Ergo by Alexis Deacon. Image: Viviane Schwarz
(Walker Books, £12.99)
The Big Issue has selected the best books for children of all ages from this year. Here are our picks.
Ergo by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz (Walker Books, £12.99)
Well, this is a intriguing little book. Introducing children as young as three to the philosophical ideas of Plato, Descartes, Freud and Lacan is an audacious ambition, to say the least.
But somehow this book cleverly manages it, avoiding any sense of shoehorning its notions of emerging self-awareness and development of language by telling a simple tale of a newborn chick inside its shell beginning to wonder what will happen to it next. The under-fives are natural question askers, full of curiosity about their place in the world; this will inspire in them a new avenue of thought. Ingenious.
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Arno and his Horse by Jane Godwin, illustrated by Felicita Sala (Scribble, £11.99)
Little ones do love rhyming text and parents often find it more fun to read aloud. This can be a crucial endurance factor if the book becomes a regular request, and Arno – an endearing combination of an old-fashioned search story and a more profound consideration of how objects become connected to cherished memories – may well inspire cries of “Again, again!”. Don’t be surprised if your voice cracks the first time you share it with your little one.
Ernest the Elephant by Anthony Browne (Walker Books, £12.99)
Such is Anthony Browne’s reputation that every new book by him is now an event. Here we find Ernest, a little elephant who is content with his family and herd but inquisitive about what lies beyond. He wanders off and gets lost in the jungle. Browne’s regular tropes feature – there is a gorilla, and hidden treats in the luscious jungle illustrations (young readers will love spotting helter skelters and liquorice allsorts). There’s also a moral parents will like about why it’s useful to stick close-by. You’ll be left thankful that a superior illustrator and tender storyteller like Browne is still creating.
Dogs in Disguise by Peter Bently and John Bond (HarperCollins, £12.99)
This book is a joy. It starts with the idea that when our backs are turned, dogs are at home trying on all sorts of clothes. And then it takes off. Dogs are on each other’s shoulders dressed in a trench coat and sneaking into a cafe. Sadie the setter is in a sweater. Others are pretending to be gnus in a zoo.
There’s a reminder of the worst disguise for a dog – a tree, for obvious reasons… In life, we learn, dogs are everywhere dressed up and pretending not to be dogs.
If you know dogs, you’ll spot behaviours of certain breeds. But even if you don’t, this gleeful, absurd and beautifully drawn book should be on every Christmas list.
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This gorgeous book so wowed us at The Big Issue that we dropped our regular content to dedicate two pages to it as soon as we saw it.
I Get Loud tells a simple allegorical story about the heroine of its much-loved predecessor, I Go Quiet, gaining her voice as she bears witness to the migration of thousands of refugees from lands of oppression and despair. The message becomes more obviously pertinent every day, and the stunning artwork has to be seen on the page to enjoy its full impact.
The Castle of Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson, illustrated by Saara Soederlund (Usborne, £7.99)
Which child isn’t captivated by a fully realised alternative world laid out in a series of pretty maps on page one? Sophie Anderson’s adventure tale begins with a fabulous quote from Pushkin at his most romantic, and is inspired by Russian folk tales told to her by her Prussian grandmother.
It has plenty of the elements which appeal to young readers – magical portals, a castle full of secrets, a sly wizard and a brave young girl embroiled in a righteous quest. As the Pushkin quote about the days when he was “aglow with youthful dreams” suggests, this is a dreamy novel, gleaming with the language of light, glitter and shine.
When you’re eight years old, and living in an uncertain, sometimes dark, world, this is the kind of enchanting escapism which salves and soothes.
Cat Kid Comic Club by Dav Pilkey (Scholastic, £10.99)
There can’t be many kids out there who haven’t read a Dav Pilkey book; the man is a legend. Diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia when he was a child, he spent much of his school time staring out of windows or sitting in corridors as a result of being sent out of class for being “disruptive”.
A natural rebel, he went on to create the modern classic Captain Underpants (90 million copies in print) and Dog Man (just the 30 million) series. Cat Kid Comic Club is a joyous, irresistible combination of daft comic strips full of hilarious characters and ideas for writing and drawing your own comic, taking in numerous sketching styles and materials as diverse as felt tips, cardboard, clay, pipe cleaners and even biscuits.
Like Cressida Cowell, Pilkey seems to mine a bottomless seam of creativity and enthusiasm. If just a morsel of his brio rubs off on his readers, the next generation will be full of aspiring artists, writers and stand-up comics.
Einstein the Penguin by Iona Rangeley, illustrated by David Tazzyman (HarperCollins, £12.99)
There is a hint of Paddington in this charming story of a zoo penguin who takes a visiting family’s polite invitation to “come and stay whenever you like” very seriously. Sporting a backpack bearing the name Einstein, he shows up on the family’s doorstep that night, bashes into their home and messily helps himself to dinner.
It’s no surprise that Einstein’s presence gradually encourages his two primary school-aged hosts to overcome their insecurities and shyness. But this tale avoids the cloying sentimentality of many of its peers, never forgetting to be funny and showing the limits of animals’ behaviour rather than completely anthropomorphising them.
Nina – A Story of Nina Simone by Traci N Todd, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Scribble, £12.99)
Eunice Waymon, a child from humble beginnings in North Carolina, could sing before she could talk. Her ascent to become Nina Simone, a performer who remained of prodigious talent and a figurehead for the civil rights movement, is a story worth telling.
