Gauls, Picts, and Goths – old friends, new adventures in our second round-up of the best children's books

In the second instalment of our three-part series on Christmas books for children, Daniel Hahn picks the season’s best titles for ages five to 12

I’m supposed to be recommending children’s books, but if there’s anyone who can simply transcend age altogether it’s my first choice, the little Gaulish warrior called Asterix. I’ve been reading him for three decades, and every new appearance is a pleasure. This latest album comes to us from a new writer-illustrator team (the first time he’s been written by anyone other than Goscinny and Uderzo), and despite the burden of expectations they don’t disappoint. Asterix and the Picts (Orion £10.99) sends Asterix and Obelix away from their familiar village to travel to Scotland, where they meet Nessie, Obelix tries his hand at tossing a caber, and they fight some Romans, before returning to Gaul for their traditional end-of-adventure banquet with all their – our – old friends. It’s a delight. And while the creative team in France has changed, we can be grateful that the English version remains in the incomparably skilled hands of Anthea Bell, who’s translated the books with wit and energy since the very beginning.

Back in May, this paper reported the exciting news that Pushkin Press was starting a children’s list, which would focus on books from around the world, translated into English; and judging by their launch titles, we have a lot of treats in store. One highlight thus far is The Good Little Devil and Other Tales, by Pierre Gripari, translated by Sophie Lewis (Pushkin Press, £14.99). It’s taken nearly 50 years for these internationally best-selling stories to find their way into English. (Asterix isn’t the only venerable old Frenchman we’ve been eagerly awaiting.) The 13 magical tales are original and offbeat, and quite consistently odd – a potato and a Sultan fall in love, a pig swallows the Pole Star, a great hero gets no credit for his heroic deeds because his name’s just too awful – in ways that children readily accept without any of our silly grown-up prejudice against such things, and they’re written and translated with humour and charm.

The last few months have also seen the first two slim volumes of Glenda Millard’s multi-award-winning “Kingdom of Silk” series reach these shores at last from their native Australia. Millard has that rare gift of making you feel in a few pages that you’ve known these characters, and this place, always. In the first book, The Naming of Tishkin Silk (Phoenix Yard Books, £5.99), we meet Griffin Silk, and watch him make a friend and come to terms with a secret sadness – it’s poignant and lovely. (Be warned: there will be tears.) The focus shifts to Griffin’s friend for the next book, Layla, Queen of Hearts (£5.99). And when you’ve read these and fallen in love with the characters, you’ll be relieved to know that a third in the series is due in February.

Next come two terrific new stories, both brilliantly illustrated – and what fun they both are, too! Goth Girl (Macmillan, £9.99) is Chris Riddell’s latest, and it’s the story of Ada, who lives with her father (and miscellaneous servants and ghosts) in Ghastly-Gorm Hall; it’s a lonely life, until she befriends a ghost mouse called Ishmael and joins the Attic Club. The Annual Metaphorical Bicycle Race & Indoor Hunt is approaching, and something strange is afoot … Quirky, clever and (as ever) marvellously detailed to the eye, Goth Girl is a beautiful object, and full of good jokes – a combination that’s hard to beat. Now, a new book by either Philip Reeve or Sarah McIntyre is more or less guaranteed to be a treat, and since Oliver and the Seawigs (Oxford University Press, £8.99) is their first collaboration, you’d reasonably expect something special – and that’s what you get. Oliver and the Seawigs is a hugely enjoyable read, as 10-year-old Oliver ventures across the sea to rescue his explorer parents who’ve gone suddenly missing; he discovers the Rambling Isles (about to gather for their septennial Seawig competition), a sea of sarcastic seaweed, a particularly ticklish island controlled by a boy called Stacey de Lacey, an army of sea monkeys, an albatross, a short-sighted mermaid and a big rock called Cliff. Great fun.

Phoenix (David Fickling Books, £12.99) is another collaboration that I’d love to see repeated. Writer SF Said and illustrator Dave McKean join forces to produce that all-too-rare thing in this country, an illustrated book for the relatively older child reader. It’s the breathlessly paced story of Lucky who hurtles about the universe in his attempts to understand himself – and also in his fight to save the universe itself, no less. A powerful story of great scope and ambition, from an expert storyteller. And with these gorgeously deep black-and-white illustrations, the great McKean is on absolutely top form here.

Jamila Gavin is one of our most consistently good writers of fiction for children young and old. Now she’s turned her hand to Blackberry Blue (Tamarind, £9.99), a collection of fairy tales. Many familiar elements of favourite fairy tales are here – a handsome prince, a wicked stepmother, a giant fish, plenty of magic, darkness and betrayal, love and sacrifice – and the feel is timeless, but the stories are all original, touched with the magic of Gavin’s vibrant and varied imagination.

On to a writer who’s possibly my favourite creator of fictional families: no one is better at putting words into the mouths of her child characters than Hilary McKay, as her Casson family series has demonstrated so delightfully over the years. Now she’s back, with Binny for Short (Hodder, £9.99), in which Binny’s family, struggling to make ends meet since the death of her father, move to a shabby little house by the sea. (The family includes six-year-old James, a classic McKay creation.) Binny for Short is warm and shrewd, blissfully funny, and deeply endearing in equal measure.

We end where we began, in Gaul. (Well, OK, France.) In Vango (Walker, £14.99), novelist Timothée de Fombelle and translator Sarah Ardizzone bring us the first part of a thrilling adventure story set around Europe between the wars, a distinctive and atmospherically cinematic tale of Vango and his journey on a quest for identity and truth. These intriguing adventures continue in a second part, due in English next year – I can’t wait.

Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game