Hope springs eternal, and in children’s books at least, spring’s hopes are eternal too. Flowers and friendships can banish the blues – even when you’re Cyril of Cyril the Lonely Cloud (Tim Hopgood, Oxford University Press, £11.99, ages 3+), always being blamed for ruining the day. Floating over picnics, cities and oceans, Cyril gets bigger and sadder until he comes to a hot new land. A joyful, witty celebration of rain and difference.
Some children are more interested in machines than nature, and for them What Do Machines Do All Day by Jo Nelson and Aleksandar Savic is riveting fun. Cranes, computers and vending machines have never looked more handsome (Wide-Eyed, £11.99, 3+).
But what about manners? Caryl Hart and Rosalind Beardshaw’s When a Dragon Comes to Stay (Nosy Crow, £6.99 3+) has some excellent tips about what not to do when it comes to sharing toys, eating at table and being helpful. It’s funny, charming and not too twee. More moving is Chris Naylor-Ballesteros’s The Suitcase (Nosy Crow, £11.99, 4+), one of the most empathetic children’s books on giving kindness to strangers ever published. A weary, furry stranger arrives with one suitcase, which it tells the other animals contains a chair, a table, a wooden cabin and a teacup. Be warned, this will make you burst into tears.
As a metaphor for curing depression, How to Light Your Dragon by Didiér Levy and Frédéric Benaglia (Thames & Hudson, £12.95, 5+) is funny and inspired. A child tries to relight his pet dragon’s fire by bouncing, tickling, cheating at cards and more, but nothing stirs the despondent multicoloured monster. Could a kiss be the answer?
An outstanding picture book, Sophie Blackall’s Hello Lighthouse (Orchard, £6.99), is partly about loneliness. A lighthouse on the edge of the world is kept going by a man whose vertical, dutiful life, exquisitely conveyed, is brightened through the seasons by the arrival of a wife, then a baby. Give this to four-year-olds plus; it is perfection.
Judith Eagle’s heroine in The Secret Starling (Faber £6.99) is lonely without knowing it. Brought up in isolation in a crumbling manor house, Clara finds herself abandoned by her creepy uncle. Then Peter arrives with his rescue cat, and the children are swept into an irresistible adventure for eight-year-olds plus that draws on The Secret Garden and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
The heroine of Kirsty Applebaum’s debut The Middler (Nosy Crow, £6.99) has an unusual problem: she’s living in a dystopian world in which middle children are overlooked and unheard. Yet when Maggie meets another girl from beyond the town’s boundary, she finds that wanderers are not as she had been led to believe. Strikingly original and featuring a spirited heroine, it’s a great story for ages 9+. Pair it with Cerrie Burnell’s engagingly fantastic marine adventure The Girl with the Shark’s Teeth (Oxford University Press, £6.99, 9+) for a pull of the Wild Deep.
Challenging authority is what Nicola Skinner’s delightful debut Bloom (HarperCollins, £12.99) is about, as two girls reap what they need from a trapped witch and her seeds. Humorous, original and just the thing for ages 7+ in need of a fresh start.
A whole magical people is trapped in the secret world of The Midnight Hour by Benjamin Read and Laura Trinder (Chicken House, £6.99, 8+) and Emily must find her mysterious parents there. Pursued by monsters, our sparky heroine and her hedgehog must save the night. I haven’t enjoyed this kind of caper so much since Harry Potter.
There’s another sort of trapped witch in A Pinch of Magic, Michelle Harrison’s spellbinding story for ages 11+ (Simon & Schuster, £6.99). The three Widdershins sisters can never leave their marshy island. Each inherits a deadly curse and a magical object at 13: how can they win a fresh start and become normal girls?
My favourite heroine this season is in Tanya Landman’s One Shot (Barrington Stoke, £7.99, 11+). Based on the famous American sharpshooter Annie Oakley, it tells how young Annie learns to use her beloved Pa’s rifle, and then to survive in a man’s world. Tough and almost unbearably honest about the brutalities of poverty and powerlessness, its deceptively simple prose and narrative drive are stunning.
Boys are still being ill-served by children’s publishing. All hail, then, Pádraig Kenny’s Pog (Chicken House, £6.99, 7+) about a small (male) furry creature living in an old house where a brother and sister move after their mum dies. The most appealing small magical creature since the Nis in Katherine Langrish’s Troll Fell books, Pog is up against evil forces and needs help.
A Wolf Called Wander (Andersen, £6.99, 8+) concerns Swift, a young wolf who must survive without his pack. Like the classics written by Jack London and Michelle Paver, this is both a detailed evocation of an animal’s life and a notable exploration of courage, loneliness and family. Rosanne Parry’s prose and the lavish pictures by Mónica Armino are based on a true story. Lara Flecker’s Midnight at Moonstone (Oxford University Press, £6.99, 9+) has Kit defy her overbearing academic family to live with her grandfather in the decaying Moonstone museum, where at midnight feuding historical costumes come magically to life. How Kit saves them – and herself – makes for a charming E Nesbit-esque romp.
The heroism of non-white soldiers in both world wars is often overlooked, but Bali Rai’s excellent Now or Never (Scholastic, £6.99, 9+) helps redress this. His idealistic hero, Private Fazal Khan, endures bullying and bombing all the way to Dunkirk; when he finds “decency and honour, even in hell” it is through friendship not the British empire.
The best hero of all comes, however, in Anthony McGowan’s Lark (Barrington Stoke, £7.99, 11+). The final part in his quartet about two brothers, Nicky and Kenny, it is a slim novel that stands alone as an exceptional piece of writing from the author and a dyslexia-friendly publisher that is consistently impressive. Poor, and with parents more absent than present, Nicky must look after his mentally handicapped big brother Kenny. But when they take their dog up on the moors for a picnic in winter, they have no idea how dangerous it could be.
As taut as Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Lark rings with truth, humour, humanity and pathos. My hope is that it wins prizes.
Amanda Craig’s latest novel is “The Lie of the Land” (Abacus)