ONE OF THE joys of family life consists in curling up on a winter's evening with a small child and a beautifully illustrated book (or a small book and a beautifully illustrated child, I thought recently, upon discovering my youngest had drawn pictures all over her legs). Pictures do much more than words, for =_.-. children under a certain age. Perhaps even for children of any age — one to 100. At any rate, there is nothing to equal the magic that is created by a gifted children's illustrator.
This Christmas there are some real trea sures to be found in the bookshops. Collins have brought out a special edition of Tolkien's Letters from Father Christmas (£12.99), in the form of a series of envelopes which children can open to find the letters. These are delightful, as are Tolkien's own illustrations, which he made to accompany the mysterious epistles sent to his own children from the North Pole. Happy the children whose parent can enter into the spirit of the season to this degree.
One illustrator who certainly does enter into the mystery and excitement of Christmas is Christian Birmingham. He has illustrated Clement Clarke Moore's The Night before Christmas (this well-known poem was originally called A Visit from St. Nicholas when it came out in 1822). This year he has produced A Classic Christmas Treasury (Collins £12.99), which brings together carols, poems, scripture and extracts from the children's classics. What makes this collection special is the unifying factor of Birmingham's artwork: the use of light, the ability to capture the inner qualities of wonder and love in the faces of adults and children alike, the subtle colours — all express the essence of the Christmas message.
Here are joy and peace made actual, far from the vicissitudes of a cynical world. There are some other good Christmas compendiums around, such as the Collins Christmas Treasury, selected by Stephanie Nettell and illustrated by Ian Penney, but for sheer atmosphere, Christian Birmingham's is the best.
A number of publishers have brought out collections of children's literature to mark the millennium. Puffm's Twentieth Century Collection of Stories edited by Judith Elkin (£12.99) is a good selection, with different illustrators for each extract. My only cavil with this is that most of the books extracted from would already be on any seriously reading child's bookshelf. The Hutchinson Treasury of Fairy Tales (£19.95) may be open to the same objection, but as a first fairy tale collection for, say, a godchild, it would be a good buy. Again different illustrators tackle different stories, some of whom may not be to everyone's taste. It was certainly a joy to see Angela Barrett's gorgeous illustrations for The Snow Queen again, in Naomi Lewis's retelling of one of the most beautiful children's stories ever told.
Hutchinson have also brought out The Little Angel (£7.99), told and illustrated by Jan Pancheri, and Walker Books have produced another winner with Ruby the Christmas Donkey (£4.99) by Mirabel Cecil, illustrated by Christina Gascoigne. Both of these stories deal with Christmas as an event, evoking generosity and all the other sentiments that go with the festive season, even for those who have forgotten what it's all about Bob Hartman's The Night the Stars Danced for Joy (Lion, £4.99) illustrated by Tim Jonke, attempts to bring together both the nativity and the "what Christmas means for me" theme. But for a really complete and satisfying account, with the kind of oldfashioned illustrations that children really love, you couldn't do much better than Enid Blyton's The Christmas Story, illustrated by Alan Fraser (Red Fox, £3.99).
For me, the best Christmas book this year has to be Peter Collington's A Small Miracle (Cape £9.99). There is not one word of text in this story: all is told through the illustrations, which convey far more than words could ever say.
The book both reminds us of the original meaning of Christmas, whilst bringing the miracle into the life of an old woman, whose virtue is rewarded in a wonderful fashion. If you have no children to give this one to, buy it for a friend who needs cheering up.