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Books

The best children’s books of 2020 for all ages

The Big Issue’s indispensable gift guide for the young readers in your life

Time spent reading books almost doubled in the first lockdown and, as a uniquely different Christmas approaches, the comforting pages of a good story beckon once more.

Just like adults, some kids devour books like mince pies. Others might take a little encouragement but the written word still has the ability to inspire and entertain in a way which Playstations and iPads can’t.

So whether you’re a fretful grandparent looking for last-minute ideas or a head-scratching elf aiming to delight the young reader in your life, Big Issue books editor Jane Graham has the answers you need.

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Books for children under 5

Who’s Your Real Mum? by Bernadette Green & Anna Zobel

Nicholas is a little confused. When he goes round to his friend Elvi’s house, she has two mums and he is keen to discover which is her real mum. Elvi responds with increasingly fantastical clues: “She speaks fluent gorilla. She regularly gets called to the zoo to sort out gorilla disputes.”

Zobel’s autumnal palette on the illustrations makes perfect sense, and what gently emerges is a tender and joyful tale that works through the reality of different sorts of families. Above all, it’s a story of love and acceptance without a hint of preachiness.

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Dog Gone by Rob Biddulph

Biddulph was a phenomenon before this year. His lushly illustrated books, loaded with rhyme and rich imagery, made him one of Britain’s leading authors and illustrators for young minds. This year he became a saviour to many parents of young, eager locked-down artists with his #drawwithrob videos. They have been watched three million times on YouTube alone. A linked activity book has just been published.

He likes dogs (who doesn’t?) and Dog Gone is narrated by Teddy, a happy dog who loses his human in the park. A funny and warm book that canters along at a great zip and is loaded with a sense of the need for kindness, especially now. You can look forward to the frequent commands of AGAIN! AGAIN!

The Snowflake by Benji Davies

There are countless feelgood Christmas books for children but this one stands out for its gorgeous double-page illustrations of pink-sky urban landscapes, Peter Pan-esque rooftop vistas, and late-night streets full of brightly lit shops (reminiscent of The Tiger Who Came to Tea).

It also tells a simple Christmas tale very engagingly, with a satisfying happy ending. For every child who could do with an escapist security-blanket comfort read this season, and every adult who fancies reading it to them.

Books for children aged 5 to 8

Football Superstars: Rashford Rules by Simon Mugford, Dan Green

A biography, of sorts, of Man of the Year Marcus Rashford. With touches of the illustrated feel and sensibility of Shoot! and a bit of Roy of the Rovers, we trace Marcus’ rise from humble Wythenshawe beginnings to poverty-busting national policy influencer.

In between times, there are landmark moments; goals, key games and a quiz at the back to test lovers of football (of any age). A great way for younger children to learn why their football hero Rashford has become a figure of such influence and admiration. A stocking-filler essential.

The Children of Swallow Fell by Julia Green

As dystopian visions of the future go, this one feels very urgent and unsettling. In a non-specific time (now, maybe the near future) Isabella’s comfortable life in a northern Italian city is ripped away as bombing attacks begin.

We don’t know why, but when she and her father flee and reach Paris he tells her this “city is full of refugees and homeless people sleeping in tents under the bridges… there have been bombs and protests here for a long time”. It’s the same, it seems, across Europe.

They manage to reach his childhood home in northern England where they find refuge. But the impact is felt there too – no power, no shops, no neighbours. Except for two wild children, Rowan and Kelda. Survival is on Isabella, as she tries to reach Marta, her oldest friend. This is a difficult, but beautifully lyrical, book. And while it touches on so many of the pressing and frightening issues of our time – the pandemic, the environment, migrant displacement – it’s well worth the trip.

The Tindims of Rubbish Island by Sally Gardner, Lydia Corry

Rubbish Island is in trouble. For years its inhabitants, unknown to us humans (Long Legs to those on Rubbish Island), have been going about their business. They’ve been recycling debris washed on the island from shipwrecks, helping sea creatures live. And in a very nice touch, they’ve also sent lost messages in bottles on their way.

But the island is threatened by plastic. And the inhabitants make themselves known to Long Legs, seeking the help of children to rescue things. It takes a skilled and singular talent to create a book that marries an ecological message with a ripping yarn. And here there are two – mother and daughter Garnder and Corry. While there is a nod to The Borrowers , and a bit of Enid Blyton’s mystical lands, this stands as a perfectly realised new world that intrepid young minds will want to return to.

Books for children aged 8 to 11

Brand New Boy by David Almond 

On the face of it, Brand New Boy looks like another worthy anti-bullying tale about embracing weirdness. But this being the brainchild of the super-imaginative David Almond, it’s far more curious and sinister than that.

New pupil George isn’t just a bit odd, he’s beyond human ken. And how much does he himself understand who or what he really is?

Intriguing, slightly creepy and ultimately rather profound, this will encourage its young readers to ponder what life is really for, and what their future might hold. Wonderful stuff.

