The Big Issue's best kids' books of the year 2018

Just in time for Christmas, The Big Issue's books editor Jane Graham offers a handy shortlist of this year's top kids' reads

Age 0-5

Moon: Night-time around the world  (Little Tiger Kids, £7.99)

Britta Teckentrup and Patricia Hegarty

If the great double whammy of early read-along picture books is a cry of ‘again again!’, married to enough space to talk with eager minds about the subjects that come up, then this book
is special manna.

As the moon waxes and wanes we skip lightly across the globe, from penguins up to puffins through to parrots and creatures of the deep. Rendered with truly stunning imagery by Teckentrup and delicately told by Hegarty, this book will encourage a joy in the world around and beyond. And it is genuinely full of wonder. As an adult you’ll look forward to reading this again and again!


Dragon Post (Walker Books, £10.99)

Emma Yarlett

One day Alex finds a dragon under the stairs in his house. And so he begins writing to a series of people who might be able to help with this strange to-do. Junior readers will look forward to diving in and opening the gloriously crafted envelopes contained inside.

With gentle echoes of Oliver Jeffers and the imaginative leaps children playing alone can take, there is also a shadow of oddness of The Tiger Who Came to Tea. It is an ultimately uplifting treat and one that will remain with the adult reader – quietly touching, as it does, on the tyranny of growing beyond childhood friendships.


Super Frozen Magic Forest (Oxford Children’s Books, £6.99)

Matty Long

Though a very funny picture book – with enough action on every page to delight young minds during the quest to defeat the evil ice queen (The Elf And Dwarf Tavern pages are an incredible and rich delight) – it’s unfair to pitch this simply as a book for the under-fives. All adult relatives will love diving in to play spot the reference. These include Game Of Thrones, The Lord Of the Rings, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and that absurdist nerd favourite Adventure Time. A glorious gift that will keep on giving after the tree is packed away. Matty Long, known previously for Salty Dogs, is the real deal.


Age 6-9

Harry Hill presents Matt Millz Stands Up (Faber & Faber, £10.99)

Harry Hill, Illustrated by Steve May

Vic Reeves described the first Matt Millz book – in which Hill’s titular 12-year-old wannabe stand-up tried to wow the nation at The T Factor with his comic routine – as a “magnetic toilet read”. And now, Hill, one of Britain’s best and most original comic brains, picks things up after Millz won but was then disqualified for being underage. There follows a cautionary tale of listening to your own hype rather than actually doing any work. Hugely readable, with the incredible charm of the first book in the series, it’ll keep aspiring nine and 10-year-old comics thinking right through to the new year. Reeves should approve. Incidentally, “floppy-collared loon Harry Hill” also pops up as someone Millz
wants to talk shop with.


The Day War Came (Walker Books, £10)

Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb

Davies is one of Britain’s most inventive and prolific children’s writers. This book was first a poem published in The Guardian after the British government refused to provide sanctuary to 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees. Now, with equally beautiful and raw illustrations by Cobb, it sets things up for young readers to see simply that those children whose homes and lives were destroyed by conflict previously enjoyed lives like children in Britain.

Adult readers will read this with a growing fury and indignation at how we treat these lost and abandoned children. And that is okay. Sometimes it’s right to be preachy. We must keep those thoughts flinty and pointed. £1 from every sale will go to charity Help Refugees. Buy a bundle.

The Dam (Walker Studio, £12.99)

David Almond, illustrated by Levi Pinfold

Multi award-winning David Almond has become a giant of children’s books. He excels in creating an immersive, almost unsettlingly alluring atmosphere, like a literary Pied Piper. His thoughtful approach to modern myth-making style is particularly successful when his writing is paired with an equally evocative illustrator like Levi Pinfold which is what makes The Dam such a treat.

