At the end of the year, children’s books enjoy the usual flurry of seasonal roundups, in which single reviewers make personal selections of titles to highlight. It tends to be only adult titles that are focused on in those fascinating broadsheet features in which leading names pick out three books that they have read during the past twelve months and want to recommend to others…
I thought it time to do a similar thing on ACHUKA. Rather than do a personal roundup I have invited an eclectic mix of individuals from the world of children’s publishing to name up to 3 titles they would like to recommend to others. I’m very grateful to the contributors for their recommendations.
My choice for ages 2-5 is Coralie Bickford-Smith’s The Worm And The Bird (Penguin). The author of The Fox And The Star has produced another exquisite, moving, funny and deceptively simple book, this time about noticing what matters in life, through the consciousness of a busy worm underground, and a bird.
For 7-10, Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland illustrated by Jeffrey Alan Love (Walker Studio) is a masterly re-telling of tales about the Viking gods, their battles with giants and their betrayal by the trickster Loki. Fabulous stuff, stunningly written and illustrated, essential to get down readers before they go onto Tolkien or Marvel super-heroes.
Thirdly, Katherine Rundell’s The Explorer (David Fickling) about four children lost in the Amazon jungle after their plane crashes is a classic adventure by a brilliantly imaginative, stylish and sympathetic author whose spirit of adventure infuses every page.
JAKE HOPE freelance consultant and current chair of YLG
The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris (Penguin)… Sometimes serious, at other points playful, there’s a rich, lyrical quality to the language used to capture and conjure the wonders of the natural world. Drawing inspiration and influence from words that were dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in 2007, the book combines breathtaking illustrations that evoke the lithe majesty of nature and a clever arc around our shifting relationship with the environment, flora and fauna that surround us.
Night Shift by Debi Gliori (Hot Key)… Depth of emotion is given great expression in this extraordinary picture book that articulates through its art and spare, staccato sentences, what it is to feel depressed. A massively important conversation-starter and a useful and clear way to explore depression and its far-reaching roots, enabling greater understanding.
Overheard in a Towerblock by Joseph Coelho (Otter-Barry Books)…Ambitious in theme, the everyday experiences of an urban childhood are made extraordinary here through astute observation and dexterity of word play – parental discord, peer pressure and the ever expanding sense of horizons and world-views extending outwards… Each poem offers a childlike vantage point, but collated together there are profound comments about the nature of late childhood, its shift towards adulthood, responsibility and the continuing role it exerts in determining and defining our lives.
The only YA/kids book I’ve read this year was a proof of Robert Muchamore’s Killer T (Hot Key books) -not due to be published till Autumn 2018 – which I found unputdownable.
I loved David Almond’s World Book Day novelette Island (Hodder), which combines many of his long standing preocupations in an absorbing story set on Lindisfarne, a place I’m fond of.
Stephan Collishaw’s The Song of the Stork (Legend Press) wasn’t promoted as a YA novel but is. Told from the point of view of a fifteen year old Jewish refugee during the second world war, it’s a gripping, harrowing, beautifully written tale.
Jonathan Coe’s first children’s book The Broken Mirror (Unbound) is a superbly illustrated fable that couldn’t be more relevant to our times.
Star by Star by Sheena Wilkinson (Little Island)… A perfectly pitched historical fiction YA, set in Ireland in 1917, when war and flu made people fear the world was ending. A plucky heroine, Stella tries to help the people around her.
Troublemakers by Catherine Barter (Andersen Press)… Contemporary YA with people you believe in. Set in Hackney where a bomber is causing panic, this debut novel is about the political and the personal.
Moonrise by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)… Yet again, Crossan shows her understanding of people’s innermost emotions, telling a story in verse that gets right under your skin.
EMILY DRABBLE former co-editor of the Guardian children’s books site, now with Booktrust
Danny McGee Drinks the Sea by Andy Stanton and illustrated by Neal Layton (Hachette)… I don’t think a picture book has ever made me laugh this much (the scene when you find out where Andy is writing the book from is just too much!) and it’s just so gorgeous to read out loud.
Cressida Cowell’s The Wizards of Once (Hachette)… I was almost scared to read it because of the brilliance of How To Train Your Dragon. But it’s totally fabulous, magical and inspiring.
Illegal by Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and illustrated by Giovanni Rigano (Hachette)… A hugely important book, as well as a totally engrossing, gripping read.
