Suffragists and Santa-killers: the best children’s books of 2017

Picture: EMILY SUTTON

In Horatio Clare’s Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds, a hero must save the polluted world from an enormous snail.

Few readers will fail to spot that this has been a golden year for children’s books. With Philip Pullman’s magisterial return to the world of His Dark Materials in La Belle Sauvage (David Fickling Books, £20) and Robert Macfarlane’s and Jackie Morris’s rapturously received celebration of nature, The Lost Words (Hamish Hamilton, £20), do we need more? Indeed, we do.

Judith Kerr’s Katinka’s Tail (HarperCollins, £12.99) adds to her classic cat stories with a tale of a white cat’s magic tail, which sends an elderly lady in a pink dressing gown flying off to the moon. It’s a heart-warming, gold-sprinkled reminder that grannies have an imagination, too. But overexcited tots may respond better to Francesca Simon’s Hack and Whack (Faber & Faber, £6.99), illustrated by Charlotte Cotterill, in which hilarious little Vikings with a limited but expressive vocabulary go on a rampage. Julia Donaldson’s and Axel Scheffler’s heroes in The Ugly Five (Scholastic, £12.99) are the wildebeest, warthog, hyena, vulture and marabou stork. Valued by children as kind and cuddly, brave and strong, they are cheering for demoralised parents, too. The books above are suitable for ages three and older.

Once again, the strangest and loveliest offering for small readers comes from Coralie Bickford-Smith. The Worm and the Bird (Particular Books, £14.99) shows a worm’s-eye view of life, literally, as its narrator manoeuvres past grit, insects, dead leaves, fossils and other worms, unaware of the bird waiting to pounce on it. Exquisitely drawn, it’s drily funny and addresses  our  perennial failure to appreciate the wonder of life.

Seasonal magic for five-plus readers comes with Katherine Rundell’s One Christmas Wish (Bloomsbury, £14.99). A lonely boy with overworked parents decorates a tree with shabby old ornaments, which, Nutcracker-style, come alive in a quest. It’s joyous, especially with Emily Sutton’s retro illustrations. The actual Nutcracker story can be relished in Jessica Courtney-Tickle’s charming version (Frances Lincoln, £14.99), which plays Tchaikovsky’s music, too.

For new readers of ages six and older, Anthony McGowan’s I Killed Father Christmas (Little Gems, £6.99) is a riot, lavishly illustrated by Chris Riddell. Jo-Jo decides to leave his rowing parents, dress up and deliver presents to friends and neighbours. When he meets the real Father Christmas, mayhem and merriment ensue.

For the whole family but especially eight-plus readers, A Poem for Every Day of the Year, edited by Allie Esiri (Macmillan, £16.99), is an old idea but gorgeously presented and intelligently selected, including poets from Shakespeare to Kate Tempest. I loved it. On a darker note, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s and Jeffrey Alan Love’s rendition of Norse Myths (Walker Studio, £18.99) is the best of many recent versions for children aged nine and above. With fiery, lyrical prose and shadowy, sinewy illustrations, this is a wintry marvel of doom, hope, cruelty and imagination. A serious gift, which will be reread many times over.

Finding enjoyable books for children between the ages seven and 11 remains problematic. Kate Saunders’s The Land of Neverendings (Faber & Faber, £10.99) concerns a bereaved child who discovers that old toys leave the Hard World for the magical land of Smockeroon. As much about imagination as bereavement, it balances laughter and tears superbly. Lissa Evans has turned her comic genius for creating characters to a similar subject in Wed Wabbit (David Fickling, £10.99), in which two children must defeat a tyrant who has taken over the toys’ land of Wimbley Woo.

In Horatio Clare’s Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds (Firefly, £7.99), illustrated by Jane Matthews, a miniaturised hero must save the polluted world from an enormous snail. Yes, it’s an eco-fable, but Clare’s sensitive wit makes it urgent. Cressida Cowell’s The Wizards of Once (Hodder, £12.99) is essential for young readers who loved her How to Train Your Dragon series. A magic sword, an enchanted spoon, a talking raven and a wicked witch make this fizz with fun.

For history fans aged nine-plus, Mary Hoffman’s delightful The Ravenmaster’s Boy (Greystones Press, £8.99) has Kit, orphaned by the plague but able to speak Raven, play a role in the future ascension of Elizabeth I. Theresa Breslin’s The Rasputin Dagger (Corgi, 7.99) is a superb suspense novel about a cursed dagger, and perfect for the centenary of the Russian Revolution.

Katherine Rundell’s The Explorer (Bloomsbury, £12.99) is the standout book for 11-plus readers, written with characteristic warmth and insight. When their plane crashes in the Amazon jungle, four very different children must learn to survive together. Like Eva Ibbotson’s masterpiece Journey to the River Sea, this shows how love and courage can make a hellish situation wonderful. Highly recommended.

Riveting reads for the 12-plus age group include My Side of the Diamond (Hot Key, £9.99). Vintage Sally Gardner, its mixture of class conflict, forbidden friendship and alien abduction shouldn’t work but it does, thanks to her peerless originality. Sally Nicholls’s Things a Bright Girl Can Do (Andersen, £12.99) is a suffragist novel, told through the stories of the genteel Evelyn, the “sapphist” Quaker May and the cross-dressing, working-class Nell. Tough, unsentimental and well realised, it moves from drawing rooms to prison cells.

William Sutcliffe’s shockingly suspenseful We See Everything (Bloomsbury, £12.99) channels John Christopher as much as The Hunger Games. Two boys, one a rebel, the other a drone pilot, cross paths in a bombed-out dystopian London where nobody is free. Also challenging, Deirdre Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine (Little Island, £12.99) recasts fairy tales with an exquisite intensity worthy of Angela Carter, complemented by Karen Vaughan’s inky elegance.

In 2015, Frances Hardinge won the Costa Children’s Book Award, with The Lie Tree. Though her style is more complex than Pullman’s, she is an equally addictive story­teller, for both young and old. In her new novel, Young Makepeace can see ghosts and is accidentally possessed by the spirit of a bear. When her Puritan mother dies, she has no option but to seek out her father’s rich and powerful family, royalists embroiled in the coming civil war. But they have their own secrets, and soon she must use all the wits she has to outwit treachery. Electrifyingly good, A Skinful of Shadows (Macmillan, £12.99, 11-plus) dances between reason, compassion and the supernatural with exceptional artistry. Even in a remarkable year for children’s books, it strikes gold.

Picture: EMILY SUTTON