My best of the best
This year I have not always completely agreed about the quality of some of the children’s books lauded on social media. I have to admit that some new titles by writers I much admire have rather disappointed. I have nevertheless had many wonderful reads, some of which seem to pass by with less media attention than others. I have tried throughout the year to highlight these whenever I could.
Here are the books that have thrilled me the most; the ones that, had I still been teaching, I would have been recommending the most enthusiastically to young readers. There will of course have been many others I have missed. I can only hope that I will catch up with some of them in the future.
For starters, there were three eagerly anticipated additions to outstanding sequences that most certainly did not disappoint. Celine Kiernan’s trilogy The Wild Magic is one of the most original and engaging children’s fantasy creations of recent years and The Promise Witch has now brought it to a thrilling conclusion, adding layers of rich, fresh imagination to the resonance of traditional Irish storytelling.
Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother sequence is already a classic of contemporary children’s fiction and deservedly so. Combining fantasy elements with a prehistoric setting, it brings not only compulsive adventure but also an intense sensitivity to both the reality and the spirituality of the natural world. For a long while, we all thought the series had ended, and the author had moved on, but she has now returned to it with Viper’s Daughter. With this new addition she has taken up seamlessly and gloriously from where she left off, albeit with now slightly older protagonists.
Way top of this little group, though, comes the new instalment of The Wizards of Once from Cressida Cowell. This series had been a joyful triumph from the start, and now this fourth part, Never and Forever, is its crowning glory. In my original review I called it ‘the apotheosis of children’s fantasy fiction’ and I stand by that view. A riot of fun and fantasy, visual as well as verbal, it ensures delightful entertainment. But there are depths here too for readers to explore and grow through. Cressida Cowell’s writing has a thoughtfulness behind its infectious energy, and, amongst other things, has much to say about the importance of story itself.
Here are two stand-out books that epitomise good, old-fashioned storytelling, in the very best sense. They each construct narrative that, even if far-fetched and at times melodramatic, is nevertheless compulsively gripping. However, they also underlay its many conflicts and dramas with a wholesome warm-heartedness that promotes such eternally important qualities as friendship, loyalty and courage. They are the sort of stories where you can be sure that goodness will prevail and wrongs will, in the end, he righted, however bleak events along the way. In this they belong to a fine tradition of children’s fiction that traces right back to the likes of Frances Hodgson Burnett and Edith Nesbit. Lucy Strange’s The Ghost of Gosswater is not so much a ghost story as a historical Romance, a sort of young readers’ Jane Eyre, whilst Natasha Farrant’s Voyage of the Sparrowhawk is a most endearing example of a classic children’s adventure, set against a background of WWI. These are not books to change the world, but they are wonderful books to snuggle up with and lose yourself in.
My top three novels or 9-12s
My top favourite books are here because they are not simply entertaining reads, but examples of the highest quality writing. They are also refreshingly original and have a great deal to say to young readers about the world we live in and the people we share it with. Two of these titles are from US authors, but both have been published this year here in the UK, so I have no hesitation in including them in recommendations for a British audience, As happens, each of these three novels, in its own particular way, speaks very eloquently about our relationship with nature, contrasting this tellingly with the man-made realities with which we all have to deal on a daily basis.
The novel that made the biggest impression on me this year was undoubtedly Katya Balen’s breathtaking October, October.
This book is stunningly beautiful in both its thought and its language. It takes us intimately inside the mind of a fellow-human being in a way that is both enriching and deeply moving. Its intensity and passion bring both the experiences of its young protagonists and those of its readers into fresh sharp focus in way that is truly life-enhancing. It is a very fine book indeed.
Not very far behind at all in my estimation is Lauren Wolk’s Echo Mountain. This explores many of the same themes, but in the very different context of rural, ‘back woods’ America. Any feeling of unfamiliarity with the setting is, however, rapidly banished by the immersive qualities of the storytelling. Again the writing is superb and the book’s captivating characters and evocative world-building are completely mesmerising; deeply human and richly humanising. This author has already written several brilliant children’s books, and this new one certainly joins them in my not-to-be-missed category.
Sara Pennypacker’s Here in the Real World tackles head on the tensions between a need to live in the world as it is and a desparate wish to improve it. Yet it does this in a simple but intensely lyrical way, by intimately sharing the experiences of two children as they try to build their own personal ‘paradise’ on a patch of waste ground. The narrative is built around some of the most telling, and moving, dialogue that I have come across in many years. This book is funny and honest, original, idiosyncratic, specific and yet universal. Much of its unique potency is almost impossible to describe and it is a classic candidate for a recommendation that says, ‘Just read it.’
All three of these novels are challenging. They are what might be called quiet books and will appeal to sensitive, committed readers, rather than to those seeking easy entertainment. They are, however, also powerful books that will reward hugely children who are open to the many layers of richness within their gentle, thoughtful storytelling.
The very best of YA
In and amongst the many contemporary YA titles are to be found examples of truly high quality literature; books which can stand comparison with the finest from any genre. Here to prove the case are three such novels. They are stunningly written, original and utterly compelling.
Patrick Ness already has an reputation of considerable standing, and his latest book Burn is amongst his very best. A complex work, it mixes genres in a gripping story that is both fantasy and not fantasy. It it is threaded through with the most sensitive exploration of close relationships, including young love between both opposite and same sex couples. It is a passionate book, and an empowering one. It is deeply disturbing and deeply moving. It is grotesquely violent and sweetly tender, thoughtful and yet viscerally excitingly. It is, in short, remarkable.
The Wolf Road, an equally impressive book from Richard Lambert, is all the more remarkable for being this author’s debut. Here, the intense loss felt by an adolescent boy after the sudden, traumatic death of both parents is played out against a bleak Lake District landscape, where nature provides potent images of his journey through grief. As befits its subject, this is a harrowing book and its narrative grips like a hand around the throat. Not for the young, or indeed for the faint-hearted, it illuminates humanity by focusing on its contorted shadow. It is a masterclass in both writing and storytelling.
Although set in the seventeenth century, Finbar Hawkins’s Witch does not so much tell a historical story of ‘witches’, but rather uses this context as background for what is essentially an exploration of character. And a very powerful study it is too. It is a violent, sometimes horrific tale. But at its heart is a story about the power and potency of sisterhood, both within and beyond the family. It celebrates a collective female strength that can move beyond the oppression of a male-dominated world: it is a book that boys need to read as well as girls.The author conjures a potent feeling of period, pressingly real without ever seeming artificially archaic. Yet he creates a voice that speaks directly to us and to our world. By distancing things from us, he brings everything nearer. He shows us the past as a mirror, not as an oil painting. When the power of language and the power of story meld as thrillingly together as they do here, they make something very special, and very important.
And that which was lost . . .
Even though it is not a novel like these others, I cannot end this round up of my 2020 favourite children’s books without mentioning The Lost Spells, Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane’s follow up to the phenomenally, and deservedly, successful The Lost Words. The breathtaking effect of that earlier publication was much enhanced by the huge size of the pages themselves. This much smaller format book inevitably does not have quite the same impact. However both its spell poems and its art work are just as devastating and their creators’ passionate commitment to the wonders of the natural world around us is just as great. In fact the physically smaller volume has a special quality all of its own. It feels almost like a handbook for sensitising its readers to nature. And that is a wonderful thing.