Kids’ Books Of The Year 2019 – the definitive list by our books editor

Just in time for Christmas, Big Issue books editor Jane Graham offers this handy shortlist of the best kids' books from 2019 – from picture books for toddlers to the young adult market…

AGES 0-5

THE LITTLE ISLAND
Smriti Prasadam-Halls, illustrated by Robert Starling (Andersen Press, £12.99)

A farm where all the animals get on well and are allowed to roam freely helping each other sees unexpected changes when the geese, alone on their little island at the farm’s edge, insist they want no help or connection and decide to go it alone. They chop down the access bridge, they say things were better in the past, and they want those days back. The ducks don’t want to leave, but they have no choice as they live on the farm island too. This is not a subtle book. But small children do not necessarily want subtlety. And if you want to find an inventive way into one of the most intractable problems of our time for the young inquisitive mind in your house, this is it. The images are smart and beautiful too.

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JUST LIKE YOU!
Jane Chapman (Little Tiger, £6.99)

Every parent knows the childhood yearning to be big. And no child believes that the parent was ever small. This beautifully drawn book covers both sides. It is the kind of feelgood book that will make small children feel protected and happy and therefore prompt multiple requests for re-reading. Chapman has made a career of richly drawn animal characters that make young readers want to learn about the world outside the door. This one has another bonus. It leaves you feeling like you’ve just had a big warm hug.

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THE FATE OF FAUSTO
Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins, £16.99)

As his multitude of fans know well, Jeffers’ beautifully illustrated books often have a fable-like heft, and exhibit more subtlety and emotional impact than many of their adult counterparts. This is the story of the not insignificantly named Fausto, who gets frustrated with what he perceives to be his insubstantial haul of possessions (a sheep, a flower, a tree) and heads out into the world to find more things to own. Even a mountain isn’t enough, and he sets his sights on the sea. Which, let’s just say, goes about as well as Captain Ahab’s mission to conquer Moby Dick. This very simple tale of human greed and nature’s resolve works as an entertaining read for young children, but might also give slightly older kids food for thought. Think Ozymandias for kids. In a fun way. And with even less words.

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AGES 5-8

MCTAVISH ON THE MOVE
Meg Rosoff (Barrington Stoke, £6.99)

The fourth part of a series of books based around rescue dog McTavish and the Peachey family, this is a quietly brilliant and clever book. McTavish, the all-seeing eye, is part Jeeves, part comfort blanket. It is, he says, his sworn duty to rescue the Peachey family from harm. And in this caper, it is youngest daughter Betty who needs him most because a new job for Pa precipitates a house move and school move. And the ending is every bit as smart and heartening as you’d hope while cantering through. With a grumpy dad who everybody is wary of when he’s happy, a Nietzsche-quoting teenage daughter, a younger sibling feeling lost and the general chaos of a modern family, this is a keenly observed book.

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ANGEL ON THE ROOF
Shirley Hughes (Walker Books, £12.99)

For several generations Shirley Hughes has been an iconic British beacon. Her Alfie books in particular chime down from parents to children, and on to their children in turn. Angel On the Roof is pitched as her Christmas story for this year. And while there are echoes of The Snowman, it feels more universal than something anchored to the season.  An angel lands on a roof of a house in London’s Ladbroke Grove. Inside, there are fractures amongst the families who live in flats there. And down in the basement flat is Lewis Brown, a boy with a palsied leg who locks himself away to avoid mocking taunts. He and the angel become friends. And the angel’s presence brings slight and positive changes to those who live in the house.  There is something otherworldly and of another time to the simple blue illustrations on London rooftops and streets. And in the hands of master writer Hughes you’ll find yourself welling up as the pages turn. This is the book to lift your Christmas.

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THE BOY WHO MADE THE WORLD DISAPPEAR
Ben Miller, illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

There are lots of children’s books which claim to be funny, and are indeed touted as such by adult reviewers. The wonderful thing about the novels of Ben Miller (of comedy duo Armstrong and Miller) is that they actually raise a number of hearty titters (we’ve seen members of his target audience reading this book and laughing like drains).

