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26 July 2023

The best children’s books for summer 2023

Essential holiday reading, from vivid picture books to gripping wartime adventures.

By Amanda Craig

Reading for pleasure – remember that? A recent American study of 10,000 children has found that those who read for fun early in life perform better at cognitive tests and have better mental health. Even the Gradgrinds in government must accept that good books are as essential to the young as good food, clean water and unpolluted air. So why are they harder than ever to find? I blame the books that are ghost-written for celebrities and marketed to parents; meanwhile the rest languish. Below are the books for children aged 2-12 worth splashing out on this summer.

Allan Ahlberg is a master of classics, and Under the Table (Walker, £12.99, 3+) is a riff on a young child’s imagination. Elsie finds an elephant under the table, then a kangaroo, penguins in the fridge – and nobody turns a hair. They can even come on holiday with her family! Bruce Ingman’s pictures add to the absurdity.

In This Rock Is Mine by Kaye Umansky, illustrated by Alice McKinley (Alison Green, £7.99, 3+), two frogs lay claim to the same rock (“See over there? My orange towel, my folding chair. My flask of tea. My underwear.”) Only the shadow of a predator makes them realise that sharing is better. A Boy, His Dog and the Sea by Anthony Browne (Walker, 4+, £12.99) is also thoughtful but more melancholy. Danny takes his dog for an adventurous walk on the beach, conjured with such detail that you can almost taste the salt.

Chris Wormell’s picture books brim with brio, and The Lucky Bottle (David Fickling, £7.99, 5-8) is perfect for young holidaymakers. Jack is shipwrecked on an island, and what ensues is a mash-up of Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean. He finds a protector, a treasure map, a book of spells, pirates – and the way home.

In the Carnegie Medal-winner Katya Balen’s The Thames and Tide Club: The Secret City (Bloomsbury, £6.99, 7+), London is under threat from the Thames. Clem and her gang of mudlarkers have a special relationship with the river, but when Clem discovers a metal ring with weird powers, they are plunged into an underwater adventure awash with jokes. This book is delightfully Nesbitty.

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[See also: I Want My Hat Back is a bleak masterpiece that explains the human condition]

Phil Earle’s new Second World War adventure Until the Road Ends (Andersen, £7.99, 8+) is a tear-jerker. Beau, a stray dog, is rescued by Peggy during the Blitz, but joy is brief – the government has ordered the destruction of pets. Luckily, Beau’s skill as a sniffer of bombs saves him, but once Peggy is orphaned, our hero is determined to find her. Think Goodnight Mister Tom, but with animals.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s The Wonder Brothers (Macmillan, £12.99) is comedy gold. Nathan and Middy love magic – the stage kind involving rabbits and hats. For Middy it’s all about practice, for Nathan it’s about showing off. But when the Blackpool Tower vanishes, they need to stop quarrelling and use the real thing to bring it back. Cottrell-Boyce is an enchanter himself, and any story by him is guaranteed to get 9+ readers feverishly turning the pages.

Spellstone by Ross Montgomery (Walker, £7.99) has the new star of fantasy exploring magic, power and evil. When ordinary Evie is recruited into a sinister organisation called the Order of the Stone, she discovers she’s not so ordinary after all. It’s perfect for 8-11. As is The House with a Dragon in It (Simon & Schuster, £12.99), in which a sinkhole appears in the living room of the foster-home where Summer is living. It leads to a dragon in a cave and a 17th-century witch in a bottle who grants wishes. What could be more enticing? Nick Lake’s stylish story and Emily Gravett’s exquisite illustrations make this a treat.

Stories about finding a door into a magical world are always captivating and Pari Thomson’s debut Greenwild (Macmillan, £12.99) delivers that Narnia feeling. A portal in Kew Gardens gets Daisy into the Greenwild, a land of rare and magical plants where botanists use green magic. Among the relentless glut of eco-fables, this will send roots and shoots into the imagination of 9-12s, with lovely illustrations by Elisa Paganelli.

The Wolf-Girl, the Greeks and the Gods by Tom Holland (Walker, £25) is a fabulous retelling of the Persian invasion of Greece for 9-12s. Marrying the perspective of Gorgo, a Spartan queen, with meticulous accounts of military training, religion and magic, it’s amplified by Jason Cockroft’s dramatic illustrations. Holland writes like a turbo-charged Mary Renault, and his book will be irresistible to those with warlike temperaments.

Amanda Craig’s latest novel is “The Three Grace

[See also: Our favourite children’s books]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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