The best books for your children this Christmas
Sarah Webb on the best stories to put under the tree for young readers
It's heartening to know that, despite all predictions, children are still embracing printed books like never before. Recent research in Norway proves what enlightened educators have suspected for some time: readers absorb less information when reading on a device than when reading on paper, and physical books provide a more immersive experience.
There are many beautifully produced 'real' books for all ages this Christmas, sure to flame children's enduring love for the printed page. I've chosen my favourite books of 2014 in each age category.
First up are the youngest readers of age two to five, although as the famous New Zealand author and bookseller, Dorothy Butler, once said: "Babies are never too little to look." Irish picture book maker, Chris Haughton was the worthy winner of an Irish Book Award for his stellar picture book Shh! We Have a Plan (Walker Books, £11.99). The quirky tale of a bunch of inept bird catchers who are determined to snare some colourful prey, its pages glow with vibrant blues, pinks and greens, a fiesta for the eyes.
A highly successful graduate of IDAT who is now based in London, Yasmeen Ismail was also shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards for Specs for Rex (Bloomsbury, £6.99). Little lion Rex has to wear his glasses to school for the first time and tries to conceal them in a host of different ways. But thanks to his newly enhanced eye-sight, he manages to spot something very special. A heart-warming tale with expressive watercolour illustrations that zing with colour.
Other picture book favourites are The Something by Rebecca Cobb (Macmillan, £11.99) about a mysterious hole in a child's back garden; and The Wonder by Faye Hanson (Templar, £6.99), an ode to daydreaming and the power of the imagination with delicious, carnival-like artwork.
For little readers, or for reading aloud. . . a good one is Brian and the Vikings (O'Brien Press). This is a cute picture book adventure story about Brian, who may be the smallest boy in the village but he's also the smartest! When Vikings invade, it's Brian to the rescue with a cunning plan! From Irish Book Award nominees Chris Judge & Mark Wickham.
The new series of small paperbacks from Poolbeg called In a Nutshell make great stocking fillers and they're just a few euro each. They retell the old Irish stories in brief but don't lose any of the drama. There's Diarmaid and Gráinne and the Vengeance of Fionn, The Adventures of Maebh the Warrior Queen (above) and several others to choose from.
Young readers of six plus (and their parents) will love Belfast-man Oliver Jeffers' stunning large format picture book, Once Upon an Alphabet (HarperCollins, £20), which is packed with short stories for each letter. Some tales are whimsical, others laugh-out-loud funny, all are exquisitely illustrated. This is a book to pour over and to treasure for years to come.
Goth Girl and the Fete Worse Than Death by Chris Riddell (Macmillan, £10.99) is one of the most beautifully produced books I've ever seen for this age group. The tale of Ada Goth, her vampire nanny and poet father, it's highly inventive and exquisitely written and illustrated. A classic in the making and a joy to read aloud. (Age 7+)
Other favourites for younger readers of age 7+ are Cakes in Space by Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve (OUP, £8.99), a fun space adventure with zany illustrations; and Animalium by Katie Scott and Jenny Broom (Big Picture Press, £20), a magnificent natural history book with exceptional illustrations. Honourable mention must also go to My First Book of Irish Animals by Juanita Browne (Browne Books, £8.99), a handsomely illustrated book that would interest any young naturalist age six plus.
A book that has stayed with me all year is Sarah Lean's The Forever Whale (left, HarperCollins, £6.99). Hannah's granddad is losing his memory but there's one last story he needs to tell her. A wonderful tale full of hope and wonder for age nine plus.
I adored the hilarious Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (Penguin, £12.99), and Roddy Doyle's clever and funny, Brilliant (Scholastic £9.99), brought to life by Chris Judge's striking illustrations; and Judi Curtin is going from strength to strength with Viva Alice (O'Brien Press, €7.99), the latest in the bestselling friendship series. (All age 8/9+)
Older readers of 11 or 12 plus are spoiled for choice this season with two beautifully written stories about family secrets from Irish authors, both featuring 'apple' titles: The Apple Tart of Hope by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald (Orion, £10.99), and Apple and Rain (above) by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury, £10.99). Both highly recommended for readers who like hard-hitting tales about real-life situations.
Derek Landy gives his epic fantasy-horror series a fitting end in Skulduggery Pleasant: The Dying of the Light (HarperCollins, £10.99); and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic, £10.99), a graphic novel for readers of 11+ about two sisters on a family road trip, is perfect for those hard-to-buy-for 'cool' tweens. For older teens who aren't big readers, try Girl Online by vlogger, Zoe Suggs (Penguin, £12.99) for the cool factor, not for the carefully constructed prose.
It's been an outstanding year for YA (young adult) fiction with Clonakilty girl Louise O'Neill crowned as Best Newcomer at the Irish Book Awards and also shortlisted for the new YA Prize in the UK. Her exceptional teen dystopian novel, Only Ever Yours (Quercus, £7.99) is set at a chilling 'School', where 'eves' are bred to be companions to wealthy 'Inheritant' boys. A stunning debut that deserves to be read. Kim Hood's Finding a Voice (O'Brien Press, €7.99) has also been shortlisted for the YA Prize and combines strong writing with an authentic teen voice. Jo's mother has mental health problems, making Jo an outsider at school. But when she meets Chris, a boy with problems of his own, things slowly start to change.
Actor and writer Eoin Macken's powerful Young Adult novel Kingdom of Scars (above, Poolbeg) is about Sam, a shy, 15-year-old boy who has to face the bullies in his upmarket school and the gang in the area where he lives. A gritty story about growing up, friendship and betrayal that perfectly captures the confusion and longings of teenage years, this crossover novel will appeal to adults as well as teen readers. It was on the Best Newcomer shortlist at the Irish Books Awards.
The prose in E L Lockhart's We Were Liars (Hot Key, £7.99) is sharp and perfectly measured. The mercurial tale of a rich, dysfunctional American family, set on their own private island; the author's dexterous plotting and original characters blew me away.
Dublin-based writer, Brian Conaghan's When Mr Dog Bites (Bloomsbury, £7.99) is the story of Dylan Mint, a 16-year-old with Tourettes. It's brave, achingly authentic and not for the faint hearted. With some stand-out dialogue and some equally stand-out swearing (be warned), this book will make you think and laugh out loud, often both at the same time.
And talking of laughs. . . What's blue and white and sits in the corner of your kitchen? It's The Fridge in a Denim Jacket, which happens to be the title of the Special 25th anniversary edition of Zig & Zag's bestselling joke book - for all ages! From O'Brien Press.
Finally if your teen loves John Green, they will certainly enjoy Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (Macmillan, £7.99) a sparkling coming-of-age novel set in an American university which perfectly captures, to quote Joni Mitchell: the "moons and Junes and ferris wheels" of young love. Happy reading!
Beyond the Stars: Twelve Tales of Adventure, Magic and Wonder, compiled by Sarah Webb (HarperCollins £12.99) is out now