Children’s books have had a record-breaking few years. The sector was worth £381.9m in 2017, according to Nielsen BookScan, and 2018 may well top that. One in every three physical books sold is now a children’s book. Judging by bestseller charts and supermarket displays you’d be forgiven for thinking that most of those were by celebrities. Famous faces certainly continue to sell in big numbers: David Walliams’s The Ice Monster (HarperCollins), David Baddiel’s Head Kid (HarperCollins) and Greg James and Chris Smith’s Kid Normal series (Bloomsbury) are among the year’s most notable. But beyond this, a rich and varied landscape of books for children and young adults is very much in evidence. This year, Jacqueline Wilson returned to her best-loved heroine in My Mum Tracy Beaker (Doubleday) and magical “middle-grade” fiction became the hot ticket, in adventures like Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor (Orion) and Abi Elphinstone’s Sky Song (Simon & Schuster). Fresh interpretations of classics conjured up some of the season’s most beautiful gifts, including Lauren Child’s Mary Poppins (HarperCollins) and Jessie Burton’s The Restless Girls (Bloomsbury), illustrated by Angela Barrett. In picture books, the Oi! Frog series (Hodder) by Kes Gray and Jim Field began to challenge Julia Donaldson (and her various illustrators) in popularity. Poetry is having something of a boom, particularly anthologies like Chris Riddell’s Poems to Live Your Life By (Macmillan) and I am the Seed That Grew the Tree (Nosy Crow), gloriously illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon. Children’s nonfiction has seldom looked better and sales are soaring, led by Matthew Syed’s You Are Awesome (Wren & Rook) and Fantastically Great Women Who Made History (Bloomsbury).
Why such a renaissance? The stock answer is that children’s books offer an antidote to screen time. But I think it’s more profound than that. In troubled times, books have the power to help children and young people make sense of the world, and a look at 2018’s award winners reveals just how writers and illustrators are responding to our challenging times. Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s The Lost Words (Hamish Hamilton), a winner at The Bookseller’s British Book Awards, is a symphony to the wonders and vulnerability of the natural world and a stand against the disappearance of wild childhood. Katherine Rundell’s The Explorer (Bloomsbury) and Geraldine McCaughrean’s Where the World Ends (Usborne), which claimed the Costa and Carnegie prizes respectively, are ultimately stories of bravery, survival and resilience. Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different (Quercus) by Ben Brooks and illustrated by Quinton Winter, looks beyond gender stereotypes at alternative male role models and won the Specsavers National Book Award. Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, awarded the Amnesty CILIP Honour, is a political call to arms rallying against racism and prejudice, and its success is helping to fuel long-overdue investment in writers from more diverse backgrounds. Fiona Noble
The best picture books, chosen by Imogen Carter
Call me optimistic, but change definitely seems afoot in children’s picture books, with more female characters and people of colour taking centre stage. More of a trickle than a flood… nonetheless, as many of them stole the show, hopefully the industry will continue evolving in line with the world itself.
Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love (Walker) is fabulous in every sense. Riding the subway home from swimming with his Nana one day, Julian, a young afro-Latin New Yorker, is entranced by a trio of ladies dressed up like colourful mermaids. Back at Nana’s, while she’s in the bath, he resolves to transform himself into a mermaid too, trashing the place in the process. The moment Nana first sees Julian in trailing skirt, lipstick and a headdress fashioned from ferns is both moving and a landmark for acceptance and gender portrayal in picture books. “Oh,” she simply says (ignoring the mess), and hands him a necklace to complete his look before sweeping him out of the house to join in at a mermaid parade.