It’s based on a true story with irresistible poetry; in 1981, just before the abandoned village of the Kielder Valley was drowned by an enormous artificial lake, folk singer Mike Tickell and his violinist daughter Kathryn slipped into the empty buildings and filled them with song. The idea was to pay a final homage to the many musicians who had once brought the village to life. It’s a story rich with moody romance, tailor-made for Almond, who adds the idea that the music can still be heard rising up over the baleful mountainous landscape of Northumberland. It can be read to your child in five minutes, but it’s likely to leave them pondering for days.


Mr. Tiger, Betsy and the Blue Moon (Zephyr, £10.99)

Sally Gardner, illustrated by Nick Maland

Sally Gardner, the much-loved author of the delightful Maggot Moon, has a seemingly infinite imagination, packed with the kinds of flights of fancy which enchant open-minded (ie almost all) primary school children. Her latest tale centres on the wonderfully named Betsy K Glory, the dreamy purple-haired daughter of a mermaid and an ice-cream maker, and her adventures with the mysterious circus master Mr. Tiger. The mission Betsy and Mr. Tiger take on includes many delicious elements – a blue moon, a blushing berry collection, a wish-granting ice-cream. But even more alluring is Gardner’s unique prose, full of unusual metaphors and strange ideas, such as an over-worked alphabet and a pyjama-clad sun.


Age 10-12

The Wordsmith (Little Island, £7.99)

Patricia Forde

First published three years ago in Ireland, this book, celebrated by young-writing fountainhead Eoin Colfer, finally gets a run in Britain.

This is a fantastical tale about Letta, a wordsmith’s apprentice who, in a near future following The Melting, when the sea rose and much of the earth was covered, is one of the few survivors. She and other humans live in a place called Ark, built by John Noa, and Letta must give out words to people who remain. But certain words – like love, hope and freedom – are banned. And Noa is out to destroy more. Letta must stop him.

Fittingly, for a book about words, the language is lush and lyrical and besides a warning over the readying threat of climate change, this is also a timely reminder how words can be used and debased in the wrong hands, to manipulate and control.


To Kill a Mockingbird, a graphic novel (Penguin, £16.99)

Harper Lee, adapted and illustrated by Fred Fordham

This beautifully illustrated graphic novel is a gift for any adult enthusiast keen to pass on Lee’s increasingly potent classic to their reluctant reader offspring. Popular culture has embraced Lee’s powerful depiction of America’s deeply divided South so thoroughly that many who haven’t read it think they have. This faithful new rendering of the 1930s-set tale of old friends Scout, Jem, Boo Radley and Atticus Finch (before he was exposed as alarmingly unwoke) is a perfect way for old devotees to be reminded of the original’s emotional power, and curious new readers to discover its heft.

It’s a highly affecting, serious-minded affair which reads almost like a detailed storyboard for a new movie version of the book. That Fordham can take on such an epochal canon, and deliver its multi-layered message so successfully is testimony to his heartfelt labour of love.


The Way Past Winter (Chicken House, £10.99)

Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The journey story is as ancient as time, older even than the one about the chap who was killed then came back to life in a shadowy nearby cave. The odyssey arc works especially well in children’s fiction, a genre whose readers are beguiled by quests to find lost things and uncover mysteries. The Way Past Winter follows the formidable Mila and her black sheep friend, mage Rune, as they make their way to the frozen North in an attempt to track down Mila’s missing brother Oskar.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave infuses the forboding trail laid by wolves, eagles and bears with a deeply felt sense of sinister enchantment, doffing her fairy-dusted cap to Philip Pullman, The Wizard of Oz and, most affectingly, Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen along the way. It is Andersen’s dark magical tale which influences this story most forcefully though, and in their fierce, unwavering love, Mila and Oskar might be the rightful new bearers of Kai and Gerda’s still flickering torch. High praise indeed.


Into The Jungle: Stories For Mowgli (Macmillan, £16.99)

Katherine Rundell, illustrated Kristjana S Williams

Attempting to add to the writing of Rudyard Kipling is not a task for the faint-hearted. But then Katherine Rundell is no slouch. Multi award-winning Rundell is best known for Amazon jungle caper yarn The Explorer. She knows her way around the undergrowth. Here, she traces the origin stories of The Jungle Book’s characters. Each one of five gently builds on the next as Mowgli learns why his companions behave as they do. (Shere Khan remains tetchy.)

