CHRISTMAS 2012 BOOKS OF THE YEAR
Battery-free and easy to wrap, books are a treat for tots and teens. For 2+ Playbook Farm by Corinna Fletcher and Britta Teckentrup (Nosy Crow £14.99) has pop-up buildings, charming card animals and lively text. Alan and Jessica Ahlberg triumph in their version of Goldilocks (Walker 12.99) which offers much nimble-fingered merriment for 5+. Kids of 6+ might enjoy Adam Hart-Davis’s amusing interactive book of Inventions (Walker £12.99) with engines and toilets revealing their function in factoid flaps.
Spectacular picture books for 3+ abound. For Christmas, choose Richard Curtis’s heart-warming comedy about Charlie and Sam in The Empty Socking (Puffin £6.99). Charlie has been so naughty that a frazzled Father Christmas fails to fill her twin sisters’ stocking. Horrors! All is put right however. A classical choice is Greek Myths, luminously lovely thanks to illustrations by Jane Ray and retold by Sally Pomme Clayton (Frances Lincoln £14.99). Exhausted parents may identify with Julia Donaldson’s stupendously silly Superworm, (Alison Green Books £10.99) about a playful invertebrate. However, Quentin Blake’s dreamy images of a little girl who rides a horse made from abandoned ice-lolly sticks in Russell Hoban’s last opus make Rosie’s Magic Horse my Best Picture Book. (Walker £12.99)
Another posthumous gem is Eva Ibbotson’s The Abominables (Marion Lloyd Books £10.99). Her yetis travel from their hidden Himalayan valley to England with two human children, sorting out problems. Ibbotson’s imaginative brio ensures immortality. Kate Saunders channels the same spirit in The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop, an enchanting caper concerning magical chocolate, a talking cat and family secrets. Also for 8+ is Philip Reeve’s Goblins, a Tolkien spoof about a good goblin which is funny, stylish and satisfying for Hobbit-lovers. (Both Marion Lloyd Books £6.99)
The latest instalment in an outstanding series is always welcome. Cressida Cowell’s How to Steal a Dragon’s Jewel (Hodder £5.99) is an unfailing delight for 8+ as the dauntless Hiccup and his tiny dragon Toothless are hunted in the Great Dragon Rebellion. Boys of 11+ love Jamie Thompson’s second laugh-aloud page-turner, A Fiend in Need (Orchard 5.99), about a Dark Lord trapped in a teenage boy’s body; others crave Robert Muchamore’s nail-biting thriller The Prisoner (Hodder £6.99) about a boy-spy escaping Nazi Germany, or Keren David’s Another Life (Frances Lincoln £6.99), the third in a gritty and gripping series about ruthless London gangs. Ann Turnbull’s Seeking Eden takes her Quaker heroes to the supposed Eden of America - and its slave trade. Recommended as a particularly good romantic historical trilogy for 12+ (Walker £6.99).
A sumptuous re-issue of John Masefield’s A Box of Delights (Folio Society £29.95) provides lasting delight. Kay Harker, entrusted with a magical box, is up against predatory wolves and witches; Masefield conjures the snowy landscape unforgettably, as does Joan Aiken in the 50th anniversary edition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Jonathan Cape £9.99), concerning two brave girls in an icy alternative 19th century England. Both are classics for 8+, but for budding fans of Georgette Heyer, Marie-Louise Jensen’s The Girl in the Mask (OUP £6.99) about a rebellious bankrupt’s daughter up against a Jacobite plot in Georgian Bath is a treat.
A previous winner of the Times/Chicken House prize for an unpublished new children’s author has pulled off a sympathetic modern parable in The Look (Chicken House £6.99) about a young model and her cancer-stricken sister. Sophia Bennett is the queen of teen dreams, and describes the sisters’ moral and material journey from rags to riches with realism, humour and compassion. Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon (Hot Key £10.99 ) is a dystopian novel with a difference. Set in an alternative 1950s Britain, its narrator Standish is a bullied dyslexic trying to find his “disappeared” best friend – and the truth in the Motherland’s lies. This heart-breaking, brilliantly-written novel is the most original publication for years, and rivals Margo Lanagan’s The Brides of Rollrock Island (David Fickling £12.99) as my YA Book of the Year. A powerful, poetic masterpiece, Brides mines mermaid myths to describe the lives of selkie brides, enchanted from seals to unhappy fishwives in subtle, mesmerising prose.
Once again, however, my Times Children’s Book of the Year is by an American. Jennifer A Nielsen’s The False Prince (Scholastic £6.99) isn’t wholly original, but it’s sophisticated enough to captivate a wide age-range, and possesses the plot, pace and dash of a classic. The guttersnipe Sage, kidnapped with three others, has two weeks to learn how to impersonate a leaderless kingdom’s missing prince – or die. Like ‘Merlin’ this uses strong fairy-tale tropes, and like The Hunger Games, the conflict between competition and compassion reveals moral challenges. A sequel is promised for Spring, but meanwhile the rude, brave, clever and secretive Sage is a hero whom even reluctant readers of 9+ will love from the first page.
The Times December 2012