Plain, ordinary books are quite hard to find at this time of year as publishers, convinced that punters will only buy a book for Christmas if they can be fooled into thinking it's something else, are cunningly sending out their wares under heavy disguise. The Illustrated Explorer Book of Castles (Portico pounds 14.95) is a case in point. A vast box-like affair, it contains a fold-out castle, a working seige catapult, a brass-rubbing kit and an army of model soldiers. Small boys will love it - for five minutes. They'll probably have more fun with Secret Codes by Robert Jackson (Apple, pounds 14.99) which comes with the seductive warning that it "should not be used by children under eight years without adult supervision". Jackson's straightforward text teaches you how to decipher secret codes and send your own with the help of a brace of Jefferson wheels, semaphore flags and electronic morse code units. An innovative take on the art book is contained in Drawn and Quartered (Thames & Hudson, pounds 7.95) which allows you to flip and mix 22 images of the human figure to produce extraordinary artistic results. It would make a handy companion to Dulwich Art Gallery's excellent, lavishly illustrated The Children's Art Book (pounds 9.95) which has just won the Gulbenkian Award for Best Museum Publication - "like a top-quality gallery education workshop" according to the judges.
I'd bypass the books in boxes and go for something old-fashioned like Macmillan's Proverbs From Far and Wide illustrated by Axel Scheffler (pounds 9.99) ("To succeed, consult three old people"), a compact, thought-provoking collection of eccentric international wisdom designed to appeal to 10- year-olds upwards, or The Roald Dahl Treasury (Cape, pounds 19.99), a 400-page illustrated anthology of his bestselling stories - a huge treat for all six to 10 year-olds. Walker Books' series of Treasures is a collection of beautifully bound and illustrated, stocking-sized classics, including The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde and Eleanor Farjeon's fairy story, Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep (pounds 7.99 each). Smarties Award winner, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Bloomsbury, pounds 4.99) by J K Rowling has been an object of great fascination to the media but don't be put off by that; I've yet to meet a 10 year old who hasn't been entranced by its witty, complex plot and the character of the eponymous Harry. Forty years after it first appeared, Dr Seuss's The Cat in the Hat is as seductively barmy as ever. Children love its mad rhymes ("I know it's wet/And the sun is not sunny/But we can have/Lots of good fun that is funny") and riotous red and blue illustrations. Collins have produced an anniversary edition at pounds 12.99.
These are the books that your pre-teen offspring will be fondly remembering over dinner parties 10 years hence - or so you can tell them. In the meantime, you can keep the peace by filling their stockings with telly spin-offs: The Best of Friends (Boxtree, pounds 3.99), Among Friends, a book of postcards (Boxtree, pounds 4.99) and the Spice Girls in Miniature (Zone Productions, pounds 2.99 each), five little books that will tell you a great deal about Sporty, Ginger, Posh, Baby and Scary Spice but not a lot about the band's supposed bust- up and the sacking of their manager - for that you'll have to read a tabloid newspaper...Reuse content