It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, for books too. There are plenty of gorgeous sequels, from Cressida Cowell’s Knock Three Times (Hodder, £12.99) to Eoin Colfer’s The Fowl Twins (HarperCollins, £14.99) and Catherine Fisher’s The Velvet Fox (Firefly, £6.99) – all for ages 8-11 – but as the dark of midwinter deepens, we need bright lights to cheer our children – and ourselves.
Axel Scheffler has his rabbits Pip and Posy decorating (and guzzling from) The Christmas Tree (Nosy Crow, £9.99, 3+) with sparkling results. His The Smeds and the Smoos (Alison Green Books, £12.99, 4+), with Julia Donaldson, is more serious. The rollocking rhymes of Edward Lear describe a tale of planetary feuding between red and blue aliens. When a Smed and a Smoo fall in love an irresistibly funny – and wise – story about cooperation despite superficial differences follows. It is one that every politician should read.
The Misadventures of Frederick (Two Hoots, £12.99, 5+) is also about contrasts. Adventurous Emily wants timorous Frederick to leave his luxurious home to enjoy a glorious summer day outdoors as a normal child. He repeatedly refuses in elaborate (and wildly funny) replies… until he can resist no longer. The witty language from Ben Manley combines warmth with exquisite illustrations from Emma Chichester-Clark.
Global adventures come from the sublime Emily Gravett in Meerkat Christmas (Two Hoots, £12.99, 5+). A meerkat goes all around the world in search of snow, fir trees, figgy pudding etc, sending chirpy postcards to his family in the Kalahari desert that convey the disappointingly dismal reality of Christmas away from family and home. Those dreading seasonal overindulgence can enjoy Emma Yarlett’s deliciously funny, brightly comic Beast Feast (Walker, £10.99, 4+), in which a child has to persuade a monster not to eat him.
However, for heart-stabbing truth about what Christmas is now about for too many children, Kate Milner’s outstanding It’s a No-Money Day (Barrington Stoke, £6.99, 5+) is the one to read. It’s narrated by the innocent child of a working single mother who, despite knowing lots of “fun things” to do, like going to the library and trying on old clothes, has to go to the food bank because there is no money. The illustrations ache with grace, melancholy and unexpected happiness, but the life it depicts will send any adult who reads it to set up a standing order to the Trussell Trust.
Another desperately miserable child is Clementine, sunk in Dickensian squalor in the Great Black City. Maltreated and half-starved by her monstrous uncle and aunt, her only friend is a white cat – and her dreams of The Magic Place (David Fickling, £11.99, 7+). Chris Wormell is famous as Philip Pullman’s illustrator but this is his first children’s novel, and it is stunningly good; its short, highly illustrated chapters packed with excitement, humour, terror and joy. This is a new classic, and my book of the year for young readers.
Kate Saunders’s The Great Reindeer Disaster (Faber & Faber, £6.99, 6+) has the Trubshaw family whisked from their summer holiday in Devon to Planet Yule, thanks to a little lost reindeer. Inevitably, Percy and his new friends must step in to help “FC” and the vital deliveries of presents despite the machinations of a bad reindeer. This mash-up of Star Trek and The Night Before Christmas (plus a bit of Dambusters) is a box of delights for both children and adults.
The seaside in midwinter makes a fabulous setting for Thomas Taylor’s Malamander (Walker, £7.99, 8+). JK Rowling’s first illustrator sets his debut in Eerie-On-Sea, a place where vivid prose and salty characters, including a talking cat and a man with a hook for a hand, make a real splash as two children search for their lost parents in a creepy hotel. More, please.
Tonke Dragt’s The Goldsmith and the Master Thief (Pushkin, £12.99, 9+) is like a fairy tale you dream of but have never found. Identical twin brothers choose different futures in a series of misadventures told with zest and just the right amount of moral judgement, as the honest goldsmith gets mistaken for his thieving brother and vice versa. Equally captivating is Sophie Anderson’s The Girl Who Speaks Bear (Orchard, £6.99, 9+), a quest by an abandoned girl that involves healing stories, talking trees and magic transformations with a strong Russian cast.
The original fairy tales in Eight Princesses and a Magic Mirror, by Natasha Farrant and Lydia Corry (Head of Zeus, £12.99), are splendid for age 8 upwards. Around the world we find princesses who put kindness above power, as each story asks us to reflect on choices and convention.
Sally Gardner’s Invisible in a Bright Light (Zephyr, £10.99, 12+) is an astonishingly beautiful, dark and original novel set mostly in and around Copenhagen’s opera house. Its heroine, Celeste, is a poor little “theatre rat” scarred by the fall of a giant crystal chandelier and haunted by a dream of having to solve a riddle underwater in “the gutter of time” in order to save her twin sister – and perhaps Copenhagen’s lost prince besides. The book sparkles with Gardner’s unique storytelling magic, romance and a story about the power of trust.
My top pick for ages 12 upwards is Bearmouth (Pushkin, £12.99), a remarkable debut by Liz Hyder. Newt, its heroine, is just learning to write and her account of the claustrophobic Victorian mining community in which she and other children toil is as good as anything by Joan Aiken.