I’ll begin with a truly magical debut. Nevermoor; The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend (Hachette) is the new MG fantasy I’ve been waiting for. A cursed child, a mysterious stranger offering entrance to a magical new world full of wonder (wunder), curious and brilliant new friends (both human and very much not) and desperately frightening foes… and a set of intense magical trials that will secure a home, a future and a new identity for our heroine, if she can just work out what her true power might be. I can’t wait for book 2.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (Walker Books) is likely to be in a lot of books of the year lists; a YA debut that truly crosses over, and is already mid-production in its film release, slated for 2018. Sadly all too topical, urgent and entirely necessary, Starr’s story is one with no easy answers, and one that works to be funny, sweet and incisive, alongside being gut-punchingly painful to read. The Hate U Give takes the shock, the pain, the outrage, the mechanics of such a case (of police brutality), and weaves them into something that will ensure the reader is keen to listen and learn more; it should be required reading.
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (Random House/David Fickling) … a book I’ve been waiting for, alongside half of the literary world, for years, and oh was it worth it. Moving from a familiar world of daemons (one of literature’s best inventions) colleges and Oxford life, but soon with a turn to the dark and violent and with a nod to contemporary woes (education, climate, the state), La Belle Sauvage is not an easy book to sum up in a sentence or two, but is an epic adventure to be savoured. (And the audio with Michael Sheen is a real treat, too).
ZOE TOFT blogger ‘Playing by the book’
Good Night Sleep Tight: Eleven-and-a-half Good Night Stories with Fox and Rabbit by Kristina Andres (Gecko Press)
You think nothing can beat Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories for charm and delight and utter wonderfulness? Think again. Andres’ Fox and Rabbit will win your heart and leave you feeling like you’ve had the warmest hug ever. Quirky, charismatic and hugely entertaining, these bedtime stories should become part of everyone’s childhood.
The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud (Random House)… The weight of such expectation hangs on the final book of any much loved series, but The Empty Grave is more than a worthy finale for the fabulous Lockwood & Co stories. Funny as ever, packed with rich characterization and breath-holding developments, The Empty Grave not only answers important questions from earlier in the series but also delivers a deeply satisfying new scary storyline to salivate over.
Piglettes by Clementine Beauvais (Pushkin) … I’m also forever on the look-out for sharp, funny, clever, bold, imaginative and original books that will help my girls (and me!) navigate the hard times. This book is so brilliant on all these fronts, boldly exploring body image, female friendship, bravery and identity, all with honesty, sensitivity and real heart.
Mrs Noah’s Pockets by Jackie Morris Otter-Barry Books)… Jackie Morris in the writer’s spot this time with amazing illustrations by James Mayhew. It’s an original take on the Bible story and Mayhew’s art sings off the page and is very different from his previous work. A terrific present.
My second children’s book of the year is Fairy Tales by Hilary McKay (Macmillan) with illustrations (very lovely!) by Sarah Gibb. It’s characteristically brilliantly written, witty, wise and a must for anyone who loves these stories.
Glenda Millard’s The Stars at Oktober Bend (Old Barn Books)is a beautifully told story of forgiveness and redemption. Lyrical and lingering.
Laurence Anholt’s The Hypnotist (Random House) is a cleverly constructed novel with the kind of larger than life characters that Dickens could have created. But this fast paced story is set in 1960s America where there is an irrational hatred of people of colour. It’s a compelling read with important messages for today’s readers.
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (Random House/David Fickling)… I prefer to recommend books that not everyone else will pick but this is my favourite book of the (21st) century. I remember being transported into another universe when I heard Philip Pullman introduce Lyra at a Federation of Children’s Book Conference in Plymouth in a different century. I’ve waited too long to hear her story. … and am savouring every moment. Master story telling, difficult questions to ponder and beautifully illustrated by Chris Wormell. A great adaption on BBC Radio 4 but nothing beats the book.
In THORNHILL (David Fickling), words and illustrations, both by Pam Smy, combine with brilliant and dramatic effect. Alternating stories of two lonely girls, Mary in the past through the words of her diary, Ella in wordless illustrations, come together with eerie inevitability.
The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris (Penguin) is a timely treasure of a book – for all ages. Macfarlane’s clever, evocative ‘spells’ and Jackie Morris’s gorgeous illustrations of creatures and settings invite the reader to wonder at the natural world, and to properly look at the beauties around us.
Another double-act: Anthony McGowan and Joanna Nadin have created endearing characters, Matt and Sophia, in alternating viewpoints. Everybody Hurts (Little Brown) is a teen romance that’s at once crude and tender, harsh and poignant, always witty and engaging.
