World-renowned children’s author and artist Jeffers needs no introduction, as I always say when introducing yet another gem from the great Belfast writer. This story, ostensibly about a little girl searching for rumoured ghouls in a fully furnished, deserted old house, is particularly exquisite and imagination-sparking. The simple comic-book illustration of our intrepid explorer stands beautifully against photo-realistic images of various rooms, some of which come with estate agent-style architectural descriptions. Between every page is a semi-opaque cover page, some of which are blank, some of which reveal ghostly presences. Young children will enjoy the game of hide and seek the book encourages, and might also sense the unsettling, rather thrilling atmosphere conjured up by hanging portraits of solemn unknown figures, stairways into dark corridors and unexplained shadows. One wonders if Jeffers will ever run out of ideas and unique ways of presenting them.
Writer/artist Alex Willmore has created a rod for parents’ backs with this irresistible shoutalong picture book about a group of explorers trawling the Antarctic for penguins. The grown ups’ tooled-up gear and serious expressions suggest they’re shooting a David Attenborough series. But our cute little hero is intent on seeing a mammoth, despite being told in no uncertain terms that they are long extinct. His victorious discovery of a very cool mammoth dude skateboarding in rock’n’roll shades is laugh-out-loud funny. As is the final pay-off (no spoilers!). This will be great fun to read to young readers. And props to Willmore, who must now hold the record for number of penguins squeezed into any book page.
A book that is impossible to define. With echoes of the Pied Piper tale, but without the dark ending, a sliver of Nanny McPhee and a strong shadow of Roald Dahl’s favouring of the child view over the cynical adult, this is a beguiling treat. Part fable, part celebration of the limitlessness of childhood imagination, Carlin’s ever-shifting illustrations build an ethereal mood. Claptrap, tommyrot, piffle, bunkum – words that demand to be roared out loud are packed in. There is a great love of language here, joyous and full of bounce, that takes flight as the children do the same.
Oh my. Take a deep breath. Two small children are washed ashore and find shelter in a strange new place with welcome but unfamiliar arms. It is a broken area, there are fences, there aren’t a lot of gentle childhood things. But it is safe. The younger of the two begins to find his place. The elder struggles, until there is a moment with a butterfly. It is loaded with symbolism, but still no easy resolution. The ending is uncertain. The issue of refugees and those on small boats seeking some sort of help is, in so many ways, the story of this year. To be able to condense it down into a moving picture book for small children is an incredible feat. Prepare for questions. Prepare for tears. This is an essential kids’ narrative for the fractured times we’re in.
The best children’s books from 2022, for readers who are starting to strike out alone.
For any kid transfixed by Norse mythology – now familiar to millions of young Marvel fans – this intimate diary of Loki’s school days will be a joy. Charmingly dedicated to Adrian Mole, it’s silly, full of cheeky jokes and mischief, and peopled by believable, fallible characters who just happen to be gods. The premise is funny – Loki is an out-of-control prankster who so deeply frustrates the mighty Odin he is banished from Asgard and forced to live on Earth as a normal 11-year-old boy. Even worse, an 11-year-old Thor has gone with him to test his patience by regularly farting on his head. His student diary is full of daft doodles, delusional declarations about his own beauty and greatness, and whiny lists of his peevish complaints. Children will relate to Loki’s irritation with school rules, while also enjoying the idea that a deity might wander undetected among them.
This is a touching homage to formative female friendships by the writers of Slay in Your Lane, a powerful, influential call-to-arms study of the social obstacles that plague Black girls’ progress in the UK. Best friends Adegoke and Uviebinené have now successfully turned to fiction, celebrating the unique bond between two 12-year-old girls navigating too-busy stepfamilies, school straitjackets and hostile peer cliques. Younger readers who feel like outsiders will be buoyed reading about these kindred spirits finding each other, and one feels hopeful that the presumed aim of the writers – to comfort and inspire – will be met.
The Corpse Talk series is now a well-established and increasingly essential part of the canon for all young, inquiring minds. The premise is simple – Adam Murphy interviews significant characters from history and learns about their achievements through their perspective. The twist – they’re dead. He’s speaking to their corpse. With the same humour and approach to the past of Horrible Histories, married with a graphic novel visual tautness, this is a real pleasure. And huge in reach – want to move from ancient Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia to lesser-known naturalist William Beebe? Course you do! Maps, facts, details – this is absolutely stuffed full of the sort of info that is always useful, not just for younger readers but for older helpers keen to resurface elements at pub quizzes or to enliven long meetings.
