AGES 0 – 5
The Wolf, the Duck & the Mouse, Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen (Walker Books, £12.99)
It begins simply. A mouse, going for a walk, meets a wolf. So far, so Gruffalo. But that’s where paths diverge. Barnett takes us merrily along a much more curious route. The wolf eats the mouse, the mouse discovers a duck living in the stomach, they become firm pals and decide life is good inside. And then, it gets a little odd. Is it too much to say it’s existentialism for infants? We say not!
Klassen’s minimal illustrations pull you and your young reader deep into the story. Barnett has a slick and simple punch. There is an Aesop echo to the conclusion and that’s fitting – this is a modern tale that already feels like a classic.
The Picture Atlas: An Incredible Journey, Simon Holland, illustrated by Jill Calder (Bloomsbury, £14.99)
Calling this an atlas doesn’t even touch the sides. Stretching from north to south, then from the Americas eastward, it is a glorious celebration of the richness and diversity of life on the planet. Naming all the nations, the people who made the world as it is, and a few Blue Planet-style warnings about what we do when we mess it all up, this great-looking big book drips in facts to be shared by parents reading aloud to hungry young minds.
Kevin, Rob Biddulph (Harper Collins, £12.99)
Biddulph will be well known to booky parents as the multi-award winning creator of Odd Dog Out and the fabulous Blown Away. The charm offensive goes on with his latest creation, Kevin, the huge, furry, kind and clumsy imaginary friend of trouble-magnet Sidney.
Kevin is dreamt up to take the blame for Sidney’s many spoils and breakages, but such is the power of Sidney’s imagination that one night a living, breathing, pink-spotted Kevin arrives in his bedroom, beckoning him into the technicolour world of strange creatures and sparkling horizons beyond. It’s there that Sidney learns a lesson which makes him a nicer son, and a true brother to Kevin. Told in the perfectly rhythmic rhyme which makes reading aloud a pleasure, this is the ideal Christmas present for little ones and their parents.
Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth, Oliver Jeffers (Harper Collins, £14.99)
It’s almost tedious, how regularly Belfast-born Jeffers appears on lists like this. But what choice do editors have when the blasted chap keeps coming up with ridiculously clever, beautiful and awe-inspiring works like this?
If your child hasn’t asked any questions yet about the size and scale of Earth, and the magnificent, mystery-strewn galaxy around it, they won’t be able to stop once you’ve read them this. Everything Jeffers introduces – from the intricacies of the human body to the outer reaches of the Milky Way – is suffused with wonder and love. And the over-riding moral message of appreciation and care for the planet is as persuasive as a team-up between Caroline Lucas and Wall-E. Brilliant.
AGES 6 – 10
Radio Boy, Christian O’Connell (Harper Collins, £6.99)
You could be excused for assuming this is just another ‘follow your dreams’ book for kids who are a bit weird and don’t quite fit in at school. Which, these days, is almost every protagonist in a children’s book. But you assume at your peril, for this tale about loser Spike Hughes’ launching an popular internet radio show from his bedroom, was written by the multi-talented Absolute Radio DJ Christian O’Connell. O’Connell is that rare thing, a showbiz personality who is as quick-witted and clever as he is kind and empathetic. He has a dry sense of humour, but is entirely free of spite, which makes him the ideal writer of children’s books. If your son or daughter is left alone with this book, you can rest assured that they’ll emerge a slightly nicer kid, with an improved line in one-liners. Result.
A World of Cities, James Brown (Walker Studio, £15.00)
Everything exists online. Of course. But what if your young reader doesn’t know what they want to find. And you want them to discover facts and oddities in some glorious, stylised design. This guide to major cities of the world is incredibly moreish. The more you explore, the deeper you want to go. You’ll come up for air after an hour or so, knowing that Table Mountain is home to an estimated 2,200 plant species, that London has 380 public libraries and that you want some of Brown’s prints on your wall. A guidebook/factfile packed with the sort of info young minds are bursting to learn.
The Wizards of Once, Cressida Cowell (Hodder Children’s Books, £12.99)
Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon series was a much-adored phenomenon, spawning a movie series every bit as successful as the books (eight million sold and counting). When Hiccup and his dragon Toothless finally hung up their wings two years ago, there was a sense of empty loss. What next?
So here we are, in dark forests (inspired, says Cowell, by the magic of the chalk and woods of the Sussex Downs – ancient Britain at the dawn of the Iron Age). Packed full of Cowell’s evocative, scratchy drawings, we meet the Wizards (magic) and the Warriors (not magic – they’ve already done for witches and are gunning for the wizards) and a panapoly of great characters (a magical pet spoon, for one). Cowell likes to give us lead characters who are not society’s chosen ones: Wish, our heroine, is a disappointment to her mother – the icy queen Sychorax – and she may be dyslexic, but there is something rare and steely in her as she and Bodkin adventure on to help their friend Xar.
