When I Was Born

written by Isabel Minhós Martins,
illustrated by Madalena Matoso

Tate Publishing 2010

We’ve read some crazy, trippy stories to our children, full of talking hippos flying to the moon in a bathtub, and they absorb the fantasy like they saw it themselves just that morning. But this book has them blinking in confused silence and trying hard to conceive of a time that they didn’t exist, or even just existed in a lesser capacity. This bright and cheerful book lists the wonderful experiences and abilities that are encountered and mastered in the first years of life. It is a happy reminder of the extraordinary development our children, all beautifully illustrated with a distinctive paper collage style that recalls its Portugese heritage. The perfect book for celebrating the little things.

Woof Meow Tweet-Tweet

written and illustrated by Cécile Boyer

Seven Footer Kids 2011

An illustrated book that conversely relies on its words to be the characters. The cats, dogs, and birds are not drawn but depicted by the words that describe their sounds, and cleverly nestled in simple graphic illustrations. It is certainly a little abstract for the child that can’t yet read but it’s a nice way to explore the relationships between words, sounds and images. There is no hiding the origins of this book (originally published as Ouaf Miaou Cui Cui, 2009): the text is a little direct and a dog nonchalantly pees a large yellow puddle against a wall — so French! The perfect book for having fun with sounds.

Olive, the other Reindeer

written by J.Otto Seibold and Vivan Walsh
illustrated by J.Otto Seibold

Chronicle Books 1997

A funny little take on the other, more well known, reindeer story starring Rudolph — and this is the one I prefer. Olive is a charming character, brave and strong with an optimistic naivety, just like a real dog. The title, and premise, for the book is a misheard lyric. A crazy idea, but you wouldn’t expect anything less from the winning team of Seibold and Walsh. The illustrations are graphically strong with a signature palette of rich orange, mustard, olive green and pale blue — all bedecked with the flourishes that so suit a Christmas tale. The perfect book for Santa’s little helpers.

Christmas Eve at the Mellops’

written and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer

Phaidon 2011 (first published 1978)

Another porcine book series with a Christmas special. This book has a heart-warming and happy ending but not before unflinchingly touring some more desperate places. Perhaps it seems unusual now because the book is more than 30 years old, and German, or is Ungerer’s sharp social commentary unexpected? Either way, this is a book to be read to children at Christmas time — it makes for a welcome foil against Santa et al, with all the cheer and spirit of Christmas. The pen and ink illustrations are simple, satirical, with just a touch of whimsy. Beautiful. The perfect book for sharing the spirit of Christmas.

Olivia helps with Christmas

written and illustrated by Ian Falconer

Atheneum 2007

There is something lovely about hearing how other people celebrate Christmas. Family traditions and routines that are particular or peculiar, or even so familiar that they bring memories of our own Christmases past. In this festive red book — one in a series of eleven Olivia books — Falconer tones down Olivia’s usual antics and fills the spaces with charming family vignettes, making for a wonderful family Christmas tale. The illustrations are in the style of the rest in the series: charcoal and gouache drawings with collage used to great effect. Falconer won the Illustrator of the Year in the Children’s Choice Book Awards for this title. The perfect book for Olivia fans at Christmas time.

“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.”

—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

I Want My Hat Back

written and illustrated by Jon Klassen

Candlewick Press 2011

This is a very simple (and wicked) tale about what happens when you push a polite, well-mannered bear too far. It poses such a problem in deciding who is naughty and who is good — the old two-wrongs quandary. Klassen’s illustrations have a lovely, woodsy, folksy feel, with a palette of browns and a touch of angry red cleverly used. The characters appear expressionless in all but a few pages and that gives the book a very droll air that will appeal to adults — no cutesy pie here. The perfect book for moral dilemmas.

Only a Witch Can Fly

written by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo

Feiwel and Friends 2009

The first thing I should tell you about this book is that it is a poem, a tricky poem written in a very old form called a sestina. It stumps you on the first read through, tripping over stilted sentences, but read properly it is lilting and magical — a wonderful match for the story of a little girl who wishes she was a witch. Yoo’s linoleum block prints capture the drama of the story with a muted palette of autumn colours busy with bats, owls and black cats, but she keeps it cosy with glowing windows, smoke wafting from chimneys, and parents in pyjamas. The perfect book for little dreamers.

In The Night Kitchen

written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak

Harper Collins 1970

I remember this book from my childhood, partly for its trippy story and partly because it featured scandalous nudity (we were lucky to have this book in our school libraries un-censored, as it was — and still remains — on the list of challenged or banned books purely for that glimpse of naked boy). It reads like a comic book with a mix of speech bubbles and captions, and the way Mickey floats dream-like between the fantastical “sets” is wonderful. Children accept the story with innocence, but if you enjoy finding darker meanings you might notice Sendak taking inspiration from the Holocaust that shaped his own childhood. The perfect book for non sense.

Little Blue

written and illustrated by Gaye Chapman

Little Hare Books 2009

Little Blue looks and feels like an old-fashioned folk tale. Delicate ink and watercolor illustrations and a little hero called Will who wears t-bar sandals and brandishes sticks in an adventurous way. It stands out on our bookshelf, small, cloth-bound with embossed title, amongst the bigger, louder picture books. The story is really delightful, with a very clever twist, and weaves between fantasy and reality. The perfect book for the old-fashioned child.