Multi award-winner Bilan (Asha & the Spirit Bird, Tamarino & the Star of Ishta) returns with another delicately balanced tale about family, love, memory and Indian history. Bilan knows her audience well, and is adept at bringing potentially unnerving realities into a palatable, more comfortable context. Here she draws attention to the sorrows and losses of dementia, and also, indirectly, to the brutality of Idi Amin’s reign in Uganda. Xanthe notices that her beloved Nani is becoming forgetful and is desperate to help her. Bilan uses her knowledge of Indian myths and fairytales to bring a sense of magic and adventure to this scary turn of events, introducing a mysterious cat to lead Xanthe to a discovery revealing Nani’s childhood in Uganda, and the life Nani is starting to forget. The story is very touching, but even more affecting is Bilan’s gorgeous prose, which evokes a world full of wonder, glitter and light.
It is not hyperbole to say this collection of modern-day fairytales is a groundbreaking thing of wonder and enlightenment. It caused serious ripples when it was released in Hungary in 2020, where some regarded its embracing of LGBTQ+ characters as romantic heroes, and its replacement of princes with princesses as inappropriate and even dangerous. The short stories by various writers are a combination of re-imagined classics (Cinderella leaves the Prince behind, Snow White is a defiant tomboy) and brand-new tales. The best stories don’t crudely replace one gender or class with another, they weave an irresistible spell through delightful new characters and love stories not usually found in children’s books. But at the heart of all of them is the joy of adventure, dreams coming true and freedom.
Winner of the 2020 Big Issue book of the year (with Diary of a Young Naturalist), everything McAnulty touches turns into an enchanted treasure. Here he uses his gift for describing the enormous diversity of birds and their fascinating behaviour – skills, routines, tricks, rituals – in a way which will capture the imagination of any curious young child. Using the effective device of following a year in the life of birds, he explains what to look or listen out for in different seasons, describing bird songs, the science of flight and patterns of migration. He even tells kids what to put out on their bird tables to attract particular species. He truly is the David Attenborough of young nature lovers, and hopefully destined to be an equally loved British institution.
A tale of three generations of the Norwegian Kristensen family, from the first whale hunters to the later generation of environmentalists committed to saving the threatened great whale. God, doesn’t that sound tiresomely didactic? Never fear – the ‘message’ is contained inside a compelling, exciting and ultimately moving adventure, so that environmentalism is not an ideological ‘stand’ but a character trait integral to relatable characters. Vick may, like some of his protagonists, be on a mission. But he is smart enough to know that for young readers, empathy, thrill and derring-do are the hooks upon which enlightenment hangs.
Like many young readers, my first dream (after owning a dog) was to write a novel (and if my P7 teacher Mrs Cowan hadn’t censored my tragic novel Razzle’s Kitten – which ended with an unforgettable puppy / 18-wheeler bloodbath – maybe I’d have felt more encouraged). This is as inspirational and practically useful a guide to writing fiction any aspiring young writer could ask for, packed with fantastic ideas about how to avoid cliche and plot sagging, employ seed-planting metaphors and stand out from the crowd. There are challenges which require exactly the combination of free-thinking and creativity first-time writers benefit from getting their newbie heads around; no matter how many good ideas you have, discipline and tenacity are equally essential in getting something of real quality onto that intimidating blank page. Thought-provoking guidance is offered by the likes of Neil Gaiman, JK Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson and Anton Chekhov. A bible for anyone with a big imagination.
Now that Heartstopper is such a well-known and much-loved Netflix series, it’s easy to forget that it began life as a terrific graphic novel. This year Hachette re-released Vol 1, and also gave us a brand-new Yearbook by the original writer, Alice Oseman. This tender ‘boy meets boy, boys become friends, boys fall in love’ story will worm its way into any soft heart, and the graphic novel is a very emotionally persuasive method of delivery. A must for any young person who feels that hiding their feelings is just a necessary part of getting through the day.
As many parents will attest, the lure of Greek myth, rich with vengeful gods, superpowered heroes and unforgettable exploits, is as strong today as it ever was. As his award-winning novel, The Girl Who Became a Tree, so beautifully demonstrated, children’s laureate Coelho knows his way around the great legends, and is masterful at weaving them into contemporary kids’ lives. This is a tale told in verse (don’t panic, the plot is awesome), paralleling Theseus’s journey through the labyrinth with teenager Theo’s quest to find his biological dad. It’s also interactive, with a ‘choose your own adventure’ element. A lyrical, touching page-turner.
Carnegie Medal-winning Naidoo returns with her first children’s novel in over a decade, and it’s as powerful and significant as her first novel, Journey to Jo’berg (banned in her native South Africa until 1991). Three music-loving friends live as ‘Nons’ in a country governed by ‘Permitteds’. Nons are barely tolerated, living with rules that leave them powerless, their movements and access to services strictly limited. Yet behind closed doors friendships and family ties are warm, tight-knit and a source of determination and self-belief. This resolve is pushed to the limit when tragedy strikes. The story was borne of Naidoo’s research into whether reading fiction could genuinely change children’s ideas about race and injustice. She decided it could. This novel is testament to that belief and to the communal power of friendship, family and music.
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