Squishy McFluff – Supermarket Sweep by Pip Jones (Faber)… I adore this cleverly written, rhyming series about Ava and her invisible cat, Squishy McFluff, charmingly illustrated by Ella Okstad. Ava and Squish don’t want to go shopping at first, but then discover it’s a lot of fun when they start sneaking all sorts of goodies into the trolley. The checkout assistant’s reaction to it all had me in fits of laughter.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd (Walker Books)… I wasn’t convinced I’d fall for this book the way everyone else appeared to. Firstly, the idea of ‘monsters’ didn’t excite me and, when realising it deals with a boy whose mother has cancer I was even more reluctant, having lost my own mum and stepdad to the disease this year. I was wrong. It’s deep and wise, and cathartic and affecting.
The Haunting by Alex Bell (Little Tiger Press)… I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by this author, but The Haunting tips the balance as my favourite. With witch bottles, a haunted pub made from the timber of a wrecked ship, the Boscastle witchcraft museum (a real place), and an adorable dog, it has all the ingredients for a chilling YA horror. Refreshingly, the protagonist is a wheelchair user. I think Alex Bell is a talent to watch.
Rising Stars (Otter-Barry Books)… A vital and pioneering poetry anthology by diverse young writers for diverse readers, aimed at the bridge year between primary and secondary school. The poets included are both BAME and LGBTQI, and have created a volume in which school age readers can finally see their own selves. Soulful, inspiring and uplifting.
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (Random House/David Fickling)… The much awaited prequel to the His Dark Materials anthology, this book follows the story of the beginnings of protagonist Lara. What always marks out Pullman’s work is his vivid breadth of imagination coupled with circuitous philosophies, involving the meaning of religion, of God and the base nature of humanity.
Offside by Hollie McNish and Sabrina Mahfouz (Bloomsbury)… Like the Pullman novel, Offside is not exactly a YA book, but a playscript appropriate to the age group which examines the true story of the banning of women in football in the early 20th century. An easy and energising read it follows the story of two characters Lily and Carrie (both real women from footballing history). Offside is a raucous feminist tumble from two of the strongest voices in contemporary UK live literature.
Fall in Line, Holden! by debut Navajo author-illustrator Daniel Vandever (Salina Bookshelf) is remarkable for its bold, engaging illustrations and powerful celebration of a young boy’s imagination. The picture book is fully and authentically grounded in his culture while also innovating within it. An outstanding, groundbreaking example of Native voice and vision, channeled through a young hero that Indigenous kids—and, for that matter, every kid—will cheer.
With heart and humor, Will Alexander’s middle grade novel, A Properly Unhaunted Place (Margaret K. McElderry), centers a fierce, formidable girl in a high-stakes, supernatural story infused with family and friendship. It’s brilliantly crafted, emotionally resonant, and an irresistible page-turner. The lingering themes (and metaphor) will haunt young readers—in the best of ways—long after the last page.
Cory Putnam’s Oakes’ magically girl-empowered YA novel, Witchtown (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is a romantic, paranormal story steeped in mystery, intrigue and betrayal. Her seemingly effortless, conversational prose style is fueled by seamless worldbuilding and a compelling feminist character arc. A perfect teen read for a year in which women’s voices are rising in strength and number!
COLIN WEST poet, illustrator
My favourite children’s book of the year is Elli Woollard’s retelling of Kipling’s Just So Stories (Macmillan’s Children’s Books). She has turned these tales into wonderfully witty verses, and every page is a brilliantly crafted colourful work of art by Marta Altés. The book even smells great!
I also very much like Karl Newson’s large, square format book, Here Comes the Sun, with atmospheric and charming pictures by Miggy Blanco (Nosy Crow). In simple, repetitive rhyme, it tells of loveable Owl’s busy flight extinguishing stars one by one. He’s busy as he passes various sleepy creatures until the sun appears and the roles are reversed. It’s a warm and magical combination of words and pictures.
My third choice, for its pure sense of nonsense is Hamster Sitter Wanted (Maverick Arts Publishing). A family of fluffy hamsters are in need of a hamster sitter when their older cousins go off on various adventures. It’s all very humorously depicted by Hannah Marks with lots of amusing detail in her illustrations and a short, funny (sometimes punny) text by Tracy Gunaratnam. All good fun!
I loved Deborah Heiligman’s Vincent And The – The Van Gogh Brothers (Henry Holt), about the amazing relationship between the two. It’s based on more than 600 letters Vincent wrote to Theo. The research is stellar. And Ms. Heiligman’s writing is gorgeous.
