Books

The definitive guide to best children's and YA books of 2023

We've selected the reads of the year to fire young imaginations

A Way to the Stars cover

Illustration: Gill Smith

It’s been a truly fantastic year for young book lovers. Here’s our rundown of the best children’s books of 2023.

Ages 0-6 

children's books: King Lion cover

King Lion by Emma Yarlett

Walker Books, £12.99 

Loneliness and being misunderstood are common subjects for children’s books; authors know that childhood can often be difficult, especially if you feel you don’t fit in and can’t make friends the way everyone else apparently can. This book takes a clever approach to tackling that emotional anxiety – its alienated, misunderstood character is a mighty lion, ostensibly a majestic, powerful creature who can have anything he wants. But what he wants is a friend. And that is a difficult task when everyone is scared of him and withdraws when he appears. It takes a special kind of empathy and courage to trust him, and Yarlett leaves young readers with enlightening ideas about judging strangers and making friends. 

children's books: Mama’s Sleeping Scarf cover

Mama’s Sleeping Scarf by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, writing as Nwa Grace-James, illustrated by Joelle Avelino

HarperCollins, £12.99

Adichie, author of outstanding adult novels Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, wrote this story for her daughter, who was three at the time. It is a celebration of mother-daughter love and shows how that bond remains, and in fact can be strengthened through objects rich with memories and symbolism. Young Chino plays with her mother’s sleeping scarf throughout the day; running with it, hiding behind it, using it as a bedcover for her sickly bunny. She is drawn to anything which reminds her of the scarf – even, fortuitously, green vegetables. This is a heartwarming little tale for children who will be comforted by the notion that even when she is absent, their mother is not far away. 

children's books: Two Wheels book cover

Two Wheels by David Gibb, illustrated by Brizida Magro

Walker Books, £12.99 

This simple story will appeal to any bike-mad dad who is desperate to share his passion with his offspring. In Two Wheels the bond is between a devoted dad and his eager young son, but it works just as well for keen little girl bike riders (in fact there is an illustration of a girl on a bicycle on the dedications page).  

Following our young hero’s journey from three wheels to two, it celebrates the joys and freedoms of riding your own bike, and the heart-bumping feeling of achievement which comes with mastering the skill. One can’t help thinking that this book was written to appeal primarily to the enthusiastic fathers who will read it to their children, but there are few things more rewarding than a late-night reading aloud session with your dad, so it’s all good.

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Begin Again children's book cover

Begin Again by Oliver Jeffers

HarperCollins, £20

It’s unlikely I’ll have to introduce Jeffers to young readers or primary school librarians. The Belfast man – and Big Issue Kids Cover Competition judge – now residing in New York, has written more stone-cold classic books for under-8s than any British author. If you have a child who has not yet been introduced to the beautiful boy/penguin friendship in Lost and Found, or the sensitive tale of a girl finding her way through grief in The Heart and the Bottle, I urge you to augment your  library immediately. 

We don’t just love Begin Again because it’s the title of a Taylor Swift song (though there would be no shame in that), but because it’s possibly Jeffers’ most ambitious and earnest book yet. He is increasingly worried about the legacy today’s adults are leaving tomorrow’s children. He takes us on a journey from the beginning of time until the present day, remembering times of conflict and resolution, of terrible mistakes and moments of incredible human achievement. 

The book is not a doom-filled warning. Instead it is designed to raise questions: what can we learn from
history so that we might make a better future? 

A Way to the Stars children's book cover

A Way to the Stars by David Almond, illustrated by Gill Smith

Walker Books, £12.99

Most parents will be aware of Almond by now; he has been producing wildly imaginative picture books for young readers for many years. His work is pleasantly challenging, sometimes even surreal, with animals dressing and behaving like humans and no one batting an eye. It is also fruitful to look at every detail in his books, as there are sneaky clues or bizarre items hidden in the background. In short, he writes books that kids can read over and over again, each time discovering new things, or seeing the story a little differently.  

A Way to the Stars is a charming story about the bond between a father and son, forged when dad tells his ambitious son Joe that they can reach the stars if they build a ladder, or a tower, or a pogo stick, or even a rocket. This is an ode to faith and familial love. I’ll let your kids tell you if they make it to the moon or not. 

Ages 7-11 

The Ice Children children's book cover

The Ice Children by MG Leonard, illustrated by Penny Neville-Lee

MacMillan, £12.99 

This story, by Twitch and Beetle Boy author MG Leonard, begins with a memorable scene: five-year-old Finn is found frozen on an icy plinth in the local park; his heart is still beating and he is smiling, but he cannot be woken. His sister Bianca is determined to save him. 

This spooky imagery, as well as the nightmarish notion of a child bewitched by creatures from a different dimension, is of course reminiscent of The Snow Queen, in which a splinter of devil’s mirror  freezes little Kai’s heart and he is stolen from his devoted friend Gerda by the enticing Queen of the ice. The heart tugs also echo those which give the Hans Christian Andersen classic its emotional heft – the fragility of childhood, the lurking danger of the dark adult world and the enormous power of love and faith.  

Impossible Creatures children's book cover

Impossible Creatures by Katherine Rundell

Bloomsbury, £14.99 

Impossible Creatures has already been crowned Waterstones book of the year, and Rundell has a list of ardent admirers as long as your arm, including some of the greatest living children’s authors (Michael Morpurgo, Neil Gaiman, Patrick Ness and a writer she is often compared to, Philip Pullman). She is a master of imaginative world building, filling her magical stories with fully realised characters, busy plot lines and detailed landscapes. Impossible Creatures may be her best book yet, in which an ordinary place, home to an ordinary grandfather, turns out to be extraordinary in every way.  

