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Just watch their little eyes light up


FIRST GLANCE: Eighteen-month-old Isobel Conachy with her pick of the Christmas books. With such a wonderful supply of
new children's titles around this year, along with so many old favourites, we’re spoilt for choice. Photo: David Conachy

FIRST GLANCE: Eighteen-month-old Isobel Conachy with her pick of the Christmas books. With such a wonderful supply of new children's titles around this year, along with so many old favourites, we’re spoilt for choice. Photo: David Conachy

FIRST GLANCE: Eighteen-month-old Isobel Conachy with her pick of the Christmas books. With such a wonderful supply of new children's titles around this year, along with so many old favourites, we’re spoilt for choice. Photo: David Conachy

Selecting Christmas books for children can seem a bewildering task, with so much on offer and suitability hard to gauge, but books give hours of pleasure, even for the reluctant reader, and with the times that are in it, make for excellent value.

For tiny ones just getting a taste for books, the Stripy Horse series is a delight, lovely textured board books featuring a brightly coloured rainbow striped horse. Time for Bed (Jim Helmore and Karen Wall, Egmont, €5.99) is the latest. Cute, but in a different way is everyone's favourite monster, The Gruffalo and Hello Gruffalo is a sturdy board book with glorious illustrations to introduce babies to our furry friend. Continuing the hairy feel to things is The Tiger Who Came To Tea buggy book (HarperCollins, €5.99), Judith Kerr's modern classic, the tale of a tiger who knocks on a little girl's front door one day and invites himself in to consume every single item of food and drink in the house.

Much gentle nostalgia, and lovely illustrations are provided by Sally go Round the Stars: Nursery Rhymes from an Irish Childhood from Sarah Webb, Claire Ranson and Steve McCarthy (O'Brien Press, €14.99), and parents and grandparents will enjoy sharing such classics as Dan, Dan, the Silly Old Man, Are Ye Right there, Michael? and Half a Pound of Tuppenny Rice.

For toddlers, Emily Gavett's Again! (Macmillan, €10.99) is the adorable tale of a dragon who gets so worked up about having his favourite bedtime story read to him over and over again that he blows a hole in it -- literally... the novelty angle doesn't distract from a warm and funny tale, which will strike a chord with many weary parents.

The Big Snuggle Up, by Liverpool poet Brian Patten (Andersen Press, €14.55), is a warmly engaging story about the animals that come to snuggle up close to scarecrow when he takes shelter from the snow, and animals of a different kind are created by Giles and Alexandra Milton in Call Me Gorgeous (Boxer, €9.25) a boldly illustrated, zany book in which a fascinating animal hybrid is created, "with porcupine's spines and a crocodile's teeth, a chameleon's tail and a cockerel's feet".

Much laughs will also be provided by Oliver Jeffers' new book, Stuck (HarperCollins, €14.50), in which Floyd has to resort to drastic measures to get his kite out of a tree, with the result that a ladder, a pot of paint, the kitchen sink, an orangutan and a whale, get stuck up the tree as well.

"Give me your buns and your biscuits! Give me your chocolate eclairs! For I am the Rat of the highway, and the Rat Thief never shares!" The classic poem The Highwayman gets a bit of a makeover in Julia Donaldson's new book for youngsters, The Highway Rat, accompanied by Axel Scheffler's peerless illustrations (Alison Green Books, €11.99).

Another classic writer for children is Eric Carle of The Very Hungry Caterpillar fame, whose The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse is a book in praise of the imagination, an affirmation of the belief that yes, horses can be blue, or have polka dots, that foxes can be purple (Puffin, €17.15).

For three to five-year-olds, I Want My Hat Back (John Klassen, Walker €12.99) is gently surreal and very funny -- a cult toddler book if you like -- in which a bear loses his favourite red hat and has to interrogate every other inhabitant of the woodland, before remembering where he put it. Irish artist Chris Judge's debut, The Lonely Beast, winner of the Specsavers Irish Children's Book of the Year Prize (Andersen Press, €6.99) will also appeal to four to six-year-olds, with its touching tale of poor Beast, as he travels the world in search of other beasts to be friends with. They'll also enjoy Twinkle and the Moon Queen (€9.99) from new bilingual imprint Paisti Press -- Catherine Sheridan's debut tale about the Christmas tree fairy. More animal fun, and some very chic French-looking illustrations, are provided by Alex T Smith in the Claude series, featuring a lovable dog who gets into scrapes while his parents, Mr and Mrs Shinyshoes, are out at work. In Claude in the City, our canine hero and his friend, Sir Bobblysock, foil a robbery at the local museum by three lady wrestlers and cause general mayhem (€6.65 Hodder Children's).

When the picturebook days are behind them, it can be a struggle to find books that will engage six to eight-year- olds, but one sure to capture their imaginations is Gerry Boland's debut, Marco Moves In (O'Brien, €7.99).

"A grizzly bear walked all the way from the zoo to my front door and not a single person noticed him," says Patrick, who has to keep his grizzly guest hidden from his family, not hard when his Mum is preoccupied with her stretching exercises.

