Christmas is such a great time for books. My favourite week of the year is the one between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, especially since I stopped having to work that week. I batten down the hatches, stay in my PJs unless getting dressed is essential (I will be going to the Talisman Theatre panto this year, and promise to get dressed for that!), and hunker down with books, films, wine and leftovers – Christmas leftovers are the best. Or lots of cheese.
I imagine we all have our favourite Christmas books; I love children’s books at Christmas, especially. There are some amazing stories, full of atmosphere, and the kind of book you can read in a day. I always used to read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter as a child, along with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; other classics such as The Box of Delights by John Masefield and The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper have become favourites in adulthood, especially the latter.
A contemporary author who writes fantastic books for older children is Chris Priestley. He loves creepy, gothic stories, and last year I read his The Last of the Spirits for the first time: it’s now become part of my Christmas celebrations, a tradition in the making. Inspired by the two children Ignorance and Want sheltering beneath the cloak of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. he has written a story about two children, Sam and his sister Lizzie, living on the streets in Victorian London, reworking the famous Dickens story from their point of view. It’s both a brilliant story in itself and an excellent introduction to A Christmas Carol for children (and wonderful to read alongside it for adults). Full of atmosphere, creepy and dark, but with the same sense of redemption as the original, a perfect Christmas read.
I have also just read Chris’s book The Dead of Winter, also set at Christmas. This is even darker, true gothic horror, though more gothic than horror. It still has echoes of Dickens – there is a lawyer called Jerwood, which seems a Dickensian sort of name to me, and a young boy with a somewhat mysterious benefactor – and later on there are definite echoes of Rebecca and Jane Eyre (those books have similar stories). But it has a power, presence and atmosphere all its own, as young Michael Vyner spends Christmas reluctantly with his benefactor when his mother dies. The house is full of ghosts, and it’s truly creepy. As Chris Priestley himself said, we need more creepy stories at Christmas. (Remember those wonderful MR James adaptations the BBC used to do…?)
Both of these books would make wonderful television dramas, and also live dramas – so if you know a TV producer or someone with influence at the RSC, push these books into their hands and tell them to get on with it! Seriously.
In the meantime, get reading. Good children’s books – of which there are many – are good reading for any age, they don’t need to be classified as children’s books. A good book is a good book, and these two are excellent. We have a couple of copies of Dead of Winter in our Christmas window, which contains some of the other classics mentioned above, and also our own Lifesize Nick dressed as Herne the Hunter, who appears in The Dark is Rising!