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19 December 2013

Box of delights: a pick of the best children’s books of the year

Princesses and goblins and geese and lost gods: a round-up of the year in children’s books.

By Amanda Craig

Mr Tiger Goes Wild (Macmillan, £11.99) by Peter Brown is my picture book of the year. Poor Mr Tiger is quietly miserable in a dull, grey city until he defies convention, takes off his clothes and ROARS in a colourful, Rousseau-esque jungle. The ebullience and subversion make this one you can stand re-reading to children of 3+, but even simpler is Petr Horacek’s Animal Opposites (Walker, £10.99), an appealing pop-up in which, say, Fat Pig is contrasted with Thin Meerkat, to the edification and entertainment of 2+ kids.

Alison Murray’s Princess Penelope and the Runaway Kitten (Nosy Crow, £9.99) has a kitten trailing a ball of glittering pink wool. A little princess chases it through a series of exuberant mishaps and rhyming couplets before winding up in just the right place. It is charming (and perfect for 2+), though the less privileged Celestine in Gabrielle Vincent’s touching Merry Christmas, Ernest & Celestine may be more familiar, as her imaginative father, Ernest, successfully provides a seasonal party on a limited budget (Catnip, £10.99).

For hungry readers, a riotously metatextual approach for 3+ comes in Nick Bromley and Nicola O’Byrne’s Open Very Carefully (Nosy Crow, £10.99) as the traditional tale of “The Ugly Duckling” is sabotaged by a crocodile, which chomps through the thick pages – and escapes. Michael Morpurgo’s The Goose is Getting Fat (Egmont, £5.99) tackles the awkward issue of where Christmas dinner comes from, as Charlie becomes increasingly fond of a goose his family intends to eat. Rooted in farm life, yet with a happy ending, this is an ideal stocking-filler for 5+.

Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk . . . (Bloomsbury, £10.99) is a preposterous excuse from a forgetful father about why he almost forgot milk for his kids. Dinosaurs, aliens and pirates come into a shaggy dog story, for 6+, which is really about the creativity of liars. More heartfelt is Jackie Morris’s lyrical update of East Of the Sun, West of the Moon (Frances Lincoln, £9.99), about a poor girl who marries a white bear to save her family from poverty, only to discover that he is an enchanted prince whom she must save. Morris’s sensitive prose and illustrations makes this a spiritual journey into the heart of an unexpectedly feminist fairy tale.

From Greek myth to Celtic ones, Lari Don’s Winter’s Tales are retold with lucidity and humour, and her trolls, tinsel and heroes in hairy trousers are the right length to read aloud at bedtime to 6 + (A & C Black, £12.99). Meanwhile, Francesca Simon’s The Lost Gods (Profile, £10.99) takes Norse myth and religious scepticism to hilarious heights, satirising celebrity culture for 8+.

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The Folio Society’s luscious editions of children’s classics make great gifts (£29.95 each). For teens, Alan Garner’s masterpiece about a family haunted by Welsh myth, The Owl Service, is given haunting new pictures by Darren Hopes and an introduction by Susan Cooper. Younger readers of 8+ should love George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, a glorious fantasy that influenced The Hobbit (also available from Hesperus Press, £7.99). Its sequel, The Princess and Curdie, is republished in a handsomely illustrated paperback (Jane Nissen, £7.99).

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Deliciously eccentric and reminiscent of Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes, Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers (Faber & Faber, £6.99) has a musical girl and her adoptive father go to Paris in search of Sophie’s lost mother. Even more touching is Rachel Campbell-Johnston’s The Child’s Elephant (David Fickling, £9.99) whose African goat-boy saves a baby elephant from poachers and is in turn saved by it from a brutal life as a child soldier. Exciting, funny and sadly topical, it depicts the friendship between child and elephant with the conviction of a trained zoologist and the imagination of a poet, and is my children’s book of the year for 8-11s.

In Anthony Horowitz’s Russian Roulette (Walker, £10.99), its narrator escapes from the USSR to become a trained teenage assassin. Bleak yet uplifting, there’s enough violence to satisfy the most reluctant boy reader of 9+; the style is influenced by Dashiell Hammett. So, too, is Anthony McGowan’s comedy about a boy with mental problems trying to survive in a grotesquely dysfunctional school: Hello Darkness is an original, unsettling noir thriller for 12+ to devour. Girls may prefer C J Skuse’s wicked revamp of Frankenstein in Dead Romantic (Chicken House £7.99) as two lonely students attempt to create the perfect boyfriend – from a corpse. Also for teenagers is Daniel Finn’s Call Down Thunder (Macmillan, £7.99). A companion piece to his brilliant thriller Two Good Thieves, it’s a compelling story of a brother and sister’s quest to find their mother on the corrupt and dangerous fringes of South American society.

Sally Gardner’s Tinder (Indigo, £ 9.99) is my book of the year for teens. A retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Tinderbox”, it has young Otto escape death only to find himself haunted by werewolves, a witch and a beautiful woman. It’s a circular narrative by a modern-day Angela Carter, exploring the psychological injuries of war. Gardner’s remarkable prose is complemented by David Roberts’s exquisitely sinister illustrations; like Christmas, you can interpret its conclusion as both life-affirming and tragic.

Amanda Craig is a novelist and children’s books critic.