It’s a story that begins with a flurry and gets better. Make sure this is on your list. Cowell is moving towards national treasure status.
See You in the Cosmos, Jack Cheng (Puffin, £6.99)
This book casts an intoxicating spell on its reader, though it’s hard to put your finger on just why its goofy charm is so beguiling. Certainly it has a very likeable narrator in the form of sweet, naive young Alex, an enthusiastic student of the night sky with NASA-orientated ambitions, whose beloved dog is named after his hero astronomer Carl Sagan.
When he isn’t dealing with his mother’s unpredictable ‘episodes’ (his father is long dead), Alex is working hard on his ‘Golden iPod’, a collection of earth sounds he intends to blast into the hands of benign and curious aliens at a rocket festival in the Mexican desert. It’s there he meets a bunch of new friends, who recognise the lonely yearning at the heart of his quest, and take him onboard for another search – this one for a more solid kind of family. The poignant compassion for a lost boy with his head in the stars makes this an unusually evocative read, aided by the poetic rendering of the endless twinkling sky he rockets his dreams into.
AGES OVER 11
They Both Die at the End, Adam Silvera (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)
New Yorker Silvera’s futuristic novel is a joyful thing, a celebration of living to the utmost, even – or perhaps especially – when the end is suddenly in sight.
Teenagers Mateo and Rufus don’t know each other when they get a brief, officious phone call from Death-Cast telling them today is their ‘End Day’; the day they will die. Ostensibly they have little in common. Mateo is an anxious recluse, a gentle, unadventurous soul. Rufus is a tough, canny street kid who lives on his wits. But they’re brought together through the app ‘Last Friend’ and begin a 24 hour adventure in which each helps the other to make the most of a limited time in which there is nothing to be lost and everything to be gained. Yes, it’s a big soggy snotty sobfest, but it’s much more than a clichéd manipulator of teen emotions; this is an imaginative, thoughtful celebration of the art of living.
Things a Bright Girl Can Do, Sally Nicholls (Andersen Press, £12.99)
Waterstones and Guardian children’s fiction award winner Sally Nicholls is a master of her trade and this timely historical novel about the achievements of the Suffragettes would make a fantastic Christmas present for any teenager keen to know more about the pre-War rise of the women’s movement. Through the dual tales of frustrated freedom-seeker, the smart, impeded 17 year old Evelyn, and hopeful, brave lovers May and Nell, the still awesome story of the Suffragettes and their self-sacrificing battle for the women’s vote rolls out. Young women readers will be caught between admiration for the courage of their predecessors, and a growing disappointment that more has not changed in the intervening century.
Encounters, Jason Wallace (Andersen Press, £9.99)
This is an extraordinary story which tests one’s power to suspend disbelief; that it’s based on true events just puts the tin lid on it.
In 1994, in a Zimbabwean primary school, 62 children ran screaming into the school building, insisting they had just seen a shiny silver spaceship land in their playground, and aliens emerge from its doorway moments later.
That event forms the basis of this thrilling novel, which raises all kinds of compelling questions throughout. Some, of course, are about whether the sighting can possibly be genuine. But the more interesting ones are about our need to connect, to share friendships and broaden our minds, opening them to the myriad of possibilities and wonders most of us fail to grasp in our lifetimes. A beautifully written and thought-provoking book about aliens whose lessons on human empathy reach as high as the heavens.
Turtles All the Way Down, John Green (Penguin, £14.99)
After the ground-shifting success of The Fault in Our Stars, and the landslide of copycats which followed, it’s important to remember how good John Green is at his best. It’s easy to caricature his books as mawkish collections of soft-furnishing slogans, but that would be a big mistake, like blaming Dickens for every misery memoir in WH Smith.
Here again, Green shows his ear for teenage dialogue, his innate understanding of the bi-polaresque highs and lows of adolescent romance, and the intensity of young friendships and first loves. And once more he proves that no one in his field can compete when it comes to killer last chapters which ruin and make your day in equal measure. Clear your diary for the popcorn festival sure to follow.
The Lost Words, Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton, £20.00)
Macfarlane is a changemaker. Since his book The Old Ways, on walking ancient routes, propelled his star ever upwards, he has made nature-writing populist and big-selling. Yet he still retains an esoteric, other-worldly literary agency. So much so that wannabe Macfarlanes get no greater recommendation than his name on their covers.
Here he goes moving the dial again. The Lost Words grows out of Landmarks, his book that tried to capture the nature words of Britain before they are scattered and forgotten. During research, he became concerned at how wild words and ideas were being lost to children – Pokemon characters were better known than common British wildlife. So he set about doing something about it. Morris’s paintings are beautiful – at once familiar and other. Macfarlane creates poems around the names – as diverse as ivy and magpies – that leave gaps for young minds to seek information on and fill. And which will inspire their older reader companions to think about what they once knew and now miss. There will be a resolve, too, to get outside and do something about it. A contender for book of the year.