Our hero Christopher discovers a gateway to great marvels – centaurs and baby griffins – and embarks on a perilous quest. These aren’t unique storylines in children’s literature of course – the journey, the jeopardy and the accompanying angels and demons are staples of storytelling throughout millennia of fables and fairytales. But it takes a writer of Rundell’s calibre, with her evident passion for poetic language, to take you step by step through an old school adventure which feels real, unpredictable and important. This immersive fantasy will keep young readers guessing and holding their breath until the very last chapter.

The Snow Girl children's book cover

The Snow Girl by Sophie Anderson, illustrated by Melissa Castrillion

Usborne, £12.99

Anderson’s modern fairytale plays on a dream many children have had – the idea that you might be able to make a ‘snow friend’ who will come to life and ensure you’re never lonely again. Tasha builds a snow girl with her grandpa and wishes hard that her creation could be real. She then meets a friend “made of wishes, starlight, snowfall and magic” who could perhaps change her life for the better. But the age-old conundrum about winter magic raises its head – what happens when spring comes? A touching story about how even with loss, hope remains and ultimately triumphs. 

Norah's Ark book cover

Norah’s Ark by Victoria Williamson

Neem Tree Press, £8.99

Award-winning Scottish writer Williamson’s experience as a primary school teacher is central to this authentic story, rich as it is with empathy for troubled young children. Norah, without a mum and cared for by an unreliable, unemployed father, is weighed down with all kinds of believable anxieties. The kind that children, embarrassed, often cover up from friends and teachers. The loneliness that often accompanies family money worries and hidden grief are palpable in this sensitive tale, which explores the trauma of poverty and homelessness increasing numbers of British children sadly face today. But it is not all darkness and sorrow – as so often in real life, meaningful friendships, a love for animals and the possibility of an alternative loving family brighten Norah’s world and offer hope for a better future.

Stitch cover

Stitch by Padraig Kenny

Walker Books, £7.99

This mesmerising new gothic adventure will be an instant favourite for fans of the best selling author of Tin and The Monsters of Rookhaven. It features two loveable characters, Stitch and his friend, the delightfully titled Henry Oaf, who have been brought to life and kept in a castle by a genius professor. But not every stranger sees Stitch and Henry as loveable – in the outside world they look more like Frankenstein’s monsters, and are treated as dangerous invaders, and hunted down. Suddenly the world doesn’t seem so safe. Kenny is brilliant at creating sympathetic characters for his young audience, ensuring that readers really care about innocent Stitch’s fate. The message, about tolerance, acceptance and kindness, is not hammered home, but it can’t fail to sink in. 

Ages 12 and over 

The Secret of Helmersbruk Manor  cover

The Secret of Helmersbruk Manor by Eva Frantz, illustrated by Elin Sandström, translated by Annie Prime

Pushkin Children’s, £16.99

As the title suggests, this is an intriguing mystery tale. The book is also an exquisite object, beautifully bound with gold lettering and a deliciously spooky front cover image – a hefty, impressive Christmas present. This is another large hardback with lots of pretty illustrations but again, I warn you, this is not for primary school-age readers. It’s the story of 12-year-old Flora, who discovers an abandoned mansion while exploring in the seaside town she and her mother have gone to for Christmas. The language is complex and the emotions expressed – fear, doubt, anxiety, regret – properly grown up. However this will draw in curious over-12s, with a layered mystery to solve and a satisfying emotional resolution.  

Little Bang cover

Little Bang by Kelly McCaughrain

Walker Books, £8.99

The press release boldly announces that this book will appeal to fans of Holly Bourne and Derry Girls. Those are big comparisons, but award-winning Northern Irish writer McCaughrain does summon some of that wild spirit; her YA novel about an unintended teenage pregnancy is full of authentic humour, youthful hyperbole and hope.  

The subject is serious. Pregnant after a first date, good girl Mel knows she is in a country where abortion is illegal. Her dilemma is very real, and one which will strike a nerve with many young female readers. The books ends with a list of agencies which help girls in Mel’s situation and various statistics about abortion, but though the story implies that freedom of choice is a human right, McCaughrain is careful not to be didactic or reductive. In the end this is a story about young relationships and concerns with believable, sympathetic characters.  

Island of Whispers cover

Island of Whispers by Frances Hardinge, illustrated by Emily Gravett

Two Hoots, £14.99 

Hardinge is already a great favourite with younger readers and enthusiastic teachers; her The Lie Tree and Deeplight are two of the most lauded novels of recent years. Island of Whispers is a big picture book – Gravett’s illustrations of ghostly creatures, sumptuous seascapes and numerous animals are delightfully atmospheric, adding much to the powers of Hardinge’s typically simple, evocative prose.  

But don’t be fooled into thinking it is slight or aimed at primary school children. This dark fairytale, about a young boy who loses his father and is then forced to ferry the dead to their final resting place, tackles some dark and serious issues. However, Hardinge never loses sight of the appeal of a strong plot, full of challenge and risk, ensuring that Island of Whispers is a page turner until the end. 

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Jane Graham is The Big Issue books editor.

To buy the best children’s books 2023 from The Big Issue Shop at Bookshop.org, either click on the book cover, or here to help support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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