I’m sure you’ve seen quite enough end of year lists already, but a few people have asked, so here are some my favourites from 2015. First up a selection of the finest picture books and graphic novels from this ridiculously strong year.
Imelda and the Goblin King by Briony May Smith (Flying Eye)
I could have easily filled this list with titles from Flying Eye Books, the boutique publisher who have had something of an annus mirabilis. But I’ve managed to restrict myself to just two titles, the first of which is the first book by Briony May Smith. Imelda and the Goblin King is a classic tale of fairy folk and bully boys. Every stroke of Smith’s pen is alive, with even the tiniest of details packed with character. It’s a story you’ll keep coming back to well beyond 2015.
We Go to the Gallery by Miriam Elia (Dung Beetle)
You couldn’t avoid Ladybird books over the Christmas period, not the originals but a series of ‘ironic’ reimaginings with titles like the Hipster, the Hangover and Mindfulness. They became the best selling books of the season, a fact that must have come with an added layer of grim irony for artist Miriam Elia. She was the creator of the original Ladybird parody, We go to the Gallery, a spot on recreation of the ‘Key Words’ series, and an effective demolition of the worst of contemporary art. Unfortuantely Penguin (who now own Ladybird) didn’t see the funny side and attempted to sue Elia for breach of copyright. Having forced her to pulp the remaining copies of her original print run, they ripped off her idea and produced their own inferior versions. If you haven’t succumbed yet, please ignore these pale imitations of the genuinely brilliant We go to the Gallery.
The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes (Flying Eye)
There’s fierce competition out there, but I think Emily Hughes is the most exciting new artist making picture books today. Emily grew up in Hawaii but has lived in the UK since she was 17, and her work reflects the two landscapes of her life. Following the instant classic ‘Wild’, The Little Gardener takes place in a fairy tale forest that has been uprooted from the English countryside and is now blooming in the tropical conditions of her own Hawaiian garden.
Asterix and the Missing Scroll by Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad (Hachette)
Unlike the Tintin series which died with its creator Herge, the Asterix franchise has continued well beyond the death of writer René Goscinny in 1977. Illustrator Alberto Uderzo soldiered on with his own stories until his retirement in 2011, and it would be fair to say that the contribution of his partner was missed more and more as time went on. The announcement of an entirely new creative team was initially cause for concern, but as it turned out its seen a revival of the classic originals. Ferri and Conrad really hit their stride in this second volume, which like the recent Star Wars movie is both uncannily in the spirit of the original but totally contemporary.
100 Great Children’s Picture Books by Martin Salisbury (Laurence King)
The antidote to unsatisfying polls like this one from the BBC, which deliver lists of unarguable classics but offer up few surprises. Martin Salisbury has taken the other tack in 100 Great Children’s Picture Books. Instead of trying create a comprehensive list he’s put together a highly personal selection using an ‘un-academic, unscientific criteria, ultimately based on the ‘wow factor’. 100 Great Children’s Picture Books constantly propels the reader off in search of forgotten illustrators and lesser known works. It’s one of those books that will inspire a lifetime of discovery.
Les Royaumes du Nord (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman adapted by Stephane Melchior and Clement Oubrerie (Gallimard).
It’s been twenty years since Philip Pullman published the first part of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Now, finally, we have the first part in the comic strip adaptation of the series. Northern Lights will unfold over three separate volumes, with the whole series comprising an epic ten books. This curtain raiser suggests it will be as unmissable as the original sequence of novels – and the perfect taster of Pullman’s forthcoming Book of Dust. In March I asked him about this new adaptation. The book has since been translated into English, though if you can handle the French I’d go for that as it’s twice the size and much classier.
Alpha by Isabelle Arsenault (Walker)
The ABC picture book (or ‘Abecedarian’) has a long noble tradition that entered the modern era with Brian Wildsmith’s revolutionary ABC, and continued with titles like the Ahlbergs’ warm and witty Baby’s Catalague. 2015 saw two new wonderful titles, Oliver Jeffers’ ‘One Upon an Alphabet’ and my personal pick, Isabelle Aesenault’s subline Alpha. Using the NATO phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Beta, Charlie etc), Arsenault provides lateral, witty illustrations inviting older readers well versed in the alphabet to investigate more deeply the meanings behind the pictures.
Home by Carson Ellis (Candlewick)
Home, is the long awaited first solo title by Carson Ellis, the American illustrator and co-creator (with husband Colin Melloy) of the Wildwood books. It’s hard to think where else you’d find a Japanese businessman in a hollowed out rock living next door and a Norse god. In Ellis’s world they’re perfect neighbours. We visit every conceivable type of residence, from a cosy Russian nook right up to the home of a Moonian and back down to earth for a peak into Ellis’s own rural homestead. Ellis combines fantasy, fairy tale and Americana for a unique look at the world, reminding the reader that there’s no place like Home.
The Christmas Eve Tree by Emily Sutton (Walker)
The story of a fir tree that finds itself unsold at Christmas and is rescued from a department store bin by a homeless boy. He plants it in a box and takes it to his shelter under a railway bridge where it creates an unexpected stir, and bit of Christmas magic. The Christmas Eve tree was my personal favourite in a really strong year for Christmas stories. Illustrator Emily Sutton talked to me about the book in December and chose some of her own Christmas favourites.
The Marvellous Fluffy Squishy Itty Bitty by Beatrice Alemagna (Thames and Hudson)
A second entry for Beatrice Alemagna, one of the modern masters of the picture book form (see Marin Salisbury’s book above). I spoke to the Italian born Alemagna in the summer and she explained her approach to children’s books as a continual reinvention. The Marvellous Fluffy… which mixes painting, collage and drawing is Alemagna’s first attempt at a ‘narrative style adventure to tell the power of “imagination”.‘ And with a central character who contains the best of Pippi Longstocking and Eloise this is a hugely attractive concoction.