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5 December 2014

In a world of their own: the best children’s books of 2014

Amanda Craig’s round-up of reading to enchant and inspire young minds this Christmas. 

By Amanda Craig

Much of our idea of a perfect Christmas is culled from picture books. In Katie’s London Christmas (Orchard Books, £11.99) James Mayhew’s much-loved heroine gets this, waking to a snowy ride on Santa’s sleigh and delivering presents to Londoners. Ideal for the night before, or after, Christmas.

Laura Carlin’s A World of Your Own (Phaidon, £12.95) also celebrates a child’s imagination, in a quirky and thoughtful style that invites young readers to add their own creative ideas. Emily Gravett depicts the irrepressible Hare and the dubious Bear experiencing Snow! (Macmillan, £10.99) for the first time together. The expressions are priceless, the games delightful and Gravett is a graphic genius. Richard Curtis’s The Snow Day (Puffin, £10.99) is very appealing, too; Rebecca Cobb illustrates a child’s embarrassment at encountering a teacher in unusual circumstances at school. However, my picture book of the year is Emma Chichester Clark’s Bears Don’t Read! (HarperCollins, £12.99). Lonely George meets a bookish little girl and – to the alarm of adults – follows her to school, longing to read. Friendship trumps fear in a warm, elegant postmodern comedy. All of the books above are recommended for four-plus.

In Michael Morpurgo’s Listen to the Moon (HarperCollins, £12.99, nine-plus) Alfie and his fisherman father find a mute girl on a deserted Cornish island. Is she a mermaid, a German or a traumatised American child from the torpedoed Lusitania? Our national treasure is always hugely moving about pacifism and the healing power of kindness, but Chris Priestley’s assured reinvention of A Christmas Carol, The Last of the Spirits (Bloomsbury, £10.99), is more seasonal, and ideal for nine-plus. Dickens’s Ignorance and Want, two beggar children, are guided to better fortune by the ghost of Marley; Priestleyesque creepiness combines with true charity for a happy Christmas.

Philip Kerr’s The Winter Horses (Walker Books, £12.99), based on a true story, is a treat for ten-plus, written with filmic pace and polish. The orphaned Kalinka is all that stands between the last two Przewalski’s horses and extinction, once the Nazis have hunted down the breed as ugly and unfit. Both girl and horses use courage, resilience and cleverness to outwit thugs, cannibals and the deadly cold of the Ukrainian steppe.

A captivating new detective series for 11-plus, Robin Stevens’s Wells & Wong books begin with Murder Most Unladylike (Corgi, £6.99). The setting is a stuffy 1930s girls’ boarding school. The narrator, Hazel Wong, is a Hong Kong girl who hero-worships the English Daisy Wells, though she is braver and brighter than her idol. Sure to appeal to those who detest public schools but love Malory Towers, the story features racism, lesbianism, murder and a Chinese heroine grappling with the absurdities of the English class system. The sequel, Arsenic for Tea (out in January), is just as stylish and funny.

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The Young Bond series is now being written by Steven Cole. In Shoot to Kill (Doubleday, £12.99), the teenage James Bond is sent down from Eton and dumped in Dartington Hall – a hilarious innovation that pays off when he ventures into Hollywood, by way of a girl bully, a Bentley, a Zeppelin and derring-do. Comedy, dash and imagination refresh a rebooted British hero.

Nicole Burstein’s Othergirl (Andersen Press, £7.99) is about friendship between an ordinary girl and a secret super-heroine. It’s bad enough being geeky seamstress to a gorgeous best friend liable to burst into flames, but avoiding envy and bad boyfriends is harder. Burstein explores loyalty, common sense and growing up in a smart, confidence-boosting comedy for 11-plus girls that owes much to The Incredibles.

Michelle Magorian’s Impossible! (Troika Books, £7.99) returns the author of the classic children’s novel Goodnight Mister Tom to ten-plus readers who prefer realism. Spurned by drama school, Josie, the tomboyish heroine, takes refuge from criminals with the real-life Joan Littlewood. The world of 1950s gumption and greasepaint is captured vividly in a sturdy Ballet Shoes-meets-Kidnapped caper.

Unabashed fantasy remains the best choice in 2014, with Toby Ibbotson’s hilar­ious Mountwood School for Ghosts (Macmillan, £12.99) and Kate Saunders’s heart-rending Five Children on the Western Front (Faber & Faber, £10.99) the outstanding choices for eight to 12, and Matt Haig’s SF thriller Echo Boy (Bodley Head, £12.99) and Sally Green’s witchy Half Bad (Penguin, £7.99) the top tips for 13-plus. All previously reviewed in the NS, they are exciting and unusual, and would make excellent gifts.

My children’s book of the year, though, is Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle (Bloomsbury, £12.99). This conflation of “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty”, given ravishingly detailed pen-and-ink illustrations by Chris Riddell, is already a collector’s item. On the eve of her wedding, a brave young queen learns of a growing sleeping sickness threatening her people from a neighbouring country. Accompanied by three faithful dwarves, she travels through dark places and dead roses to confront an evil enchantress’s spell and free herself. Unforgettable, unpredictable and utterly enchanting for anyone between the ages of seven and 70.