In Todd we find a writer who carries the cadence of song, and in Robinson an illustrator who connects the simplicity of early days with the growing anger at segregation and the inequity of America as it was.
There is a chic Fifties jazz feel at times too. A beautiful and essential biography of a 20th-century icon.
The Lion Above the Door by Onjali Q Rauf (Orion Children’s Books, £7.99)
Rauf’s The Boy at the Back of the Class, a novel about a refugee child arriving in contemporary Britain, was a bestseller, loved by young readers. It tackled immigration and bullying without heavy-handedness.
Rauf stays on the side of the outsider in this story, focusing on Leo, our British-Singaporean narrator, and his friend, the lively, talkative British-Indian Sangetta. During a trip to a local cathedral, Leo sees his own name in a list of war heroes carved above the entrance. The revelation takes him on a search of his own past and of Britain’s relationship with its history, looking at how it chooses to memorialise some people and not others.
It’s funny, full of heart and further builds Rauf’s reputation as one of the finest storytellers for young readers currently at work.
When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle (Andersen Press, £7.99)
Based on a true story, this is a powerful, emotional read which has garnered huge numbers of enthusiastic fans, including many teachers and librarians who have introduced it into school lessons, in the short time since it was published in June.
Set amidst the heavy early bombings of the Second World War, it’s the story of an angry, troubled boy who is sent to live in a big city with an angry, troubled woman who has no love for children. What she does love, however, is the rundown zoo she struggles to maintain, and in particular a silverback gorilla named Adonis, with whom the bullied Joseph gradually forms a strong bond.
All of the believably flawed main characters have depth, but the star of the show, the one who really tugs at the heartstrings, is the elegantly depicted Adonis. This is an exceptional novel from a great children’s writer; its young readers will long remember it, the way generations before them have remembered with lasting fondness the comparable Goodnight Mister Tom.
Arthur: the Always King by Kevin Crossley-Holland, illustrated by Chris Riddell (Walker, £20)
The sword in the stone, the knights of the round table, Merlin, the overbearing green knight – threads from all the establishment of Avalon fables are here. And they are drawn together lyrically, without bombast, by Crossley-Holland. As he’s in the realm of legend, he isn’t scared to lean in heavily – Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail also pop up.
The richness and depth of Riddell’s illustrations are both real and fantastical, and yet somehow still add a sense of being in the moment. “This story,” the authors tell us, “is… a kind of unending dream.” An old legend that had fallen out of contemporary fashion is reclaimed in this, a classic edition in the making.
Black and British: an Illustrated History by David Olusoga, illustrated by Jake Alexander and Melleny Taylor (Pan MacMillan, £16.99)
This enlightening and enjoyable book, aimed at children but equally fascinating for adults, contains a wealth of information about the rich history of Black Britain.
It explains enslavement, migration, the American War of Independence and civil rights struggles from Roman Britain to Black Lives Matter, each subject accompanied by gorgeously illustrated maps, portraits, timelines and flags, as well as beautifully reproduced photographs and paintings.
It also takes regular pauses to tell incredible tales of heroic, and some not so heroic, individuals along the way, so that young readers feel they’re reading a compelling storybook rather than a school set text. In an ideal world every home and every school library in the UK would make a place for this book.
The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Walker, £10.99)
This very modern fairy tale about a mysterious blood-encrusted little girl discovered curled up on frosty ground outside a monastery might sound, on the face of it, like a worthy read which book critics love and children are made to trudge reluctantly through.
It does indeed contain Big Important Themes of female empowerment, friendship, social acceptance and the complex nature of individual freedom. But, with a storyteller’s instinct akin to Hans Christian Andersen, Kate DiCamillo knows that her priority must be believable, sympathetic characters and a story which uses compelling cliffhangers and dramatic jeopardy to ensure her readers are emotionally invested and bouncing with curiosity.
The abandoned Beatryce, who can read and write in a world where such activities are illegal, is adopted by a kind monk and made to shave off her beautiful hair before she embarks on a perilous journey. She is joined by a ferocious goat – Answelica, one of the most memorable pet pals in recent children’s literature – and other lovable, empathetic friends. DiCamillo says she’s been carrying this story inside her head her whole life.
I fervently hope it reaches as wide a young audience as it deserves, to live as long inside them.
The Book of Stolen Dreams by David Farr, illustrated by Kristina Kister (Usborne, £12.99)
This incredible – and at times incredibly cinematic – yarn is the first in an intended series. It’s not surprising; David Farr is a successful screenwriter (he adapted The Night Manager for TV and worked on Spooks). From the moment he carries us into an airship fleeing the occupied city of Brava with Rachel Klein, our 12-year-old heroine, at every turn the scenes are focused and highly visual. It’s calling out for an adaptation.
Rachel and her brother Robert are on the run with a book given to them by their father, Felix, a librarian, who has been jailed by the tyrant president Charles Malstain. It is this book that opens the way to a mind-boggling, magical adventure.
It isn’t hard to find the shadow of suppression and warnings of the dangers of dictatorship, and of what happens when books and free-thinking are under threat, but Farr is never heavy-handed. Young readers will be able to work their own way to their own conclusions and I suspect parents and older readers will find excuses to take the book and finish it themselves. It is very moreish.