Nine million adults in Britain are functionally illiterate, estimated to the British economy £37 billion. The suffering of the people who are more likely to struggle finding employment is one reason to deplore the closure of libraries. The other is the absence of the joy that reading brings.
All that matters for a child is joy, and it is my sole principle in choosing books for this column. FLOOF by Heidi McKinnon (Allen & Unwin 2-4 £6.99) has an adorable cat who does one thing in the pictures, and another in the text. It is ridiculously charming and funny, just like a small child. Wanda (Otter-Barry £12.99) by Sihle Nontshokweni and Mathabo Tlali, is a touching picture book about a little Black girl made miserable by teasing about her hair. She needs her grandmother’s “magical mist” of olive oil to make it into a triumphant crown. Bright, vivid, double-page pictures by Chantelle and Burgen Thorne make this a special treat about overcoming bullying.
The simple text and colourful illustrations of A Family Christmas by Alana Washington and Emily Nash (UCLAN £7.99) takes us through the warmth and excitement of a family Christmas, to get 3+ in the mood. Julia “Gruffalo” Donaldson and Lydia Monks have their ladybird heroine in a distinctly Gothic house, whose presents are about to be stolen by Lanky Len and Hefty Hugh one snowy night. What the Ladybird Heard At Christmas (Macmillan £12.99) has bouncy couplets and is unscary, funny and fun for 4+. A pure seasonal delight is Robert Frost’s Stopping by the Woods On A Snowy Evening, illustrated by PJ Lynch (of The Snow Queen fame.) The walker’s mysterious journey with his loving horse, and the artist’s double page illustrations of this sublime poem make it my picture book of the year.
Cressida Cowell’s epic new fantasy series, Which Way To Anywhere (Hodder £12.99 11+), is about a magical blended family sworn to secrecy. K2 O’Hero keeps drawing maps of worlds that don’t exist, but when he, his sister and step-siblings are menaced by the terrifying EXCORIATOR, they must travel to another dimension. Magical toothbrushes, hairsbreadth escapes and the indomitable loyalty of family love are swept up in meticulous, hilarious plotting. Cowell’s energetic prose and illustrations crackle with wit; How To Train Your Dragon fans are in for a treat.
So are Tanya Landman’s, for Midwinter Burning (Walker £7.99 8+) is a gripping, original blend of Goodnight Mr Tom and The Wicker Man. Bullied Alfie is evacuated to a Devon farm, where, despite his ability to see the dead, he feels happy at last, safe with a kindly farmer’s widow and son. He makes a friend who, though they don’t speak the same language, he can enjoy the coastline with. But when the Midwinter Burning approaches and his new friend Smidge goes missing, horror rises. An outstanding story about how courage can redeem both past and present by a former Carnegie Prize-winner.
Anthony McGowan’s Dogs of the Deadlands (Rock the Boat £12.99, 9+) is inspired by the Chernobyl explosion, and has flavours of White Fang. Natasha is forced to leave her beloved white puppy behind in an area contaminated by nuclear waste. Will it survive in a place where wolves, bears, bison and lynx return? A War and Peace for dogs, this is a passionate, heart-rending odyssey about love between dog and girl. Catherine Johnson’s Journey Back to Freedom (Barrington Stoke £7.99) retells the true tale of Olaudah Equiano in crisp, lucid prose. Enslaved, abused, taught to read and surviving many perilous adventures he eventually finds freedom and campaigns for other Black people. Inspiring for 8-13s.
A Map of Leaves (Chicken House £7.99 8+) is Yarrow Townsend’s debut. Her bold heroine can talk to plants, and her quest upriver to find a cure for a mysterious sickness has absorbing characters, a vivid magical world and a wise ecological message. Perfect to read aloud.
SF Said’s Tyger (David Fickling £12.99, 9-11) is a dystopian fantasy with echoes of Blake’s immortal poem. Adam finds a gigantic, wounded Tyger while on the run in London. With his friend Zadie, he discovers that the Tyger’s life is at stake – and so is that of his whole world. A magical masterpiece with a rare Muslim hero at its heart, a villain who wants the tyger for his menagerie and fabulous, muscular illustrations by David Kean, Tyger is a visionary tale of how racism and cruelty can be conquered. It’s my middle-grade book of the year.
The Unraveller by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan £14.99 11+) is set in Raddith, where anyone can create a life-destroying curse, but only Kellen has the power to “unravel” them. Yet he himself is also cursed, and unless he can remove this, everyone is endangered. Hardinge’s gothic imagination, plotting and prose are pure delight. Don’t miss it.
My YA book of the Year is Sally Gardner’s The Weather Woman. A superb historical fantasy, this, like her best-selling I,Coriander, weaves early 19th century London with the story of Neva, a Russian heroine able to predict the weather with unerring accuracy. Her father builds an automaton to conceal Neva’s gifts, for in a society obsessed by gambling there are fortunes to be won or lost by having the correct prediction. But will it win her the man she loves?
Like Georgette Heyer crossed with Angela Carter, it’s irresistibly romantic, magical and vivid: a wintry entertainment at its most joyful.