Like other superior comedic kids’ authors, such as David Walliams and Andy Stanton, Miller takes mischievous pleasure in indulging the social and linguistic transgressions children enjoy. His books are gleeful mixtures of humour, science and imagination. In his latest adventure a boy is given a black hole as a party gift, into which he can throw all the things he hates. But when his hot temper results in the things he loves also being swallowed up, he begins to think again. As children’s morality tales go, this is as satisfying as it gets.

The Boy Who Made the World Disappear Christmas kids book
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AGES 8-12

WHITE EAGLES
Elizabeth Wein (Barrington Stoke, £7.99)

What is not to love here? A teenage female pilot, a stowaway, a little known aspect of the start of the Second World War offering a new sense of perspective – this is the tale of Kristina, a recently qualified member of Poland’s air force, the White Eagles, on the frontline against the Nazi advance. The writing is simple and will leave young readers, and older ones too, stunned at the bravery and ingenuity that incredible young people showed in the war. In fact, Wein explains that the character is based on a real Polish girl called Anna Leska. And the publisher Barrington Stoke should be applauded too. They work to design books to be more easily read by dyslexic readers. What a belter all round!

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INVISIBLE IN A BRIGHT LIGHT
Sally Gardner (Zepher, £10.99)

A sparkling chandelier which memorialises the lost passengers of a disappeared ship falls to the ground and shatters into a thousand pieces, sending young Celeste on a magical time-leaping journey. This is a classic Gardner modern fairy tale, full of fabulous locations – a dreamlike theatre, a sparkling sea bottom, a ghost ship, the Cave of Dreamers – and mesmerising characters like the enigmatic emerald man and the haughty opera singer Madame Sabina. It’s a complicated, layered history tale which demands concentration and thought from its young readers, but do not underestimate this age group’s intelligence and focus; young book lovers will be as delighted as they are challenged.

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THE BOY WITH THE BUTTERFLY MIND
Victoria Williamson (Floris, £9.99)

Even toddlers must roll their eyes when they’re given the previous message to ‘be yourself’, a modern-day truism more hackneyed than the ubiquitous laugh, love, live. But as so often the way with children’s book marketing, don’t be put off by misleading fluffy jollity; this is an insightful and touching insight into life with ADHD. Hard enough for an adult, extremely challenging for a kid dealing with up the breakdown of his parents’ marriage, negotiating daily with the rough and tumble school environment. What this book does especially well is address the impact of playground hierarchies – the rules that make one miserable child reject even less popular peers for fear of social ‘infection’. Knee-jerk assumptions and mis-perceptions are gradually eroded in this rousing tale of friendship and understanding which will have your junior readers cheering on the good guys with gusto and, hopefully, an invigorated compassion.

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A Wolf Called Wander
Rosanne Parry, illustrated by Mónica Armiño (Andersen Press, £7.99)

There have been comparisons to White Fang with this, and little wonder. As Jack London’s classic about a wolf journeying through the Yukon still vividly connects with its raw wolf-eye view of life, so Parry’s tale stands, and will stand for a long time. When rival wolves arrive in his territory, Swift must go. And we’re thrown into an adventure that takes in hundreds of miles, attacks from coyote, human hunters, wildfire, and a future teetering between life and death. Readers learn a host of things about the behaviour of this still-misunderstood animal, and if you manage to sneak the book from the grasp of your younger reader, you will find it impossible not to lose yourself in the lyrical, glorious language of this primal page-turning yarn. Armiño’s evocative black-and-white images only serve to reinforce the idea that this is a modern, nature-writing classic. Incredibly, it is based on a true story.