With a palette that’s both earthy and carnivalesque, Love has created the year’s most striking illustrations, and urges readers, with minimal words, to be who you want to be, dress how you like, find your own tribe. The sultry heat of New York, where Californian-born Love now lives (and where there’s an actual mermaid parade annually), radiates from the pages, and its cast of cool extras – old guys hanging out, two girls sipping soda – seem to have wandered straight off the streets of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. A remarkable debut that should be sashaying off the shelves, it will particularly appeal to those parents and carers with a penchant for RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Aided by all the kit she stashes in her curly bouffant, the bold and brilliant heroine from Nadia Shireen’s Billy and the Beast (Vintage) saves her woodland friends from a terrible green beast. A refreshing picture book star, Billy wears a cagoule and wellies, she’s warm but no-nonsense, and proposes, after the beast has been beaten, they all go home for chips.
Elsewhere, more role models, from Boudicca to Beyoncé, can be found in Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo’s Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2 (Timbuktu Labs). A publishing phenomenon, the first collection of tales about inspiring real-life women spawned dozens of imitators, but this follow-up proves the original is still the best.
My funny favourites of the year are Baby’s First Bank Heist (Jim Whalley and Stephen Collins, Bloomsbury), which zips along in rhyming verse, telling the tale of a kid so desperate for a pet that he turns to a life of crime. Collins’s drawings are so rich in detail that repeated reading pays off. (Spot the animals cunningly hidden by Frank in his house or ‘The Getaway’ film poster on the bus where Frank sits, rotund as a watermelon, babygrow stuffed with bank notes).Dave the Lonely Monster (Simon & Schuster) is a whiskery, purple monster holed up in a retirement cave, having quit terrorising the townsfolk and taken up knitting. This riot of colour and craziness from the creators of Dogs Don’t Do Ballet, Anna Kemp (words) and Sara Ogilvie (pictures), finds old raver Dave teaming up with a six-year-old knight to persuade a crowd of bored locals that love – not monster bashing – is the answer, by getting them to hit the dancefloor.
Meanwhile, the animals in The Antlered Ship (Frances Lincoln) from Dashka Slater and illustrators the Fan Brothers are sailing the seven seas. While some, like Victor the pigeon, seek adventure, Marco the fox wants answers. “Why don’t trees ever talk?” “Do islands like being alone?” A thoughtful, philosophical tale which beautifully captures the natural world, it also features 2018’s most motley crew of pirates.
Non-fiction picture books are a booming market, and some of the year’s best explore natural history. While this sub-genre is full of innovation – outsize formats, pop-ups, pull-outs – sometimes there’s a style-over-substance problem with dry copy and too-busy pages. Migration (Bloomsbury) keeps things simple, telling the tales of 20 animal journeys over 20 clear but captivating double-page spreads. The duo behind it, travel/wildlife writer Mike Unwin and illustrator Jenni Desmond, like all of the other creators here, know just how to make children’s precious imaginations soar.
The best chapter books, chosen by Kitty Empire
There’s nothing middling about this year’s so-called “middle-grade” books. Unburdened by the imperative to be as hard-hitting as YA, but permitted to roam beyond the comfort of picture books, this bookshelf bowed with peril, humour and comings of age – often all within the same two covers.
Famous names abounded, of course, and themes emerged. My Mum Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson (Doubleday) was not a gratuitous return to Wilson’s defining heroine, all grown up with a headstrong daughter of her own; it had urgent things to say about celebrity, material comfort and love.
Dragon-wrangler Cressida Cowell came back strong too. The second instalment of her new universe, Twice Magic (Hachette), found her misfit young Wizard and her magically misfiring Warrior princess striving to unite their enemy tribes against a clear and present danger: the malevolent Kingwitch, so horrible you can smell him on the page.
In recent years, Piers Torday has emerged as a major new voice; his 2018 offering, The Lost Magician (Hachette), rewrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a tale of war-weary siblings entering a parallel world. There’s a conflagration raging there too, between fantastical storybook characters and the harbingers of cool, hard logic – a false binary that has to be resolved, if some truly annihilating forces are to be stopped. Cue the “never reads” – the ghoulish ranks of the badly informed, the unimaginative and the incurious. Remind anyone of any other worlds?