And the illustrations are special. Rich and deep, they add to the both the words here and the original Kipling story. A technicolour feast.



Amal Unbound (Text Publishing, £12.99)

Aisha Saeed

This is a powerful, simply told story of an exuberant young Pakistani girl whose ambitions are thwarted by a hierarchical culture in which women just about qualify for the second tier. It’s ostensibly for the younger end of the teen market but its aspirational message, inspired by the spirit of Malala Yousafzai, may well appeal to older siblings too, especially those curious about the injustices women in patriarchal and uncompromising regimes still struggle with.

Amal is excited about her plans to become a teacher when an unfortunate brush with the son of her village’s corrupt landlord forces her into servitude in order to pay her family’s debt. The odds begin to stack up against her future, while the worries for her family, her chance at further education and satisfying work, and even her own personal safety, grow heavier. Saeed has written a book with a very clear moral mission, but don’t worry about being hectored. In the end this paean to female ferocity is a salute to the very best kind of righteous indignation.


The Little Snake (Canongate, £9.99)

AL Kennedy

This modern fable about a little girl and her friendship with a shimmering gold snake is not billed as a book for young readers. But we would heartily recommend it as a very readable response to the worrisome state of the world and the kind of hope which can die and be reborn. Through the story of “remarkable, wise” little Mary and her devoted, loyal cobra friend Lanmo, acclaimed writer Kennedy turns her characteristically sharp-eyed gaze to the experience of change in a country which sounds at various points like Syria, Afghanistan or Iran.

Mary grows up in “a beautiful city full of rose gardens and fluttering kites” but is forced to flee when war breaks out. She and Lanmo are separated at various times in her eventful life, but always find each other again, each time teaching one another a lesson about friendship, love and compassion. The comparison to The Little Prince is unavoidable – indeed Kennedy thanks Antoine de Saint-Exupéry  on the final page. But hey, if you’re going to take aim, why not aim high?

The Lost Witch (Andersen Press, £12.99)

Melvin Burgess

As one of Britain’s primary voices in Young Adult fiction for over a decade, Burgess has been examining and expressing the concerns and challenges of teens as they tip towards adulthood. And while this is on the face of it a fantasy – Bea is a witch, and is drawn towards dark magic – it’s really about independence, separation from parents and a search for identity. An extra element to what is a very pacy thriller is a theme around trust and coercive manipulation and behaviours. This is not a gentle book. But it’s an uncompromising look at issues in a way that doesn’t patronise young adult readers. A tough page-turner.


Chemistry (Text Publishing, £8.99)

Weike Wang

This bravura novel about a bright, troubled young woman was lauded by readers and critics when it was first published in the US, then in the UK when it finally arrived this spring. Wang’s unnamed protagonist is a young postgrad student equally in thrall to the complicated joys of chemistry and the complicating pleasures of being loved by a man who has an idea of a shared future she can’t quite get her head around.

What makes this book stand out is the voice of the self-searching narrator; in turns funny, honest, angry, sorrowful, hopeful. This is a book about learning, questioning, changing your ideas and then starting to learn again. The science metaphors are scattered throughout but oddly, never grate. Instead they become helpful ways to gain insight into human behaviour. If the art of the novel is to make you care – a quality missing from many sophisticated novels with unnamed narrators – then this one succeeds. This one soars.

Room Away From The Wolves (Algonquin, £13.99)

Nova Ren Suma

Already a YA bestseller thanks to The Walls Around Us, Suma constructs a twisting, immersive curio that gets going as our heroine Bina runs from a fractious home life to make a new start in New York. She heads to Catherine House, an old rooming hostel to where her mother ran years before. What follows is an odd gothic tale of female teenage hopes and friendship, disappointment and strange realities. Glorious writing, with a supernatural shadow of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, it’s a ghost story that snakes around and holds fast.


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