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Searching for books to give for Christmas is hard for a relative who doesn’t see the children very often. My nephew is 8 and my niece is 10 and I want to introduce them to some good new writers and illustrators. Are prize lists a good way of finding out about what is best? Or do you have some personal recommendations?

Choosing books for children you don’t know is very hard, but it is excellent that you want to do so! All too often relatives turn to the classics for gifts. While these can make fantastic presents, it is good to be aware that new writers are offering something different.

Mostly, once an author or illustrator has had a certain amount of success, they are also writing or illustrating more than one book about any character they have created so, once hooked, your young relatives will have many hours of happy reading ahead of them. How you choose the right book is a challenge! If you are lucky and have a good bookshop near you, you may find a very well-informed bookseller who can guide you to just the right book. Alternatively, they might be able to direct you to some of the websites that give book advice. For a really good browse before you buy – and to get good advice – the children’s section of your library would be helpful. If it is run by a specialist librarian, she could also be a source of good advice. Failing that, think about everything you know about each of them – even if it is only what you have heard about them. Are they indoor or outdoor children? Do they or their parents like animals? What kind of holidays do they go on? Are they the kind of family that likes jokes? All of these may influence the kind of books they like. On the whole, when choosing books for young readers, friends and relatives tend to think that the child’s age is the most significant feature. In reality, it is only one of several things that make a book appealing. It is also one of the hardest to define as, if the story is sufficiently interesting, children may read well above their chronological age – or they may like to hear it read aloud. Of course, the other ‘definitions’ are also very flexible but I think we often forget that readers of all ages start with well-defined tastes for different things.

Not knowing these particular children but knowing some good books which would make excellent presents, I’d propose: almost anything by Roald Dahl for your nephew with my first choice being Danny, the Champion of the World but if more knockabout humour is his thing then I’d go for The Twits or George’s Marvellous Medicine. And if you like the idea of a funny book all of Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum series, Philip Ardagh’s The Grunts in Trouble and its sequel or Philip Reeve’s Oliver and the Seawigs would be perfect. All three are wonderfully illustrated by David Tazzyman, Axel Scheffler and Sarah McIntyre respectively.

For something reflective David Almond’s titles for younger readers such as The Boy Who Climbed into the Moon or Mouse Bird Snake Wolf both of which are illustrated by David McKean would be excellent. For you niece, Hilary McKay’s Binny for Short is a family story that is a perfect combination of funny, dramatic and touching. For a girl who loves horses – or anyone who cares about animals at all – Lauren St John’s The One Dollar Horse is a heart-warming story of determination and luck! For greater realism, Laura Dockrill’s best-selling Darcy Burdock will certainly keep her happily entertained during the Christmas holiday.