Hot on the heels of yesterday’s list of my favourite picture books and graphic novels of 2015 comes another ten books for children, these ones containing more words than pictures. It’s a stupidly broad category that includes stories about trains, wolves, refugees, pills, Christmas, tigers and tapirs. And that’s just how I like it.
Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders (Faber & Faber)
Much has been written about Kate Saunders terrific sequel to E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It books, but I’m not convinced enough people have read it yet. Published in paperback in 2015 I read it to my children who were absoultely gripped by the characters and the first world war setting. It did exactly what a good sequel should do – send the reader back to the original. And it’s saying something that after over a century apart none of us spotted the joins. In more exciting news Saunders has now signed up to write a sequel to Winnie the Pooh.
A Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig and Chris Mould (Canongate)
How did Father Christmas come to be? It’s a blindingly obvious question but one that’s rarely been answered. Author Matt Haig seized on the brilliant idea after his son asked him “What was Father Christmas like as a boy?” He answers it in a story that is funny, brilliantly paced and with moments of total heartbreak. If you’ve not read it yet, do so right away – this is a Christmas book that’s not just for Christmas.
Cloud 9 by Alex Campbell (Hot Key)
Alex Campbell follows up her Carnegie nominated YA ‘Land’ with another dystopian story, this time set in a world not too far away from our own. Cloud 9 asks what if we had to be happy all the time? When a wonder drug that cures all mental ills with no noticable physical side effects becomes compulsory, two teenagers begin to wonder whether they aren’t actually being enslaved by the pill. The book also cleverly taps into the manipulative possibilities of social media, exploring the sinister effects of online mind control. Full marks go to the design team behind the pill-popping cover which jumped out at me in the overcrowded YA section of the bookshop.
Mango & Bambang: The Not-a-Pig by Polly Faber and Clara Vulliamy (Walker)
Speaking of covers, Mango and Bambang was the absolute cream of the crop. Wrapped up by illustrator Clara Vulliamy and Walker books designer Louise Jackson in purple and white candy stripes complete with lots of gold trim, it’s a book that looks good enough to eat. I love Mango’s ‘girlhood of Louise Brooks’ styling and Bambang the tapir’s line in natty hats. Applause too for Polly Faber who has created a human and animal pairing to file alongside Arabel & Mortimer and Paddington and the Brown family. Completely delicious.
The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell and Gelrev Ongbico
After the unforgettable Rooftoppers, comes The Wolf Wilder, easily my most anticipated book of the year. ‘Once upon a time, a hundred years ago there was a dark and stormy girl’, Katherine Rundell begins. With echoes of the Brothers Grimm and the work of Snoopy, this is a book that already feels like a classic. The Wolf Wilder comes with gorgeous, atmospheric illustrations by Gelrev Ongbico. In September I asked Gelrev about the process of creating the images for this unforgettable tale of wolves, revolution and ballet in a dark and stormy Russia.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken (Folio)
My reissue of the year is the Folio Society’s splendid edition of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase with illustrations by Bill Bragg. Katherine Rundell is on wolf duty again, providing an introduction that alone is worth the (rather steep) entry fee. She writes ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase has everything I loved: train rides, snow, daring children, hidden passageways, unpredictable evil, moors, shipwrecks, bad behaviour, evocative food, shotguns, kind adults,and wolves.’
The Collectors by Philip Pullman (RHCP)
Still no Book of Dust in 2015, but Philip Pullman did deliver a little Amuse-bouche for lovers of His Dark Materials, a short story entitled The Collectors. It’s not what I expected at all, which is a good thing I think. We’re in another Oxford college, in an unspecified world, possibly our own, in winter time. A pair of academics in the M.R. James mould discuss two peculiar works of art, a painting of a beautiful but dangerous young woman and a statue of a malevolent monkey. Readers of the previous books will know who they are and that their presence, in whatever form, means things cannot end well…
Close to the Wind by Jon Walter (David Fickling Books)
Published in paperback this year, around the same time as tens of thousands of refugees arrived on our shores from Syria and other war torn countries, Close to the Wind brilliantly showed children the experience of fleeing from your homeland and into the unknown. The book’s genius is in its setting, a timeless, placeless environment that has what Jon describes as a ‘fable like quality’. There might be an unreality at play but there’s real jeopardy. The guns feel real, the tanks also, as do the pli… SPOILERS.
The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller (HarperCollins)
In The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life, Andy Miller draws up a ‘list of betterment’: of books he really ought to have read. Amongst the items up for discussion is The Tiger Who Came to Tea, deconstructed to brilliantly absurd levels. It sent me rushing back to the book to look again at the family: ‘None of them are looking at one another. Daddy holds a half-pint barrel glass of beer, but he is not drinking, and the look on his face is one of sadness, wistfulness, regret. Perhaps he blames himself for the tiger that ran amok while he was out. Or perhaps he is daydreaming the story we have just read… an irrational explanation of the life his wife and only child lead when he is not there.’ Miller’s book was so good it inspired me to begin a list of Betterment of my own.
Railhead by Philip Reeve (OUP)
With his new sci-fi epic Philip Reeve performed a similar leap of the imagination to the one he made with his Mortal Engines series. In Railhead the earth is a distant memory, its former inhabitants now spread to the farthest reaches of the solar system. The ingenious twist here is that instead of moving between planets in spaceships, people can now travel in rather splendid style – using sentient trains to blast through ‘K-Gates’, man made portals which lead through worm holes. This book was so cool I decided to made a Spotify playlist of music that inspired Reeve along along with a load of future sounds from my own record collection. It makes for a rather good New Years soundtrack too.
Happy new year everybody!