Crime remains a buoyant sub-genre in this age group. The Last Chance Hotel (Chicken House) by first-timer Nicki Thornton was all kinds of fun: a locked-room murder mystery paced breathlessly, but fruited with humour, poignancy and great character names (Dr Thallomius, Count Marred). The orphaned Seth is a Cinderella figure, cooking for the titular hotel, taken over for a strange convention. One of the guests expires after a fancy dessert, and Seth must nail the culprit to clear his own name and discover his true identity.
Natasha Farrant, who has been shortlisted here and longlisted there, reimagined the boarding school novel with acuity and an unexpected criminal undercurrent. Recently bereaved, the bookish Alice is banished to a kind of rough-and-ready Bedales-alike somewhere in Scotland in The Children of Castle Rock (Faber). A forced orienteering mission coincides with her need to locate her adored – but flaky – father. There are goosebumps of both kinds as people show up who will stop at nothing to get what Alice has.
Unreliable adults came under scrutiny in former adult novelist Adam Baron’s almost realistic and contemporary Boy Underwater (HarperCollins), which involved a missing person, a painting and a dire lack of swimming lessons. Mental illness was treated candidly, but with sympathy. The grownups didn’t make things OK: it was down to Cymbeline Igloo and his friends to face his crisis bravely.
The nonfiction shelves were vast too, but one pick was Big Ideas for Curious Minds: An Introduction to Philosophy (The School of Life) – a plain-speaking guide to philosophers, what matters and how to deal with things. A nine-year-old of my acquaintance was struck by a Mary Wollstonecraft idea – “why we hate cheap things” – about rarity and value. Plus, they boiled down the meaning of life on pages 112-114.
The best children’s poetry books, chosen by Kate Kellaway
TS Eliot was talking to his chauffeur about his book on cats (Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – first published in 1939 – and later the basis for Cats, a musical possessed of more than nine lives) when the idea of writing a companion piece about dogs came up. The chauffeur said his own dog had no pedigree, that he was lovable but not “consequential”.
Charmed by the adjective and its implications, TS Eliot resolved to write a book of consequential dogs. Sadly, the book never materialised. Or rather, it has had to wait for Christopher Reid who was once, like TS Eliot, poetry editor at Faber and is, in his own right, a topping poet who now brings hounds, curs and pooches to heel in an entertaining, frolicsome and nondeferential homage. With Old Toffer’s Book of Consequential Dogs (Faber), Reid might even unwittingly have started a new genre: rescue poetry. Whatever you want to call it, he catches in his buoyant, amusing and playful verse, the joy dogs bring into the world.
The range of dogs includes absurdly academic Flo, whose bemused parents are at a loss to understand how they produced such a high-flyer. There is a hint that Flo’s intellectual prowess may not be quite as meteoric as they dotingly imagine: “For years we’ve lived in expectation/ of Flo’s first, major publication.” Then there is Lola, a lively, courageous French poodle who joins a circus in Finsbury Park and, finally, let us not omit the romantic heros in Don Juan – “Romeo, a Schnauzer from York Way” and “Juliet, an adorable red setter from the City Road”.
Elliot Elam’s smart, affectionately lifelike black-and-white drawings against a mustard background convey the all’s-well-with-me insouciance that is the good dog’s default position. Reid ends in merrily evangelical mode with a poem that could double as a canine Christmas carol; “Fill Your Home with Happy Hounds!” he urges; “Embrace the dog that’s friend to man,/ Get in as many as you can.” Who needs holly and ivy with hounds around? This is a must-read for this Christmas – for bark and bite – and is slim enough to smuggle into any child (or adult’s) stocking.
Children are an altogether trickier subject in Rachel Rooney’s unusual, absorbing A Kid in My Class (Otter-Barry). She has divided her poems into the different types of child one might meet in a single class – an absorbing psychological handbook, while wisely acknowledging that life’s patterns are endlessly varied. She introduces characters with nuanced confidence, chaperoned by Chris Riddell’s breezily offbeat illustrations. She even sneaks in (every class has one) a furtive young poet scribbling in front of a Venetian blind. Everything, for this child, is a poem in the making.
