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8 December 2021

The best children’s books for Christmas 2021

There’s danger, delight and magic in the best children’s books of the festive season.

By Amanda Craig

Christmas is all about stories. As nights grow long and temperatures drop, we want to drift into dreams. Quests, feasts, danger and delight are all part of the mix. For Christmas Eve, Clement C Moore’s 1823 poem “’Twas The Night Before Christmas” is a must-read, and the great illustrator PJ Lynch (Walker, £12.99) has given us a version suffused with winter magic, all warmth and shivery loveliness, for ages 3 to 93.

Tom Gauld’s The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess (Templar, £12.99) is a subversive fable about sibling affection – enjoyably quirky for 3-7, and adult fans of his Guardian cartoon strip will love it too. A Tale of Two Dragons by Geraldine McCaughrean & Peter Malone (Andersen £12.99) is a gently satirical and gorgeously illustrated fable about two warring kingdoms learning to share their blessings via a pair of fire-breathing dragons, who guard the border between them. Recommended for 4-6.

Kevin-Crossley Holland’s captivating Arthur: The Always King (Walker, £20) is the best account of the leadership that our benighted country needs since Roger Lancelyn Green’s 1953 retelling of the legends. The illustrator Chris Riddell’s glowering Green Knight is a particular treat. A great present for 6-9.

The Christmas Pig, JK Rowling’s latest drop of storytelling gold (Little, Brown, £20) is an addictive adventure for 6-9. A seasonal parable about consumerism, loyalty and love, it has an inspired blend of The Nutcracker and Toy Story that fizzes with kindly wit. Frindleswylde (Walker, £14.99, 5-7), by the sisters Natalia and Lauren O’Hara, is an enchanting new fairy tale about a girl tricked by a frost child. He steals her granny’s lamp – and will take her life, unless Cora can achieve three “impossible tasks”. With echoes of Russian myth and Hans Christian Andersen, it’s a story about the importance of warmth in all its forms – especially between grandparents and children.

Ross Montgomery is a new star in children’s fiction. The Chime Seekers (Walker, £7.99, 7-11) features a resentful boy who must rescue his changeling sister, stolen by goblins and hidden in an enchanted village. With a genuinely magical feel, emotional intelligence and a propulsive plot, this reworks folklore with all the brio of Emma Carroll and Neil Gaiman.

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Elle McNicoll’s Show Us Who You Are (Knights Of, £6.99, 9-13) is a fabulous science fiction thriller. Like McNicoll, her heroines are autistic, and Cora’s friendship with the brilliant, witty Adrian is fraught with many problems – but this engaging novel is so much more than the usual “issues” book.

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In RJ Palacio’s Pony (Puffin, £12.99), Silas lives in the American Midwest with his father, a retired photographer, and Mittenwool, a ghost whom only Silas can see and hear. When criminals kidnap his dad, Silas and Mittenwool go in pursuit. Silas’s stubborn courage, his relationship with Mittenwool, and above all his heroic pony make this an unforgettably exciting Western which boys of 8-11 will particularly adore.

Yaba Badoe’s Lionheart Girl (Zephyr, £12.99, 11-13) sees a thrillingly talented Ghanaian author weaving West African myth into a tale of love and courage. Sheba has inherited a form of magic that means she can shape-shift, and her touch can discern people’s hopes, fears and secrets. Slowly, she uncovers the murderous truth about her stolen childhood and learns how to protect the hunted from the hunter.

The hero of Philip Womack’s Wildlord (Little Island Books, £7.99, 13-15) is an orphaned teenager who must live at boarding school, even during holidays. Summoned by a mysterious uncle to a moated farm in Suffolk, he is immediately shot at with arrows. The house is under siege by supernatural beings. With echoes of Alan Garner and Catherine Fisher, this is a richly atmospheric and beautifully written addition to literature about the fiercer kind of fairy. More!

Aisling Fowler’s debut, Fireborn: Twelve and the Frozen Forest (Harper Collins, £12.99), gets off to a scorching start. Its axe-wielding heroine, Twelve, teams up with two school bullies when goblins kidnap her only friend. The fantasy tropes are too familiar but the fighting scenes, twisty plot and passionate feelings are gripping and immersive. Readers of 8-12 will love the heroine’s gradual discovery of magical powers, as well as the adorable tiny squirrel, Squidge, who comforts her in the Frozen Forest. At the very least, it will persuade children to go out for a winter walk after the chocolates.

This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special