Tom Jellett – the team who created 2012’s Santa’s Secret. It’s not just fun, it’s also very sweet.

This time Santa heads to the outback after receiving a Christmas wish letter that particularly intrigues him. Disguised as a roving jackaroo, Santa lends a helping hand to a young boy’s dad – the dad owns a farm and is too unwell to manage it. It turns out that help for his dad is what the boy had used his Christmas wish for, rather than asking for toys and games (although Santa does leave him with a trail bike).

Well, parents can dream…

I’m not usually a big fan of traditional songs that have been ‘Aussiefied’ but Deck the Shed with Bits of Wattle by Colin Buchanan, Greg Champion and Glen Singleton made me giggle. The book comes with a CD, which is probably just as well because you might have a job singing the whole thing more than once… or even just once for that matter, there are so many FA-LA-LA-LA-LAs!

Syd Echidna is devastated when a dust storm ruins his wattle and gum-leaf Christmas decorations. He goes to bed for a sulk, poor thing. Cue a band of bush mates to sneak in and make the place look festive again. Syd can hardly believe his eyes when he wakes up on Christmas morning.

Kids will love this one – especially watching you sing those aforementioned FA-LA-LA-LA-LAs.

If you’re looking for familiar and traditional Christmas books:

As you’d expect from Alison Jay, her version of The Twelve Days of Christmas is stunning and you’ll feel a warm festive glow on each detailed page. If your idea of Christmas is the snow-covered, steaming Christmas pud, stockings hanging at the blazing fireplace variety, then this is the one for you.

Each illustrated page also cleverly references the other lines in the song so that young readers can enjoy searching for the objects.

Alternatively, perhaps Britta Teckentrup’s bold and simple style of is more your thing. She’s produced some terrific picture books in the last few years (see The Memory Tree and Your Hand In My Hand).

Her version of The Twelve Days of Christmas is another elegant production, with die-cut pages all the way through, which cleverly help you to zone in on each line of the song and then re-count all the objects that came before it.

I had to Google the song by John Williamson that forms the basis of the picture book, Christmas in Australia, but I’m sure most of you won’t have to (sorry for the ear-worm… it is rather catchy). A big group of family and friends have gathered for a Christmas camping trip. There’s cold beer, a game of cricket, and that familiar exasperating attempt to get everyone in the photo.

This isn’t the first time the song has been illustrated for a children’s picture book, but Mitch Vane’s busy scenes and friendly characters do attempt to make it more culturally diverse. While this line – All the ladies do the cooking / All the men are really slack – might still ring true for many, I’m glad it also sounds, to my ears, a bit out of touch.

If you’re looking for Christmas books that feature longer stories:

If you’d said there was a new story about Christmas and dragons my first thought would have been marketing ploy, but this idea is genuine! Michael Morpurgo’s Mimi and the Mountain Dragon is based on a tradition that takes place in the mountains of Switzerland every Christmas Eve: ‘Drumming the Mountain Dragon’ involves the whole village gathering together to make a great racket in order to warn the mythical Mountain Dragon to leave them in peace for another year. Helen Stephens’ friendly illustrations are a nice touch to the story.

(And please note that it is a small, square hardback, just the right size for little hands, and would make a really sweet stocking filler.)

The Nights Before Christmas is a countdown to Christmas, featuring twenty-four classic tales, poems and carols, each with an ‘About the Authors’ section at the back. You’ll know Tony Ross’s illustrations from a wide range of hugely popular children’s books, most recently the David Williams’ novels, and from Tony’s own fabulous series Little Princess.

Emily Gale

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Cover image for Little Dog and the Christmas Wish

Little Dog and the Christmas Wish

Corinne Fenton

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