Few readers will fail to spot this has been a golden year for children’s books. With Philip Pullman’s magisterial return to the world of His Dark Materials in La Belle Sauvage, and Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s rapturously received nature-fest The Lost Words, do we need more? Indeed we do.
Judith Kerr’s Katinka’s Tail (HarperCollins £12.99) adds to her classic cat stories with a tale of a white cat’s magic tail, which sends an elderly lady in pink dressing-gown flying off to the moon. A heart-warming, gold-sprinkled reminder that grannies have imagination too, but over-excited tots may respond better to Francesca Simon’s Hack and Whack, (Faber £6.99) in which hilarious little Vikings with a limited but expressive vocabulary go on a rampage. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s heroes in The Ugly Five, Scholastic £12.99) are Wildebeest, Warthog, Hyena, Vulture and Stork. Valued by their adoring offspring as kind and cuddly, brave and strong, it’s cheering for demoralised parents, too. All 3+.
Once again, the strangest and loveliest offering for small readers comes from designer Coralie Bickford-Smith. The Worm and the Bird (Particular Books £14.99) shows a worm’s-eye view of life, literally, as its narrator manoeuvres past grit, insects, dead leaves, fossils, lost keys, old coins and other worms, unaware of the bird waiting to pounce on it from above. Exquisitely drawn, it’s drily funny and addresses the perennial failure to appreciate the wonder of life.
Seasonal magic for 5+ comes with Katherine Rundell’s One Christmas Wish (Bloomsbury £14.99). A lonely boy with over-worked parents decorates a tree with shabby old ornaments, which, Nutcracker-style, come alive in a quest. Joyous, especially with Emily Sutton’s retro illustrations. The actual Nutcracker story can be relished in Jessica Courtney-Tickle’s charming version (Frances Lincoln £14.99) which will play Tchaikovsky’s music too, but for new readers of 6+, Anthony McGowan’s I Killed Father Christmas (Little Gems £6.99) is a riot, lavishly illustrated by Chris Riddell. Jo-Jo decides to leave his rowing parents, dress up and deliver presents to friends and neighbours. When he meets the real Father Christmas, mayhem and merriment ensue.
For the whole family but especially 8+, A Poem for Every Day of the Year, edited by Allie Esiri (Macmillan £16.99) is an old idea but gorgeously presented and intelligently selected as it includes poets from Shakespeare to Kate Tempest. I loved it.
On a darker note, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Jeffrey Alan Love’s rendition of Norse Myths (Walker Studio £18.99) is the best of many recent renditions for children of 9+. With fiery, lyrical prose and shadowy, sinewy illustrations this is a wintry marvel of doom, hope, cruelty and imagination that make it a serious gift, re-read many times over.
Finding enjoyable books for children of 7-11 remains problematic. Kate Saunders’s The Land of Never-endings (Faber £10.99) concerns a bereaved child who discovers that old toys leave the Hard World for the magical land of Smockeroon. As much about imagination as bereavement, it balances laughter and tears superbly; Lissa Evans has turned her comic genius for creating characters to a similar subject in Wed Wabbit (David Fickling £10.99)
where two children must defeat a tyrant that has taken over the toys’ land of Wimbley Woo. Horatio Clare’s Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds has a miniaturised hero who must save the polluted world from an enormous snail. Yes, it’s an eco-fable but Clare’s sensitive wit makes it urgent. Lastly, Cressida Cowell’s The Wizard of Once (Hodder £12.99) is essential for young readers who loved her How to Train Your Dragon series. A magic sword, an enchanted spoon, a talking raven and a wicked witch has this fizzing with fun.
For history fans of 9+, Mary Hoffmann’s thoroughly delightful The Ravenmaster’s Boy (Greystone Press £8.99) has Kit, orphaned by the plague but able to speak Raven, play an important role in the future ascension of Elizabeth l. Theresa Breslin’s The Rasputin Dagger (Corgi 7.99) is a superb suspense novel about a cursed dagger, and perfect for the centenary of the Russian Revolution.
Katherine Rundell’s The Explorer (Bloomsbury £12.99) is the stand-out book for 11+, written with characteristic warmth and insight. When their plane crashes in the Amazon jungle, four very different children must learn to survive together. Like Eva Ibbotson’s masterpiece Journey to the River Sea, this shows how love and courage can make the green Hell wonderful. Highly recommended.
Riveting reads for 12+ include My Side of the Diamond (Hot Key £9.99). Vintage Sally Gardener, its mixture of class conflict, forbidden friendship and alien abduction shouldn’t work but it does thanks to her peerless originality. Sally Nicholls’s Things a Bright Girl Can Do (Andersen £12.99) is a suffragist novel, told via genteel Evelyn, “Sapphist” Quaker May, and cross-dressing working-class Nell. Tough, unsentimental and well-realised it moves from
drawing-rooms to prison cells, and is one for bright girls everywhere. For boys, William Sutcliffe’s shockingly suspenseful We See Everything (Bloomsbury £12.99) channels John Christopher as much as The Hunger Games. Two boys, one a rebel, the other a drone pilot, cross paths in a bombed-out dystopian London where nobody is free. Also challenging, Deirdre Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine (Little Island £12.99) recasts fairytales with an
exquisite intensity worthy of Angela Carter and is complemented by Karen Vaughan’s inky elegance.
Frances Hardinge’s became the second children’s author to ever win the Costa book of the year prize with The Lie Tree. Though her style is more complex than Pullman’s, she’s an equally addictive story-teller for young and old.
Young Makepeace can see ghosts, and is accidentally possessed by the spirit of a bear. When her puritan mother dies, she has no option but to seek her father’s rich and powerful family, Royalists embroiled in the coming Civil War. But they have their own secrets, and soon she must use all the wits she has to outwit treachery.
Electrifyingly good, A Skinful of Shadows (Macmillan £12.99 11+) dances between reason, compassion and the supernatural with exceptional artistry. Even in a remarkable year for children’s books, it strikes gold.