Second: The Incredible Magic Of Being by Kathryn Erskine (Scholastic). The narration by Julian, a science enthusiast and “uni-sensor” who can sense connections and magic in the universe, is compelling and humorous. And the way he finally faces his biggest fear in order to save his sister is moving without being maudlin.
And third–a picture book I just discovered the other day, with the wonderful title of Tyrannocaurus Rex vs Edna, The Very First Chicken by Douglas Rees, illustrated by Jed Henry. It’s the first picture book in quite a while that made me laugh out loud–guffaw, really–and seek out my husband, saying, “Listen to this.” The illustrations in this are a hoot, and the premise is one that kids are going to love.
The Wolf, The Duck and The Mouse by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen (Walker Books)…Wonderfully subversive story, with Jon Klassen’s unique, atmospheric illustration combine to give a sense of a classic, but with a contemporary feel.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green Penguin)…I absolutely sped through this in a matter of days, the story races along and maintains a light feeling whilst dealing with some very deep and pressing issues sensitively and with great feeling.
A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge… I have to confess, The Lie Tree was not my cup of tea, so approached this with caution, but loved it. It felt like a rip-roaring adventure whilst also filling in patchy bits of my history knowledge – couldn’t put it down!
In Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird (Macmillan), 12 year old Omar and his family are caught in Syria’s vicious war and flee with little more than their lives. Laird’s gift is to make the political personal while Lucy Eldridge’s illustrations require deep breaths.
Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut (Hachette) is a gripping urban novel, both tender and fierce, by a superb storyteller who knows how to dig deep into the psyche of her main characters.
The writers in Amnesty International’s Here I Stand: Stories that Speak for Freedom< throw down their gauntlets to populism. How can I forget Sita Brahmachari’s tower-block child who is so protective of her mother, written before Grenfell? Or Jackie Kay’s refugee who rides the buses to keep warm in Glasgow’s snow? And more…
Bottle of Happiness by Pippa Goodhart, vividly illustrated by Ehsan Abdollahi (Tiny Owl) is the stuff of fable and fantasy, inviting children to engage in philosophy.
My favourite children’s book from 2017 is Mind the Gap by Phil Earle (Barrington Stoke). Earle’s books always feel utterly ‘true’, and that truth can be gruelling or funny. Mind the Gap has its darker moments, but ultimately it’s an uplifting tale of redemption. Published by Barrington Stoke, who specialise in books for reluctant readers and those with dyslexia, it’s an ‘easy’ read in one way, but has real depth.
Faye Bird’s What I Couldn’t Tell You (Usborne) is a rich and dark piece of writing – YA at its best. It deals with serious issues – selective mutism, a teenager in a coma, love, violence – but the issues never get in the way of the superb storytelling. It came out last year, but I’ve just got round to it, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.
For younger readers, my book of the year is Danny McGee Drinks the Sea by Andy Stanton and illustrated by Neal Layton (Hachette). A funny, clever, surreal adventure, told in wonderfully rhythmic verse.
Oi Cat! By Kes Gray and Jim Field (Hodder)…The ‘Oi’ series (Oi Frog, Oi Dog, Oi Cat) never tires or feels forced. Kes Gray’s clever, highly sophisticated wordplay immediately engages the reader in the fun and patterns of language. Jim Field’s captivating illustrations bring the characters to life and add to the depth of the humour, making this a text that readers of all ages will enjoy and want to read again and again.
The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrations by Kenard Pak (Pushkin Press)…An expertly crafted and emotional narrative; a beautiful tale of love, loss and a powerful underlying message of the sophistication of the art of poetry. Reading this was like a cup of hot chocolate on a winter’s day; warm, rich and intensely satisfying. I read this in one sitting, but I know it’s a book I’ll return to again and again.
Straight Outta Crongton by Alex Wheatle (Atom Books)… A hugely powerful and compelling read further exploring the world of Crongton first introduced in Liccle Bit and Crongton Nights. The richness and rhythms of the language carry the reader along on the emotional journeys the characters share. The subject matter is real and expertly handled, not shying away from the truths experienced by many. Essential YA reading.
Crown by Derrick D. Barnes, ill. Gordon C. James (Surrey Books)… It is rare that a book exemplifies this much pure uncut strut, spunk, and liquid poetry as what you’ll find here. Barnes and James take a trip to the barbershop and with a combination of thick paints and seemingly effortless storytelling transform what could be interpreted as a mundane experience into narrative gold.
