Glorious Gift Books

annualExceptional children’s gift books for Christmas this year include Annual, edited by Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris (Gecko Press). It’s a treasure book in the vein of an old-style yearly annual, here packaged in the highest quality hardback form as a sumptuous possible Christmas present and absorbing holiday read.

The editors have excelled in their commissioned works, which range from short stories to non-fiction, poems, comics, art pieces, a song with sheet music included (Always on Your Phone) and activities such as a board game called Naked Grandmother and This is not a bottle – instructions on how to make a minaret, a spaceship or a hound with a bottle.

Contributors include Bernard Beckett, Barbara Else and Steve Braunias who has written a satire about various celebrities turning up to work at your house. Lorde and Taylor Swift turn up to wash the dishes but not much work actually takes place.

classicClassic Nursery Rhymes (Bloomsbury) is for younger children and showcases exquisite artwork by Dorothy M. Wheeler, who illustrated Enid Blyton’s books. Each nursery rhyme is generously illustrated with a full-page colour picture inside an elaborately sketched black and white border, which spills over to surround the printed rhyme on the opposite page.

There are too many favourite rhymes to name but they include Hickory, Dickory Dock and Jack and Jill as well as lesser-known gems such as A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go and Cock-A-Doodle-Doo. Little Jack Horner is ideal to read for Christmas.

The sheet music is provided for a number of the rhymes such as Polly Put the Kettle On and Baa, Baa! Black Sheep.

Studies show that children who know nursery rhymes have a higher success rate in early literacy. Mem Fox has also been sharing this belief: ‘If a borrowed story book or nursery-rhyme book becomes favourite, do your utmost to purchase it for your child. Children who have lived in book-filled homes prior to going to school are known to be scholastically advantaged for the rest of their lives. And children who have memorised eight nursery rhymes by the age of three, so I have been told, are always the best readers by the age of eight.’ (quote from Mem Fox’s website)

oddThere is a foreword in Classic Nursery Rhymes by Chris Riddell, who has also been busy illustrating a reissue of Neil Gaiman’s interpretation of a Norse myth, Odd and the Frost Giants (Bloomsbury). This is a very classy publication, extravagantly produced with illustrations throughout, touches of silver ink and cut-away icicles on the front cover. It is sophisticated, creative writing for older primary or gifted younger readers.

It is always worth exposing young readers to folktales, whether in original or reinterpreted form. Here a Viking boy with the unusual name of Odd suffers a terrible injury to his foot and encounters beasts in the woods that are actually Norse gods. As well as the often-argumentative male gods we also meet that most lovely and capable goddess, Freya.

Neil Gaiman Live

CoralineIt was exciting to see Neil Gaiman live at the City Recital Hall in Sydney on the weekend. It was a satellite event of the Sydney Writers’ Festival (surely one of the world’s best writers’ festivals). As Jemma Birrell, Artistic Director, mentioned in her introduction, Neil has over 2 million twitter followers so no wonder it was packed, with standing-only tickets sold as well.

Neil obviously enjoys reading from his works and speaking to his Sydney fans. He also sang with FourPlay, an Australian electric string quartet. They started with the Dr Who theme music; appropriate because Neil wrote two episodes of this cult series. He read from Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances, an anthology that will be published 3rd February.

Neil reminisced about a presentation in the past where he could choose whoever else he wanted with him on the panel. His wish-list included his wife, Amanda Palmer – extraordinary singer-performer formerly from The Dresden Dolls (who he couldn’t stop mentioning during the evening) – and Ben Folds (one of my favourite singer/songwriter/pianists – and who Kate Miller-Heidke – composer of John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s  The Rabbits opera) has toured with. The panel planned to get together beforehand over a meal but Ben Folds suggested writing 8 songs in 8 hours instead. Neil explained, ‘If you don’t know Ben Folds, that’s all you need to know’. They ended up writing 6 songs in 14 hours and Neil sang us his song about Joan of Arc.Ocean at end of Lane

Neil is well known for Sandman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and The Graveyard Bookwhich he revealed was based on his experience of living in a tall building with his young son who he would take to the nearby graveyard to play. His son would ride around the graves looking completely at home.

Wolves in the WallsI’ve been a fan of Neil’s graphic novels for YA and children for quite awhile. I’m always talking about Wolves in the Walls, illustrated by Neil’s extraordinary collaborator, Dave McKean. This is a fascinating picture book about Lucy, who hears wolves in the wall but her parents don’t believe her. The frames around the panels hint at what’s hiding. Some of Neil’s other books illustrated by Dave McKean are dark, intricate, imaginative works of art: Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch, Signal to Noise and Mirrormask. I treasure my copies.

Many people will know about Coraline, the girl who finds new, sinister parents in another part of her house. Coraline has appeared as a graphic novel, illustrated by P. Craig Russell, a novel, and a movie.

Neil wrote Odd and the Frost Giants and Fortunately, the Milk, illustrated by Chris Riddell for children, and his picture books for young children are Chu’s Day and Chu’s First Day at School, illustrated by Adam Rex. Fortunately the Milk

I haven’t yet seen the recent Hansel & Gretel and The Sleeper and the Spindle, illustrated by Chris Riddell. Hopefully they’re up to standard.

One of my all-time favourite movies is Stardust, based on Neil’s graphic novel. He has many other works published as well.

Thanks to the Sydney Writers’ Festival for this amazing event.Stardust