Tom McCaughren's Legend... novels are good, old-fashioned lively yarns with a dash of history and plenty of swashbuckling for seven to nine-year-olds, and include the Legend of the Corrib King, and the Legend of the Phantom Highwayman (O'Brien Press, €7.99).

And if Vikings are your thing, Francesca Simon, of Horrid Henry moves on to the Norse gods in The Sleeping Army, in which young Freya pays a visit to Hel, and meets a goddess with a rotting bottom, among other tales (Faber €10.99).

When recommending children's books, particularly for this age group, it's often tempting to cater only to keen readers, but for less enthusiastic ones, The Big Break Detectives' Casebook is a new graphic novel series from Alan Nolan (O'Brien, €7.99), in which three children solve mysteries during their school lunchbreak and which is full of zany illustrations and snippets to grab readers' attentions -- it certainly had my seven-year-old laughing, as did Death By Chocolate, featuring the estimable Marcel Petit Pois in a Murder Can Be Fatal mystery. Liz Pichon's Tom Gates' series, another naughty schoolboy diary, with lots of humour and a friendly words-and-pics mix, will also work for eight to 11-year-olds, as will the latest instalment of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Cabin Fever, in which our hero has to suffer the challenge of behaving himself during Thanksgiving. A new twist to the diary genre, and also great for those tricky eight to 10-year-olds is Donut Diaries, by Dermot Milligan, in which a young boy has to choose between a diet and a stint at Camp Fatso (Corgi, €8.99). On an entirely different note, The Arrival by Shaun Tan (Hodder Children's, €19.80) tells young readers a poignant story of arrival in a new world in pictures alone.

For older children who find reading a challenge, Brian Selznick's Wonderstruck as well as his earlier novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret -- now a Christmas movie -- come highly recommended and are a beautiful, truly original mix of words and pictures. Wonderstruck is a vivid story which flits between the Twenties and the Seventies and unites two lonely children (Scholastic, €14.99). Another magical fable is The Magician's Elephant, by Kate Di Camillo (Walker, €8.99), beautifully illustrated by Yoko Tanaka, in which Peter Augustus Duchenne tries to find out from a fortune-teller if his sister is still alive, and receives the mysterious instruction, "An elephant will lead you there."

For 10-year-olds who like a dash of history, newcomer Nicola Pierce has written a ghost story with a twist in Spirit of the Titanic (O'Brien, €7.99), as the ghost of Sam, who died when building the Titanic, returns to help save a family on board the ill-fated ship. Brian Gallagher, whose Across the Divide brought the turbulence of the 1913 Lockout alive for young readers turns his attention to the Civil War in the riveting Taking Sides (O'Brien, €7.99) and Joe O'Brien of Alfie Green fame, has written a novel for older children, Beyond the Cherry Tree (O'Brien Press, €7.99) in which a young boy's visit to Cherry Tree Manor takes him on a journey to the past.

"The best book I've ever read," is my daughter's description of Cathy Cassidy's Chocolate Box Girls series, the latest of which is Marshmallow Skye in which identical twin Skye learns to step out of the shadow of her ultra-cool sister and twin, Summer (Puffin, €11.99), in a novel which tunes into the concerns of young girls with uncanny accuracy, as does Roddy Doyle's A Greyhound of a Girl (Marion Lloyd Books, €11.99), in which nearly-teen Mary meets the mysterious Tansey and embarks on a very special car journey, in a funny, honest book about separation and bereavement.

A more muscular read is provided by newcomer Alan Early in Arthur Quinn and the World Serpent, the first in an exciting new Viking series, the Father of Lies Chronicles (Mercier, €8.99) in which a young boy has to defeat the dark Viking secret lurking under the streets of Dublin. But if horror is more your child's thing, Darren Shan can oblige with Birth of a Killer and Ocean of Blood, the first two in his new series, the Saga of Larten Crepsley. Horrific, but funny, too is Derek Landy's Skulduggery series, the latest of which is Death Bringer (HarperCollins, €7.99).

Monsters of an entirely different kind are examined in A Monster Calls (Walker, €17.15), a very special book for this age-group based on an original idea by the late Siobhan Dowd, adapted and re-imagined by Patrick Ness.

This beautifully illustrated book takes a searching look at big themes such as loss and unnamed fears and was described by one bookseller as "One of the best books I've read since I began..."

And finally, because no Christmas would be complete without them, some gift books. 100 Greatest Moments in Irish History by Tara Gallagher and Hannah Bailey may sound like the kind of book granny would love, but it's a zippy, fresh account of key moments in our history with nice colour illustrations (G&M, €12.99). With the centenary hoving into view Gill & Macmillan have produced a lavish Titanic book, The Voyage of the Titanic in the inventive form of a young boy's journal of his trip on the ill-fated liner (Duncan Crosbie, €17.99), and also from G&M, and one to treasure is Hans Christian Andersens' Fairy Tales, which receive an Irish twist with illustrations from the great stained glass artist Harry Clarke (€16.99).

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