Wolf In the Snow by Matthew Cordell (Feiwel & Friends)… Near wordless watercolors accentuate the differences between a little girl caught in a snowstorm and the pack of wild wolves she encounters. Textless eloquence and gentle imagery show young readers that even children can do much to move beyond differences towards a common good.
Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder (Walden Pond Press)… Shocking in its simplicity, on this island no one knows where they’re from or where they’ll go when they leave. Nine children must deal with the eldest’s efforts to resist change, confronting notions of faith, memory, and narcissism in the face of the unknown.
Moonrise by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)… Sarah Crossan’s brilliant novels have brought narrative free-verse to a new generation of young adult readers. When you read her books the space around the words lets the story expand in your mind – fabulous!
The Land of Neverendings by Kate Saunders (Faber)… An uplifting middle-grade story that is also spot-on in its treatment of bereavement. My nine year-old self would have loved it.
Overheard in a Towerblock by Joseph Coelho (Otter-Barry Books)… A stunning – and stunningly illustrated by Kate Milner – poetry collection. You can dip in and out of it (‘City Kids’ is my current favourite) but there is also a narrative vein running through it. It is powerful and atmospheric, and has true ‘crossover’ appeal.
The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris (Penguin)… I’ve bought this book four times now, and I still don’t own a copy. The youngest person I’ve given it to is five, and the oldest eighty three. It’s beauty and poetry spanned that lifelong age gap as effortlessly as a rainbow spans a landscape. (I do know the origin of the title, but I have to say, in this book there are no lost words.)
The Explorer by Katherine Rundell (David Fickling)… The Explorer feels timeless already, a classic adventure story, detailed, witty and with every character alive. However, what really sets it apart for me is the joie de vivre that comes leaping from the pages. It’s infectious, and so I loved it.
Tangleweed and Brine, Deirdre Sullivan (Little Island)… These fairy tale retellings are remarkable: they stop you in your tracks. They make you exclaim ‘What! What did I just read?’ I turned the pages backwards as often as I turned them forwards. The inky woodcut style drawings are an added bonus from Karen Vaughan. They exactly match the text, dark and light, astonishing, flowing. (The one in ‘Doing Well’ caught my heart.)
The Guggenheim Mystery by Robin Stevens (Penguin)… Not only a wonderful, pitch perfect follow up to the Siobahn Dowd’s original London Eye, but a glorious mystery in its own right, diverse, accessible, moving and fiendishly impossible to predict.
Who Let the Gods Out? by Maz Evans (Chicken House)… Maz is fast becoming this generation’s Douglas Adams with her ability to effortlessly mix deep erudition and knowledge with outrageous, silly, classically British humour. A very, very funny and enthralling adventure about the Greek gods, which children adore.
The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James (Walker Books)… I was gripped by this original YA thriller, which is not only powered by tremendous scientific knowledge, but first class storytelling. Ice sharp twists, dark romance and sci-fi eeriness to keep you turning the pages – a movie must be on the cards soon.
CHRIS MOORE Host of #YATakeover and member of YAfictionados
Laurence Anholt’s The Hypnotist (Random House) has all the makings of a modern-day classic. With issues as relevant now as they were in the 1960s when the story is set, the powerful writing, expertly-crafted characters and messages of racial inequality and love make this one of the most impactful books you’ll read this year.
The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas (Walker Books) explores the racial injustice around African-American lives; a theme that echoes the Black Lives Matter movement and the current political climate in America. Told from sixteen-year-old Starr’s viewpoint, it offers cut-to-the-bone writing, memorable characterisation and layered storytelling that will touch and affect all that read it.
Will Hill’s After the Fire
(Usborne) is a powerful contribution to the YA canon. Protagonist Moonbeam must decide between the lies she has been fed her whole life by Father John and the contrasting reality she is now faced with in the outside world. Hill’s story will have you devouring the words right to the last page.
The O’Hara sisters’ (Natalia & Lauren) debut picture book Hortense And The Shadow
(Penguin) is the illustrated highlight of the year for me. The book beguiled me first at a spring & summer highlights event and when I eventually had a finished copy in my hand I was even more in its thrall. It’s a very special picture book indeed and I can’t wait to see what the sisters produce next.
by Marcus Sedgwick (Hachette) is a devastating thriller set on the Mexican/US border. Superbly realised and containing one of the best, sustained gambling scenes I’ve ever read. Extremely cinematic and moving book.
My third pick of the year is for a collection rather than an individual title. Jim At The Corner
by Eleanor Farjeon is one of the most recent releases in The New York Review Children’s Collection
. These collectible, keepable hardbacks in distinctive red cloth spines will make bibliophiles of all those who receive them.