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TEENS / YOUNG ADULT

CHINGLISH
Sue Cheung (Andersen Press, £7.99)

This endearing teenage diary is the thinly disguised story of author Cheung’s experience as ‘a working-class girl growing up in the cramped flat above their Chinese takeaway in Coventry.’ It benefits strongly from its roots in real life – the ostensibly mundane details of protagonist Jo Kwan’s high-stress work and home environment, the escape via pop music (remember Nik Kershaw?), the period vernacular of school bullies; all ring and sting true. The initially cheery tone becomes gradually more yearning and then downright unhappy and sinister as family relationships break down catastrophically. The cheesy marketing and generic comic book cover conceal a more affecting book than a first glance would suggest.

Chinglish Christmas kids books
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LOOK BOTH WAYS
Jason Reynolds (Knights Of, £6.99)

This is a great idea – we follow 20 kids, each guarding their own private stories and deep-down secrets, as they join forces with their tribe for that short but sweet journey of liberation; the after-school communal walk home. Fifteen minutes of freedom, with no parents or teachers telling them what to do. As they enjoy earnest chats about bogies, bullies, video games and skateboards we find out what brings young groups together. For some it is shared backgrounds and values, for others it is school status. For some, such as the ‘free lunch’ kids bonded by their parents’ cancer, it is an unspoken understanding of what has to be done to survive. This is a sensitive, empathetic, funny novel which never preaches and wears its morality very lightly.

Look Both Ways Christmas kids books
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BECOMING DINAH
Kit de Waal (Hachette Children’s Group, £7.99)

This is the first in Hachette Children’s new Young Adult collection Bellatrix, a series of feminist reimaginings of old canon classics. Award-winning author de Waal is a brave soul, taking on the challenge to transform the monster that is Moby Dick into an emotional coming of age tale of escape, mission, and ultimately, self-knowledge. Dinah is running away from the strange home-schooling ‘fellowship’ she grew up in, looking to carve her own path in a world which has this far been limited to the strict regulations of the cosseted commune. She hooks up with an unnervingly unpredictable one-legged man (Ahab) and together they take his re-furnished VW and get the hell out of dodge. Though it seems an odd choice to tackle a novel few teenagers will have read, this is a strong standalone story which weaves in race and LGBTQ issues deftly, without a single clunk.

Becoming Dinah Christmas Kids Book
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WAKENHYRST
Michelle Paver (Head of Zeus, £8.99)

We meet the murderer at once. Edmund Stearne leaves his manor house one summer morning in 1913 with an icepick and a metrological hammer and used them slaughter the first person he met in the “most bizarre and horrible way”. The rest of this masterful novel sets about revealing why. One part is revealed by Maud, Stearne’s daughter who became reclusive after the crime, and another by Stearne’s own diaries. It’s a story that moves back through witchcraft and hauntings, through centuries and terrifying echoes of a malevolent past that rises through the vast flat Fenland plains. Paver is one of Britain’s modern greats. This sinister, gothic chiller shows why.

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NON-FICTION

Oxford Roald Dahl Thesaurus  
Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Oxford University Press, £14.99)

What an imagination sparker! A guide to the best, most evocative and descriptive words, some of them created by Dahl, all here explained by Dahl in Dahlish. Even the chosen themes and connections are unique to Dahl. It’s a Dahlish delight.

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Epic Tales of Triumph and Adventure 
Simon Cheshire, illustrated by Fatti Burke (Bloomsbury, £12.99)

A beautifully illustrated guide to history’s most notable and exciting adventurers; mountaineers, conquerors, explorers, sailors, pilots, balloonists. Some famous ones but also plenty of amazing unsung heroes, many of them uncelebrated female pioneers.

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Humanimal
Christopher Lloyd, illustrated by Mark Rufe (What On Earth Books, £12.99)

A rich, colourful guide to “incredible ways animals are just like us”, this book will increase children’s interest in, and empathy with living creatures, as well as make them laugh at the silliness and strangeness of their animal “cousins”.

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Heroes
Jonny Marx, illustrated by Gerhard Van Wyk (360 Degrees, £14.99)  

This is a charming, brightly coloured encyclopaedia of supremely high achievers in categories as diverse as physicists, social workers, vets, lawyers, artists, activists, writers, inventors,
and farmers. Some very famous, some unheard of, but all of them outstanding and inspiring.

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