Children’s spirits run perilously high at Christmas, and the ultimate test of any picture book is: 1) whether it will persuade a toddler to stop running amok with the tinsel and settle into bed; and 2) whether it will persuade an exhausted parent to read to the end without skipping the pages.
Elephant Me (Orchard) by Giles Andreae, author of Giraffes Can’t Dance, is likely to succeed on both fronts. Told in catchy rhyming text, this enchanting story follows a self-effacing young elephant, who discovers the importance of simply being YOU! "You’re good at all sorts of things. Really you are!/ You’re FRIENDLY, you’re KIND and you’re TRUE./ Out of all of the animals here on these plains,/ There’s only one... only one YOU!"
The Twelve Cats of Christmas by Alison Ritchie (Simon & Schuster) also uses a rhyming narrative, in this case to recount a series of madcap feline misadventures in the run-up to Christmas Day. "Two tangled tabbies are all tied up with string – wrapping Christmas presents is definitely not their thing!"
Animal lovers will also enjoy Dasher by Matt Tavares (Walker), now out in paperback, which tells the story of a young reindeer who runs away from the circus, and falls into new adventures when she meets a mysterious man in a red suit. And Ketchup on Your Reindeer (Alison Green) is the latest picture book by the ever popular Nick Sharratt. Following the formula of Ketchup on Your Cornflakes? the split pages enable young readers to try out a number of varyingly unwise combinations – doggy biscuits on your Christmas pud? – making for a surprisingly engrossing bedtime read. The After Christmas Tree (Scallywag) by Bethan Welby tells the plaintive story of a small Christmas tree abandoned on a cold pavement in January, ideal to read when the festive season draws to an end. And 65 years after she was brought to life by the Dutch illustrator Dick Bruna, Miffy the rabbit is enjoying a new burst of popularity. For children new to this beloved series, try Miffy’s Treasury (Simon & Schuster), which combines five of Miffy’s best-known stories. "Miffy is always Miffy and a house is always a house," Bruna once said; and it is the heartfelt simplicity of the stories that accounts for their enduring appeal.
There has also been a surge in the number of self-reflective picture books, intended to help children tackle big emotions – and the best hide their lessons behind a gently suspenseful narrative. Where Happiness Begins by Eva Eland (Andersen) is such an example, telling the story of a little girl looking for the elusive creature called Happiness, which "often has disguises and goes by different names". The Worrysaurus by Rachel Bright (Orchard Books) features a young dinosaur, whose niggling worries risk spoiling a special picnic: What if he hasn’t brought enough to eat? What if he trips and falls? What if it rains? This is a skilfully told story, with a moral that will resonate equally with fusspot parents.
The environment has also been a major theme in children’s publishing this year, but somehow titles such as What A Waste: Rubbish, Recycling, and Protecting our Planet do not lend themselves to reading aloud. For a brisker narrative, try Mr Men Little Miss go Green by Adam Hargreaves (Egmont), in which Little Miss Inventor has some ingenious ideas to save the planet. The star, however, is Mr Mean: "He never turned his heating on. Even in midwinter!" And The Mazimba Berry Tree (Mazimba Berry Tree) by Jeffrey Ginsberg tells the tale of a magical tree which is "the last of its kind", and becomes a refuge for the animals of the African bush. Proceeds from the sale of this touching story go to wildlife charities such as Helping Rhinos.
For older readers, The Puffin Keeper (Puffin) is one of Michael Morpurgo’s most affecting books, telling the story of a lonely young boy determined to find the lighthouse-keeper who once saved him from a storm. It has also been a bumper year for reprints, with The Adventures of Parsley the Lion (Harper Collins) by the late Michael Bond, creator of Paddington Bear, a highlight. First published in the Seventies, the story recounts the adventures of a lion living in a magical herb garden, with witty new illustrations by Rob Biddulph. And no child wants to go to sleep thinking about spelling – but The B on Your Thumb (Frances Lincoln) by Colette Hiller and Tor Freeman is a collection of short, jaunting rhymes that cleverly explore how letters come together: "Q met U/ while in a queue/ waiting for/ a bus," begins a romantic ballad about Q and U. And after a turbulent year, every child should find some bedtime solace in Poems to Save the World With (Macmillan), an anthology of galvanising poems, selected and illustrated by Chris Riddell. Anyone who baulks at reading poetry aloud should turn to the refreshingly brief entry by Robert Louis Stevenson: "The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings."