A voyage of discovery: the best children's titles 2017
It's been another bumper year in children's publishing, making it even more difficult to choose books for young readers, but Sarah webb's guide to the top kids' titles of the year - from picture books to YA novels to non-fiction gems - will help you pick the best gifts for young bookworms
Books make stand-out Christmas presents, outlasting faddy games and toys that need half a dozen batteries to keep them chirping. Children are spending increasing amounts of time on screens and books are a way of counteracting that - they feed the soul and ignite the imagination.
The greatest gift you can give a child is the gift of reading. But with bookshop shelves groaning with titles, what books should you give them this Christmas? Every year I read hundreds of children's books, both for work and pleasure, discovering outstanding picturebook gems and novels so good they make me stop and wonder. I've selected my favourite titles in each age group. If you're looking for a personal recommendation for your child, check out #bookelves17 on Twitter or Facebook, run by a team of children's book experts including myself. Happy reading this Christmas season!
Owl Bat Bat Owl
Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick (Walker)
If you buy one board-book for a tiny tot this season, make it this beauty by an award-winning Irish picturebook-maker. The owl family and the bat family share the same branch but never mix. When a gust of wind blows everyone into the air, things change and both families find that having new friends makes life better. There are no words in this book, the expressive illustrations, full of gentle humour, tell the story. If you're looking for something a little different, this is for you.
The President's Glasses
Peter Donnelly (Gill Books)
This handsome hardback has it all. It's beautifully crafted with vibrant illustrations and a cracking story that will bring a smile to everyone's face. The President of Ireland (who, with his dapper suit, bow tie and glasses, bears a striking resemblance to our own President) is on his away across Dublin city to sign a very important document but he's forgotten his glasses. Luckily the President's pigeon is on hand to save the day. It's hard to believe this is Peter Donnelly's first picturebook - it's full of confidence and visual swagger and would make the perfect present for Irish families living abroad.
Rob Biddulph (HarperCollins)
Move over Julia Donaldson, there's a new picturebook poet in town. "This is Sid Gibbons. And this is his mum. And this is the reason they're looking so glum." So begins this glorious tale of one boy and his imaginary friend, Kevin. Written in highly infectious rhyme, Biddulph is also an accomplished artist, and this hardback picturebook is a treat for the eye. The perfect book to read (and re-read over and over) at bedtime.
Kes Gray and Jim Field (Hodder Children's Books)
The third in the hugely popular Oi! series, this bright, lively picturebook combines hilarious rhyme with a wacky story which follows different animals and what they are 'supposed' to sit on: the pony on macaroni and dingoes on flamingos. Ideal for reading aloud and bound to make any child laugh.
Yoga Babies Fearne
Cotton & Sheena Dempsey (Andersen Press)
Sheena Dempsey is an award-winning Irish illustrator and her artwork makes this sweet picturebook featuring young children doing different yoga poses come alive. The rhyming text is easy to follow and if there's a yoga-loving mum or dad in the family, this is the perfect book for the whole household. Sheena Dempsey also illustrated Irish author, Jane Landy's Gringer the Whinger (Golden Key), a rhyming picturebook about an annoying dragon and the family he visits.
Luna Loves Library Day
Joseph Coelho & Fiona Lumbers (Andersen Press)
Luna loves library day as she gets to spend time with her dad. Together they pick books about dinosaurs, mini monsters and magic for Luna to take home. They also read fairy tales together, Luna snuggled on her dad's knee. An ode to love and different kinds of families, with lyrical text and richly coloured, warm illustrations.
A Busy Day for Birds
Lucy Cousins (Walker)
A joyful whirlwind of a book about birds of all shapes and sizes which begs to be shared with young eyes. The jaunty rhyming text is brought vividly alive by the outstanding illustrations which zing with delicious colour.
Town is by the Sea
Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith (Walker Books)
"From my house I can see the sea… And deep down under that sea, my father is digging for coal." I haven't read such a deeply affecting picturebook in years - it moved me to tears. Set in Canada, it's the story of a miner's son, his town and his dad. The pitch-perfect text and the outstanding illustrations which play with light and dark, summer sun and coal-seam black, combine to produce a masterpiece. I can't recommend it highly enough for older children and adults who are looking for something a little different. Age 7+
Laura James, illustrated by Églantine Ceuelemans (Bloomsbury)
This is the latest book in the charming series about Pug and his owner, Lady Miranda. When Lady Miranda sets off on safari, in a sedan chair carried by her Running Footmen, she brings Pug with her. But they have to settle for a trip to Animal Adventure Land. Here they have all kinds of adventures of their own. Full of gentle humour and cracking illustrations with lots of vibrant green and yellow, this book makes a fantastic read aloud or is perfect for children just starting to read for themselves.
The Clubhouse Mystery
Erika McGann, illustrated by Vince Reid (O'Brien Press)
Irish author, Erika McGann captures the spirit of The Secret Seven in this good-natured mystery for young readers. The Bubble Street Gang set up a new clubhouse but someone has discovered its secret location. It's up to the gang to find out who.
There's a Bug on My Arm That Won't Let Go, David Mackintosh (HarperCollins Children's Books)
If you're looking for a picturebook that combines clever design and illustrations with a cracking story, this is it. David Mackintosh designs Lauren Child's books and his eye for detail is exceptional. A stink bug has attached itself to a girl's arm and refuses to let go. But sometimes even bugs need a friend.
Hopscotch in the Sky: Poems for Children
Lucinda Jacob, illustrated by Lauren O'Neill (Little Island)
"Every year we get the decorations down from the attic - ooh, look! Remember him!" This is a charming, accessible collection from one of Ireland's best poets for children, Lucinda Jacob. She covers all kinds of topics from friendship to school and her work cries out to be read aloud. The classy, expressive illustrations by Lauren O'Neill make this a pocket treasure. Age 7+
Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of The Wizard of OZ
Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark (HarperCollins)
"I was lying right there, deep in my dreams in this very basket, when I was woken up by the sound of wind roaring." The narrator of this clever version of The Wizard of Oz is Dorothy's dog, Toto, who is telling the story to a basketful of his own puppies. The illustrations are gently coloured, bringing this adventure tale to vivid life for younger readers. Ideal for reading aloud at bedtime or for a young reader to gobble up for themselves.
All Aboard the Discovery Express
Emily Hawkins, Tom Adams and Tom Clohoshy-Cole (Wide Eyed Editions)
Train lovers will adore this smash up of mystery story, train facts and history. It's 1937 and a famous professor is missing. Can you find him using the clues in the book? This interactive, immersive hardback is sumptuously illustrated and produced, with letters to read and over 50 flaps to lift, and will keep a child occupied for hours. If you want to get your youngster off their screen, this is the book to do it. Age 7+
Also recommended: Rover and the Big Fat Baby by Roddy Doyle, illustrated by Chris Judge; Superdad's Day Off by Phil Earle, illustrated by Steve May; Daisy and the Trouble with Chocolate by Kes Gray, illustrated by Nick Sharratt; and Dave Pigeon (Nuggets!) by Swapna Haddow and Sheena Dempsey
Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury)
When a group of children find themselves in the Amazon rainforest after terrifying plane crash, they come across signs in the jungle that someone or something has been there before. Rundell's research - she travelled to the Amazon and swam with pink river dolphins - shines out and this is a beautifully written novel, filled with vivid descriptions and plucky, clever children.
For younger children of age five plus, her illustrated book, One Christmas Wish, illustrated by Emily Sutton, is also a must.
The Guggenheim Mystery
Robin Stevens (Penguin)
Ted has a unique way of looking at the world which enables him to work out mysteries and puzzles like no other boy. When his aunt is accused of stealing a priceless painting from the Guggenheim Museum in New York, it's up to Ted and his sister and cousin to figure out who really stole it. I read this warm, smart book in one sitting, it's truly gripping. It's the sequel to The London Eye Mystery by the late Siobhan Dowd but can be read as a stand-alone, too.
The Secret Horses of Briar Hill
Megan Shepherd, illustrated by Levi Pinfold (Walker)
This gem of a book is something very different, magical realism for children with outstanding black and white illustrations by Levi Pinfold. Set during World War II, Emmaline is living in Briar Hill, a hospital for children with TB or 'stillwaters' as she calls her condition. When she starts seeing winged horses in the hospital's mirrors, she is determined to find out where they come from. Shepherd's writing is flowing and lyrical and this story utterly gripped me from start to finish. Ideal for a thoughtful reader who loves Michael Morpurgo.
Nevermore: The Trials of Morrigan Crow
Jessica Townsend (Orion Children's Books)
Eleven-year-old Morrigan Crow is a cursed child, blamed for everything bad that happens in her town and destined to die at Eventide. A strange man called Jupiter North whisks her away to Nevermoor, saving her life. But she can only join the Wundrous Society, a place of magic and protection, if she passes four impossible trials. A 'wunderful' book, full of imagination, ideal for Harry Potter fans.
The Bookshop Girl
Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King (Scholastic)
As a former bookseller, I love novels set in bookshops. This one is the story of Property Jones whose family win the Montgomery's Book Emporium. They are thrilled and set about running this huge, sprawling bookshop. But something is very wrong in the Emporium and soon their livelihood is in danger. Although Property can't read - a secret she has kept from her loves ones - she is super smart and works out how to save the emporium. A warm and magical story, ideal for young bookworms.
Sam Hannigan's Woof Week
Alan Nolan (O'Brien Press)
When animal lover and champion Irish dancer, Sam, gets stuck inside the body of her neighbour's dog, no-one could predict the consequences. How will she cope with school and take part in an Irish dancing competition when she's stuck inside a big hairy dog's body? Nolan has a light touch and this funny book is full of heart. Perfect for David Walliams fans.
Also recommended: Bad Dad by David Walliams; Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Getaway by Jeff Kinney; Hetty Feather's Christmas by Jacqueline Wilson; The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell; Darkmouth: Hero Rising by Shane Hegarty.
My classic pick: Eoin Colfer - Stig of the Dump by Clive King
I was a reader from a very young age. My parents taught me and my brothers to read long before we went to school. I remember arriving in low babies on the first day and thinking: who are these barbarians — they don’t even know their letters? Of course, by the end of the second week, the other students had learned their ABCs and most had figured out it was a good idea to raise one’s hand at least a minute before potty time, so we all caught up.
Back in 1970, schools didn’t have the wonderful libraries they do today and I remember that most of the books featured square-jawed heroes. Everyone from King Arthur to Robin Hood to Julian from the Famous Five had a lean-limbed athleticism and noble sensibility, and much as I enjoyed the books, I can’t say I connected with them, because I could not see myself being accepted as a friend by any of these people.
That was my test for a character at the time: If I met this person, would they like me. And usually the answer was, no. The boys in my books were too tough, handsome and popular to ever hang around with me. And then, when I was seven, Stig of the Dump came along. I was home ill from school and my mother decided to cheer me up with a book from the second-hand shop. To be honest, I was not initially impressed with a book about a dump as I was a fastidious child, but I soon realised that this was the book my heart had been waiting for.
The main character was not this Stig creature, but Barney, a young English boy staying with his grandparents on the Chalk Downs. Barney was quiet and bookish and lonely and very obviously my kind of character and I thought to myself: nothing interesting can happen to a boy like that. But as is so often the case, I was wrong. Barney fell into a chalk pit, met a stone-age boy he named Stig and travelled into the past. I finished it in record time and asked myself: Would Barney and Stig like me? The answer was a resounding yes.
Stig led me to other books where I felt I might be welcome inside the pages: Huckleberry Finn, for example, and Treasure Island (though Jim was dangerously close to heroic). I know now that the measure of a fictional character is not whether or not they might like me, but rather whether or not they are finely drawn.
But way back then, when I was searching for a way into the wonderful world of books, Stig and Barney opened the door.
Eoin Colfer’s latest book, Illegal, is published by Hodder
Classic pick: PJ lynch - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Once when, aged 10 or 11, I was sick at home for a couple of days, I was given a book to keep me occupied. It was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis and it was the book that got me hooked on reading.
