Christmas is a good time to get a child into books. Richard Curtis’s The Empty Stocking (Puffin, £6.99) is about twin sisters, one good and one “bad”, who hang up their stockings on Christmas Eve. Alas, Charlie has been too naughty to get hers filled – but Santa gives presents to the wrong twin. What to do? Curtis’s story is about goodness and generosity and is a rare exception to the rule that celebrity children’s books are best burned. Rebecca Cobb’s illustrations make this a seasonal perennial to enjoy with children aged three and above.
The late Russell Hoban is still best known for his post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker but he was equally good at writing for children. He left us one more enchanting book, Rosie’s Magic Horse (Walker, £12.99), vigorously illustrated by Quentin Blake, about a child whose parents are plagued by bills and discarded lolly sticks. At midnight, the sticks turn into a horse, which carries Rosie off to find treasure. A story about how imagination redeems the poorest life, it is poignant, funny and sadly topical (for readers aged four and older).
Kate Saunders’s The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop (Marion Lloyd Books, £6.99) is about a family that inherits a chocolate shop in Archway. An invisible cat, talking rat and whispering wallpaper reveal that the children must now find the missing golden chocolate moulds. A gloriously funny caper for children of six upwards, it combines the inventiveness of Eva Ibbotson with the perspicacity of E Nesbit.
Philip Reeve’s Goblins (Marion Lloyd Books, £6.99) will come as a relief to parents plagued by Hobbit-mania and has greenedged pages to match its acid wit. The hero, Skarper, is a goblin ejected from the Dark Tower by Bratapult for being clever. Hilarious and well written, this is the best satirical fantasy for children of eight and above since the great Terry Pratchett emerged.
Pratchett’s own Dodger (Doubleday, £18.99) is a sublime riff on all things Dickensian, with the nimble young thief giving Dickens ideas while rescuing a mysterious maiden.
Tim Willocks’s Doglands (Andersen, £6.99) is a kind of Gladiator for dogs and will particularly appeal to boys of nine and older. It’s about a half-lurcher, Furgal, born into captivity with his three sisters. His greyhound mother knows that her children will be killed by the evil breeders once their mixed-race heritage is known, so the puppies escape. Only Furgal survives. Thus begins a magnificent quest, as well as an inquiry into the relationship between dog and man.
No matter what your feelings are about the royal tadpole, Jennifer A Nielsen’s The False Prince (Scholastic, £6.99) is an irresistible story for nine-to-12-year-olds. Its narrator is kidnapped, along with three other orphans who must be trained to impersonate a lost prince after the royal family is murdered. Only one boy can survive. Sage, a rebellious guttersnipe, must outwit his captor and get his rivals on his side.
Unsurprisingly, the current gloom has made authors turn to dystopia and none is bleaker than Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon (Hot Key Books, £10.99), in which 1950s Britain has become a fascist dictatorship in a race to reach the Moon. Its narrator is a dyslexic boy who has somehow escaped detection. Not for the faint-hearted, this is an inspirational piece of writing, for children of 11 and above, about moral courage. It manages to make readers laugh even as their hearts are being broken.
Amanda Craig is the children’s critic of the Times. Her novel “Hearts and Minds” is published by Abacus (£8.99)