The orderly vogue for organising poetry in calendar format persists and this year sees I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree (Nosy Crow/National Trust). It is a handsome, heavyweight book, jauntily stencilled with oak leaves and blue tits and contains enough good poems – Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Ted Hughes and others – to give it ballast but, within the mix, is let down by some unpardonably duff contemporary work. (“Oh lonely trees/ As white as wool/ That moonlight makes/ so beautiful.”) If what you are after is a tip-top poetic calendar, you would be better off with A Poem for Every Day of the Year and/or A Poem for Every Night of the Year (Macmillan), each edited by Allie Esiri and full of wonders, published last year and earning their status this year as classics.
The best young adult fiction, chosen by Fiona Noble
Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War (Macmillan), nominally for ages 10 upwards, is one of those rare books that defies categorisation. Following the Penrose family – Clarry, her brother Peter and charismatic cousin Rupert – through the events of the first world war, their idyllic childhood summers contrast with the horror of what lies ahead. A timeless story of love, loss and growing up that already feels like a classic.
Also creating some of the finest work of his career is David Almond in The Colour of the Sun (Hodder), a semi-autobiographical novel that showcases his transcendent, otherworldly storytelling. Over the course of a single summer’s day, protagonist Davie’s journey through his home town and into the sunlit hills shows us life, death and the wonder of the everyday.
Candy Gourlay’s mesmerising Bone Talk (David Fickling) gives voice to a near-forgotten period of history, the 1899 US invasion of the Philippines, and characters seldom heard, pitching a boy’s coming of age against the backdrop of colonialism. For Samkad, life in his remote mountain tribe is about to change for ever, as the first white men arrive in his village during the invasion, talking peace but harbouring cruel intentions. Rich in the culture and traditions of this community, Gourlay’s writing utterly transports the reader.
Elaborate world-building, inspired by west African mythology, is also evident in Tomi Adeyemi’s fantasy epic Children of Blood and Bone (Macmillan). In the land of Orisha, a 16-year-old girl is her people’s only hope to restore magic and overthrow the oppressive ruling classes. Resonant themes of racism and persecution lie at the heart of a passionately realised, action-packed thriller. A debut that attracted both big advances and a film deal, a sequel will follow in 2019.
Closer to home, debut author Muhammad Khan takes the story of Bethnal Green schoolgirls fleeing to Syria as the starting point for I Am Thunder (Macmillan) His 15-year-old protagonist Muzna feels invisible, stifled by loving but controlling parents and the spectre of racism. Charmed by the charismatic Arif, she encounters radicalisation and uncovers a terrible secret. Despite the gritty plot, it’s an uplifting and empowering read, made human by its complex and vulnerable heroine.
Fairytale retellings, an ever-popular trope of teenage fiction, have this year been delivered with blood and bite. Melissa Albert’s debut The Hazel Wood (Puffin) centres on a cult book of fairytales, often terrible and murderous. When Alice’s mother is kidnapped, the extraordinary truth about the book leads her into the supernatural hinterland of the stories. Realism and fantasy blur in this strange and bewitching tale. In The Surface Breaks (Scholastic) Louise O’Neill harnesses the darkest visions of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid in her contemporary retelling, transforming the mermaid’s plight into a tale of feminist awakening.
Feminism has also informed much of the year’s best nonfiction, from the rousing contemporary essays of Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and Other Lies) (Penguin) curated by Scarlett Curtis to Suffragette: The Battle for Equality (Macmillan), a lavish illustrated history from David Roberts. Graphic novel Women in Battle (Hot Key) offers a whirlwind tour through 150 years of the fight for women’s rights. Marta Breen’s witty text and Jenny Jordahl’s dynamic art covers topics including reproductive rights, gay marriage and the #MeToo movement. International and inclusive in outlook, it’s both relevant and inspirational.
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