Nine million adults in Britain are functionally illiterate, which is estimated to cost the economy more than £37bn. The suffering of the people more likely to struggle finding work is one reason to deplore the closure of libraries. The other is the absence of the joy that reading brings.
Joy is my guiding principle in choosing books for this column. Floof by Heidi McKinnon (Allen & Unwin, 2-4 years) has an adorable cat who does one thing in the pictures and another in the text. It is ridiculously charming and funny, just like a small child. Wanda (Otter-Barry, 4+) by Sihle Nontshokweni and Mathabo Tlali, is a touching picture book about a little girl made miserable by teasing about her hair. She needs her grandmother’s “magical mist” of olive oil to make it into a triumphant crown. Vivid, double-page pictures by Chantelle and Burgen Thorne make this a treat.
The simple text and colourful illustrations of A Family Christmas by Alana Washington and Emily Nash (UCLan) takes us through the warmth and excitement of a family Christmas, to get children of 3+ in a seasonal mood. Julia “Gruffalo” Donaldson and Lydia Monks place their ladybird heroine in a distinctly gothic house, from which the presents are about to be stolen by Lanky Len and Hefty Hugh one snowy night. What the Ladybird Heard at Christmas (Macmillan, 4+) has bouncy couplets and is unscary, funny and fun. A pure seasonal delight is PJ Lynch’s illustrated version of Robert Frost’s sublime poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (Walker, 6+): my picture book of the year.
In Cressida Cowell’s epic new fantasy series, Which Way to Anywhere (Hodder, 11+), magical toothbrushes, hair’s-breadth escapes and the indomitable loyalty of family love are swept up in meticulous, hilarious plotting. Cowell’s energetic prose and illustrations crackle with wit; her fans are in for a treat.
So are Tanya Landman’s, for Midwinter Burning (Walker, 8+) is a gripping, original blend of Goodnight Mr Tom and The Wicker Man. Bullied Alfie is evacuated to a Devon farm, where, despite his ability to see the dead, he feels happy and safe. But when the annual Midwinter Burning approaches and his new friend Smidge goes missing, horror rises. An outstanding story about how courage can redeem both past and present by a former Carnegie Medal winner.
Anthony McGowan’s Dogs of the Deadlands (Rock the Boat, 9+) is inspired by the Chernobyl explosion. Natasha is forced to leave her beloved white puppy behind in an area contaminated by nuclear waste. Will it survive in a place where wolves, bears, bison and lynx return? This is a heart-rending odyssey about love between dog and girl. Catherine Johnson’s Journey Back to Freedom (Barrington Stoke) retells the true tale of Olaudah Equiano in crisp, lucid prose. Enslaved, abused, taught to read and surviving many perilous adventures, he eventually finds freedom and campaigns for the rights of black people. Inspiring for 8-13s.
The Map of Leaves (Chicken House, 8+) is Yarrow Townsend’s debut. Her bold heroine can talk to plants, and her quest upriver to find a cure for a mysterious sickness has absorbing characters, a vivid magical world and a wise ecological message. Perfect to read aloud.
SF Said’s Tyger (David Fickling, 9-11) is a dystopian fantasy with echoes of William Blake’s poem. Adam finds a gigantic, wounded Tyger while on the run in London. With his friend Zadie, he discovers that the Tyger’s life is at stake – and so is that of his whole world. A magical masterpiece with a Muslim hero at its heart and fabulous, muscular illustrations by Dave McKean, Tyger is a visionary tale of how racism and cruelty can be conquered. It’s my middle-grade book of the year.
Unraveller by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan, 11+) is set in Raddith, where anyone can create a life-destroying curse, but only Kellen has the power to “unravel” them. Yet he himself is also cursed, and unless he can remove this, everyone is endangered. Hardinge’s gothic imagination, plotting and prose are pure delight.
My young adult book of the year is Sally Gardner’s The Weather Woman (Head of Zeus, 12+). A superb fantasy set in early-19th-century London, it tells the story of Neva, a Russian heroine able to predict the weather with unerring accuracy. Her father builds an automaton to conceal Neva’s gifts, for there are fortunes to be gained from her predictions. But will they win her the man she loves? Like Georgette Heyer crossed with Angela Carter, it’s irresistibly romantic, magical and vivid: a wintry entertainment at its most joyful.
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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special