As a kid, I loved horror and fantasy, and my dad – a very sensible man – came to the very sensible conclusion that it might be good to mix in some PROPER FACTS with the dragons and the zombies.
That Christmas, he handed me Horrible Histories: Awesome Egyptians, written by Terry Deary and Peter Hepplewhite, and illustrated by Martin Brown.
I hadn’t realised that history was just as gory and gross as fiction, and to my father’s horror, I proceeded to share the PROPER FACTS I had learned about brain extraction and organ mummification at Christmas dinner. Very appetising…
Get hooked on history
For a couple of years in the 1980s, my dad worked on construction sites in Saudi Arabia. We went and visited him twice, and on our first trip, I discovered his flatmate’s massive stack of Asterix books. I was completely entranced by them; the characters, the humour and – of course – the magic potion that made a small blond man as strong as an entire army.
When we left for home, I had to leave the books behind. But then, a few months later, I received a copy of Asterix in Britain from Mum and Dad on Christmas morning, and I remained in love with the characters for years to come.
I recently bought a new copy of Asterix in Britain, to read to my kids. It turns out that 90% of it is made up of extremely complicated wordplay. There isn’t a chance I understood it when I was six, but that’s the power of books.
More comic-style books
My father believed that most Christmas presents should arrive in a stocking and that most Christmas presents should be books, so as a child I'd wake up each year to a pillowcase full of books at the end of my bed. I discovered so many wonderful stories that way, but the one that really sticks in my mind is The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith. I knew, of course, that dogs could talk, and so the story about Pongo and Missis the dalmatians, journeying through Christmas cold and snow to save almost 100 puppies from the wicked Cruella de Vil seemed both wonderfully possible and beautifully hopeful.
Christmas, after all, is about family, and family is equally valid whether it's the one you were born into or one created during a daring animal rescue from a fur-mad heiress's house. I asked my parents for 97 puppies every Christmas after that in the hopes of recreating the Dearlys' living situation. Sadly, I never got them, but I do still have my copy of the book.
When I was young, I lived in Manila, had an American accent and a crewcut and dreamt of being President. So, all my early Christmas memories were American – I was obsessed pretty early by It’s a Wonderful Life and, most of all, the movie White Christmas. I dreamt of a white Christmas but was never going to get one in the blazing heat of the Philippines.
That meant that the big book for me was How the Grinch Stole Christmas. In my eyes, Dr Seuss could do no wrong, and this is definitely one of his masterpieces. With its bright green, nasty villain – a recluse like Timon of Athens, a Scrooge for our times, wishing everyone ill – it’s got a cracking storyline and we’ve still got a large poster of the Grinch in my 17-year-old son’s bedroom to keep him on the straight and narrow.
Stories with other Grinches
One Christmas, when I was a little boy, aged six or seven, my parents took me to see a play called Alice Through the Looking-Glass. It was all about a girl of about my age who managed to climb through a mirror into an amazing world beyond. I thought the play was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen. All the characters in the story were completely extraordinary and my parents explained to me they were based on pieces in the game of chess. The play was based on a book by Lewis Carroll and the book, I discovered, was the sequel to an even more famous book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
I begged my parents to give me both books for Christmas and they did. I read them from beginning to end over and over again. I thought they were simply wonderful. I loved the drawings, I loved the words (even if I didn’t understand them all), I loved the poems (both books include funny poems as part of the story), I loved the incredible adventures that Alice had – even if they didn’t all make sense. I remember thinking when I had finished reading those two books, ‘When I grow up, I am going to be the Mad Hatter – and a writer.’ Over the years, I have tried a bit of both.
Fantastical other worlds
We didn’t have a mantelpiece in our flat, so I didn’t hang up a Christmas stocking when I was a little girl. I had a special Christmas box instead. My mum pretended Santa lobbed it through our open window when he went past our flats on his sleigh. The gifts in my box were always carefully colour co-ordinated. It was pink and white the Christmas I was eight.
My box contained a doll in a pink and white checked dress, pink pyjamas patterned with white roses, a pink and white candy cane, and a Puffin paperback with a pink and white cover. It was The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett. I’d finished it by Boxing Day and declared it the best book ever. I must have read this funny, tender family story at least 10 times since. It’s a definite favourite.
More family-oriented tales
Our family’s special Christmas book is Robert L. May’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It was the book my Gran read to my Dad every Christmas Eve when he was a boy, and then his battered 1950s hardback was read to me and my brother whenever we stayed at my grandparents' freezing cold farm in the Lake District at Christmastime. Now Yuletide festivities cannot start until my daughters have heard how Rudolph saved Christmas. Though thankfully these days it’s a lot warmer in their bedroom.
I have received hundreds of beautifully wrapped novels over the years and enjoyed every one. But the book that had the biggest impact on me was Birds of the World, the seminal guide by Oliver Luther Austin Jr. and illustrator Arthur Singer, first published way back in 1967 and reprinted often since. I was gifted my copy in 1975 when I was 10 by my wonderful Uncle Georgie. He had seen a dreadful picture of a dragon I had attempted on the family chalkboard, mistaken it for a bird, and thoughtfully reasoned that I would appreciate a bird book – when in fact I was a fantasy fiction guy all the way.
I hated that book when the wrapping came off. I could not believe that my favourite uncle had so fundamentally misunderstood his nephew. I may even have thrown a strop. However, as the months went by I grew fascinated by the intricate illustrations and appreciated the skill and patience involved in putting such a comprehensive volume together. And so I began to copy the pictures.
Over the following year, it became a personal project to copy all of the illustrations, and my bedroom walls were papered with swallows, parakeets and terns. I never did get to the end of that project but my drawing improved exponentially so that eventually I reached the level of not bad. I am still a fantasy fiction guy all the way but I still enjoy sketching a bird in flight every now and then and I owe those contented moments to Birds of the World.
Beautiful books about animals
I was really touched by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. That book has so much imagination, it makes you feel like a kid, it makes you feel like you have a sense of wonder and magic, and I just think Dahl was so good at creating that feeling of imagination in kids.
Underdog stories to inspire
I remember so many Puffin books being shared with me as a child, especially Allan Ahlberg’s books. But the one that really stays in my mind is Please Mrs Butler. This poetry collection is so lovely, and I think I love it even more as an adult now than I did as a child.
Must-read poetry books
The Puffin book that I best remember being read as a child was Matilda by Roald Dahl. I remember my dad reading it to me and we read the whole thing together. He would read it to me when he came home from work, even though he was tired and I wasn’t. And I remember him falling asleep as he read it and me having to kick him to keep going because I was excited to find out what happened next. I love that book, I love that character and I love Roald Dahl – it’s the one story that has always stood out for me.