I quickly became engrossed in the wintry world of Narnia with its mythological beasts, talking animals and ghouls and goblins of every kind. Leading our heroes and the good creatures against the evil White Witch was the great lion, Aslan. Had I known that Lewis wrote the story as a Christian allegory I would probably have been put off, but I raced through it just loving the adventure for itself without seeing any hidden meanings.
The sinuous line drawings by Pauline Baynes added immeasurably to the experience for me. Not that I loved them unreservedly. I always found the medieval style of her work to be unnerving, but, in retrospect, that was the perfect complement to the darker elements of Lewis’s fantasy.
I have given copies of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to many reluctant readers over the years and I have never yet known the magic of Narnia to fail.”
Author and illustrator PJ Lynch is Ireland’s Laureate na nÓg
Fascinating non-fiction for inquiring minds
Age 0- 4
William Bee's Wonderful World of Trains and Boats and Planes (Pavilion)
If the child in your life loves trains, this quirky picturebook is perfect. It's packed with simple facts and vibrant illustrations that leap off the page. Age 3+
Marc Martin (Big Picture Press)
This large format book is a celebration of the wonder of the world, both natural and man-made, from oceans to rainforests, cities to villages. Each vibrantly coloured spread is packed with detail and it's a book my son and I come back to time after time. Magical. Age 4+
Age 5 - 8
The Variety of Life
Nicola Davies and Lorna Scobie (Hodder Children's Books)
If your child loves animals, this is the perfect gift, a generous hardback featuring all manner of life, from beetles and spiders, to fish and whales. The delicious watercolour and ink illustrations by newcomer, Lorna Scobie are a joy to share.
Fatti and John Burke (Gill Books)
The award-winning father/daughter team behind Irelandopedia and Historopedia, which have sold over 100,000 copies, is back - this time with a romp through the world of the Irish language from arán to zú. Suitable for all levels of Irish, it covers topics like the weather, clothes and sport in glowing colour.
The Boole Sisters
Anne Carroll, illustrated by Derry Dillon (Poolbeg)
If your child is interested in history, this charming story of one remarkable family is ideal. Born in Cork, the Boole sisters went on to become novelists and scientists, defying conventions of the time. Jaunty writing combined with fun illustrations make this a great introduction to women's history or 'herstory'. See below for more great 'herstory' books.
Age 9 - 11
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women
Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo (Particular Books)
Originally produced using crowdfunding of more than a million dollars - the most-funded original book ever - this illustrated book has become a phenomenon, inspiring dozens of women's history (or 'herstory') books for children. Our own Grace O'Malley is in the mix, along with well-known pioneers and activists such as Helen Keller, Malala, Rosa Parks and many other women who will be new to readers. Watch out for Good Night Stories 2 in 2018, plus some Irish 'herstory' books from Little Island and O'Brien Press, published to celebrate the centenary of Votes for Women in Ireland.
The Lost Words
Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton)
"For adder is as adder basks." A fascinating book of 'spell-poems', designed to "re-wild the language of children". The illustrations alone are a work of art. Both Macfarlane and Morris see nature as strange, beautiful and magical and these lyrical poems and accompanying watercolours are ideal for reading aloud and sharing with children (and adults) who still have wonder in their hearts.
Age 11 +
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Saved the World
Rachel Ignotofsky (Wren)
This striking book brings together 50 women from the world of science, from Marie Curie to Jane Goodall. Although the book is quite text heavy, there are lots of quotes and snippets of information on the pages, and the biographical information never seems overwhelming. What makes the book a real winner, however, is the distinctive design. Each spread has a saturated black background and Ignotofsky uses one bright colour to highlight the women's portraits and the text.
A Galaxy of Her Own: Amazing Stories of Women in Space
Libby Jackson (Century)
"The whole universe is out there. And it's waiting for you." This attractive hardback chronicles the lives of the women behind the Apollo space missions, from Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space (June 1963) to Peggy Whitson, who has completed 10 space walks and holds the record for the most days in space by an American astronaut. Jackson is a space expert and the exuberant illustrations by students from the London College of Communication send this fascinating book into orbit.