One in five parents is spending less on books due to the cost-of-living crisis, according to the National Literacy Trust, so picking the best titles is especially crucial now. Too many books are promoted because of their marketing spend and author profile, not their excellence and enjoyability for children.
Allie Esiri’s A Nursery Rhyme for Every Day of the Year (Macmillan, £20) is a brilliant idea and a splendid collection to read, recite or sing. Old and new rhymes, themed by month and beautifully illustrated by Emily Faccini, mean that any child of six and under will love it.
Emily Gravett’s picture books about animals are a feast of elegance and fun. 10 Dogs (Two Hoots, £12.99, 2+) features varied canines play-fighting. The rhyming couplets and illustrations will make any young child yap for joy as the naughty dogs jump, snatch, stretch and ultimately share ten delicious sausages.
At the start of the race, Cheetah is confident she can’t be caught by rhinos on roller skates or even a rocket-powered rabbit. But will the cheeky snails surprise her? There’s Nothing Faster Than a Cheetah by Tom Nicoll (Macmillan, £7.99, 3+) is an inspired retelling of one of Aesop’s Fables, wickedly illustrated by Ross Collins.
Gill Lewis is our best living author of animal tales and Moonflight (David Fickling, £7.99, 7+), illustrated by Pippa Curnick, is especially good fun. Tilbury is the seventh-born rat of a seventh-born litter in London’s Docklands, where the curse of a legendary black diamond hangs over ratkind. To break it, our timid hero must leave his home and travel with his bolder sister to treacherous lands.
Saving a beloved home by leaving it is also the subject of Natasha Farrant’s The Rescue of Ravenwood (Faber & Faber, £7.99, 8+). Four adult siblings find a ruined country house and now their children must fight for its survival. This is a gloriously warm and classic celebration of nature and friendship.
Marcus Sedgwick has left us one last extraordinary novel about family tensions and supernatural struggles in Ravencave (Barrington Stoke, £7.99, 9-13). James’s mother believes she can see ghosts, and on a family holiday in Yorkshire, he sees one too. But there is a surprise in this tale and it delivers a memorable punch.
So, too, does Zillah Bethell’s The Song Walker (Usborne, £7.99, 9+), an original Australian adventure. A girl finds herself walking in the desert, unable even to remember her name. About to collapse from hunger, thirst and exposure, she meets another girl on a quest of her own who shows her how to survive. Both are hiding secrets, and one of them is a spirit walker.
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Candy Gourlay’s heroine takes us on a much more uncomfortable journey in Wild Song (David Fickling, £12.99, 13+). It’s 1904, the Philippines are under American rule, and everything is changing except what a young woman can do. Luki leaps at the chance to go to the US and the World’s Fair in St Louis. Little does she know that she’ll be an exhibit as a “savage” in a human zoo. This book is provocative and satisfying.
Rivalry and distrust lie at the heart of Elizabeth Wein’s Stateless (Bloomsbury, £8.99, 12+), set in 1937. Stella is the only female pilot in a round-the-world flying race, but when she suspects a murder her statelessness makes it even more difficult to find allies. Wein (Code Name Verity) is a superb writer of spy stories, but others this age will love the latest in Jennifer A Nielsen’s stories about Jaron, an insolent thief who, as the lost “spare”, inherits his murdered brother’s crown. A thoughtfulness about royal responsibilities is enlivened by Jaron’s amazing cheek, and still more amazing luck. The Shattered Castle (the fifth in theAscendance series, which begins with The False Prince) is by a storyteller who can prise kids from computer games (Scholastic, £8.99, 8+).
Holly Black’s new series brims with magic, beauty and danger. The heroine of The Stolen Heir (Hot Key, £16.99, 11+) is Suren, a feral child queen who fled her cruel mother by hiding in the mortal world. How she is dragged back to fairyland and sent on a freezing quest north to reclaim her agency from goblins and trolls is a thrillingly twisty adventure. Black channels literature from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Christina Rossetti to create a gorgeous story of magic and betrayal.
Not one of these stories is a dud, and, if you divide the number of times they will be read, they work out as the most inexpensive form of fun you can give.
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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special