Tamarind and the Star of Ishta by Jasbinder Bilan

From the author of the multi award-winning Asha & the Spirit Bird comes this equally enthralling story, which spins young readers into an alluring mystery set in the foothills of the majestic Himalayas. Like all the best kids’ adventures, this one begins with a lost parent, a move to a strange alien land and a bunch of unhelpful adults. Tamarind arrives in her ancestral Indian home after her mother dies, keen to find out more about her background. But her questions meet a stony silence.

What she does discover are two new friends; a big-eyed sympathetic monkey called Hanu, and Ishta, a high-spirited enigmatic young girl who suddenly appears, like a living ghost, in her garden. Magical clues lead her to overwhelming revelations about the secrets and myths at the heart of her complicated family. A compelling treat.

Pages & Co: Tilly and the Map of Stories by Anna James

This is the third in the popular Pages & Co series, but even young readers who have never heard of the intrepid Tilly will quickly settle happily into her cosy world of bookshops and the enchanting words that float through them. This adventure begins with a customer who enters Pages & Co and immediately forgets everything about the book he came to buy.

An atmosphere of skullduggery, secret organisations and cross-contamination of stories and characters takes hold, and Tilly heads to America to put things right. This is a story full of fun fictional cameos which rewards its readers for the simple act of reading and remembering books.

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson, Omar Mohamed

This is a bit of a heartbreaker, but ends with an uplifting message of hope and opportunity. Somalian brothers Omar and Hassan have been separated from their mother since their father was killed by soldiers. They have lived in the Dadaab ‘open prison’ refugee camp in Kenya since Omar was four years old. Life is hard, and hunger is constant, but they are cared for by their loving foster mother and take solace in brotherly solidarity and playing football. Then the chance for Omar to go to school appears on the horizon…

This inspiring, educational graphic novel tackles issues like women’s rights, equal access to education and living with disability with sensitivity and subtlety. And when the fairytale ending has gladdened your child’s heart you can deliver the killer blow – this is the true story of author Omar Mohamed, and the book ends with a welcome update on his new life. A terrific, important book which should grace the shelves of every school library.

Books for children aged 11 to 14

Monstrous Devices by Damien Love

Readers of Damien Love’s near legendary TV reviews in The Sunday Herald will not be surprised that his debut novel exhibits a canny ability to conjure just the right word, the picture-perfect metaphor, the witty one-liner to bring a story to life.

This grandad and grandson adventure has all the hallmarks of a whopping kids’ thriller; a mysterious quest, a dream-like flight across snowy lands, a sinister magic, a throng of foes, and, most important of all, a huge heart. Alex Rider creator Anthony Horowitz is a big fan, and it’s not difficult to see why.

The Lost Soul Atlas by Zana Fraillon

Fraillon’s stand-out The Bone Sparrow ensured high expectations for its follow up; we’re happy to report The Lost Soul Atlas is just as rewarding. Here again are all the qualities that made The Bone Sparrow such a hit – a page-turning plot, a meticulously drawn environment, and a serious thoughtfulness that shows faith in its readers’ sensitivity.

Fraillon says the premise came to her like a dream; “the image was of a small, scruffed child, stepping from the shadows, hand outstretched, whispering, ‘Come with me. I can show you how to fly’”. After the sudden disappearance of his dad, our hero Twig is drawn by his small, scruffed, irresistible new friend into a savvy-reliant world on the streets. Which still doesn’t prepare him for waking up in the afterlife with just a key, a raven, and a strange atlas to guide him back home. This is a big life and death tale with greedy gods, dreadful terrors and emotional awakenings. And an even bigger tale about a father and son. A touching, heartwarming read.

A Secret of Birds & Bone by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

An historical novel that feels incredibly of the moment. Twelve-year-old Sofia lives in smallpox-gripped Renaissance Siena with her brother Ermin and her pet crow. It’s not a normal life. Her mother makes reliquaries for the cathedral’s relics and they live in a charnel house. The furniture is built with the bones of the dead. When their mother is arrested, Ermin and Sofia are thrown into the local orphanage and from there Sofia’s adventure deep into the hidden city begins.

Hargrave is a remarkable writer of rare craft. She has created a magical, gothic, fantastical adventure. Sofia is the type of smart and fearless young heroine who demands to reappear again. Get this book. And when you’ve devoured it, let the younger members of your house in on the secret.

Sapiens: A Graphic History by Yuval Noah Harari, David Vandermeulen, Daniel Casanave

‘Homo sapiens: Huge ego. Often happy to believe nonsense.’ So reads the top trump card entry on weakness that Harari rolls out early in this wonderful graphic novel. It provides a signal of the tone that is to come. Smart, funny and dipped deep in the reality of what we as a species are, and why we have wrought such devastation to other species around the planet.

It’s a beautiful book, the first in a series rendering Harari’s global hit for a new younger audience. Accessible as well as funny and crammed with the details that made the original so jaw-dropping and essential.

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