Another end of year list, but mine’s much later than everybody else’s, so that’s alright! What a bumper year it’s been, and what a thankless task it is to try and select ten titles from across the world of children’s comics, picture books and novels.
So high was the quality that I’ve had to leave out incredible, boundary pushing picture books like Jon Klassen’s conclusion to his ‘hat trilogy‘ and Julia Sarda’s gorgeously quirky the Liszts.
In fiction a slew of superb debuts like Peter Bunzl’s Cogheart and Jennifer Bell’s The Uncommoners sat alongside new editions of assured future classics like Frances Hardinge’s Costa double award winning the Lie Tree (illustrated by Chris Riddell) and Sarah Crossnan’s incredible One.
So what did make the cut in 2016?
Du iz Tak by Carson Ellis (Walker)
Following 2015’s Home, a series of tableaux of people’s dwellings, Carson Ellis returns with another static picture book, this one focusing on a single scene unfolding over the course of a season. These snapshots are packed with life, as an insect cast puzzles over the arrival of a green shoot, and discuss what to do with it, while a fiddle playing cricket looks on and a cocooned pupa slowly transforms. The twist here is Ellis’s invention of a new nonsense language, part Jaberwocky, part Teletubbies, but entirely understandable for any age.
Geis by Alexis Deacon (Nobrow)
The first in a three part comic book fantasy by the illustrator of Soonchild and I am Henry Finch, Geis feels like a masterpiece in the making. Alexis Deacon takes a familiar fairy tale set up in which fifty souls compete to become the ruler of a medieval kingdom. Aside from the transcendent artwork, Deacon brings his skills as a picture book artist to the comic book form, using imagery to reveal hidden depths beyond the often sparse speech bubbles. With multiple points of view to explore and the competition only just underway, there is so much still to discover in this story.
The Beginning Woods by Malcolm McNeill (Pushkin Press)
The Beginning Woods is a story that crosses genre, culture and age boundaries with happy abandon. Beginning with a mysterious series of ‘vanishings’ that threaten the stability and future of humanity, it shifts into a foundling fairy tale before crossing over into full blown epic fantasy quest. With stylistic shifts and linguistic invention the story soars, like the balloon dwelling ‘forever parents’ of its sort-of-hero towards a deeply emotional conclusion. Fittingly, debut author Malcolm McNeill’s book has had a suitably unusual journey into the world; passed over by British publishers it was first published in German before being picked up by the translation specialists Pushkin Press. The novel, finally published in English in 2016, is in effect a new English language version of a German translation, and as such feels deeply, darkly European. And you can’t say that about many British things that came out of this horrible year.
Cloth Lullaby by Isabelle Arsenault and Amy Novesky (Abrams)
For anyone who believes that picture books are purely for pre-schoolers, I demand they read this biographical story dealing with the artist Louise Bourgeois’ life long relationship with fabric. Unspooling like a thread made by one of the enormous spiders that came to define her artistic career, or the river that runs past her childhood home, or more specifically the lines that wove through her mother’s extravagant tapestries, Cloth Lullaby is a poetic tribute to the power of art to transform and nourish a person’s life.
Beetle Boy by M.G Leonard (Chicken House)
Another great debut, this one from Maya Leonard, Beetle Boy reads like something in the classic vein of children’s stories I grew up with from the 1970s (it would make a superb Jackanory read by Kenneth Williams or Bernard Cribbins). All your favourite elements are here: Missing parents, eccentric uncles, streetwise sidekicks and a deliciously devilish (or De Vil-ish) baddy. But it’s the wholly original inclusion of a cast of characterful beetle heroes that makes the book stand out. I was unsure about the announcement of a sequel, as the book feels brilliant as a standalone – but this taster chapter of Beetle Queen quickly put my fears to rest.
The Journey by Francesca Sanna (Flying Eye)
I almost didn’t include this book, for the the slightly churlish reason that it appears on literally every end of year list. But there’s a very good reason for that, as a slow, lingering re-read reminded me. The Journey is a book every child, every parent and every politician should be made to sit down with as we enter this uncertain new period in world politics. A humanistic take on her own meetings with real life refugees, Francesca Sanna weaves their tales into a powerful fairy tale that deals with the loss of home, family and the effects of monstrous, monolithic authority. Sad, scary, but above all beautiful, it’s a much needed hopeful tonic in these hate and fear filled times.
Les Royaumes du Nord (Northern Lights) Tome 3 by Philip Pullman – adapted by Stéphane Melchior and Clément Oubrerie (Gallimard)
The graphic novel conclusion of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is completely breathtaking. Each book in Stéphane Melchior and Clément Oubrerie’s French language translation has managed to convey a different side of the story, from the Saturday matinee thrills of Lyra’s flight in book one, to the widescreen wonder of her arrival in the frozen north in book two. Here we are in full epic mode as the story reaches the blood spattered clash between two armoured polar bears in their titanic kingdom. It’s a final act that also offers a tantalising glimpse of the wonders yet to come.
Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans (David Fickling Books) and There May Be a Castle by Piers Torday (Quercus)
It’s not unusual that two books come along dealing with a similar themes or subject matter. Whether it’s teen vampires or wizarding schools, publishers love to give readers what they want. But two stories about children suffering huge trauma and finding themselves trapped in fantasy worlds populated by living breathing versions of their toys? Less common, but that’s what’s happened here, presumably entirely coincidentally. Both books are quite brilliant and completely distinctive. Lissa Evans places her heroes in a primary coloured nightmare garden, whose inhabitants are segregated on colour lines (green, blue and yellow rather than black and white). Piers Torday’s medieval toyland (reviewed and soundtracked here) is equally vivid but has humour weighted by a serious sense of danger and packing a serious emotional punch.
The Roman Empire by Isabel and Imogen Greenberg (Frances Lincoln Books)
The author of the Encyclopedia of Early Earth, Isabel Greenberg together with her sister Imogen, presents the first in a series of outstanding non-fiction guides to early Western civilization. The Roman Empire proved a huge hit with my Rick Riordan and Asterix obsessed daughter, and would I suspect make the subject accessible to even the most history averse reader. Along with all the necessary facts and figures and fantastic visuals, it’s the Greenbergs’ dryly witty sense of humour that caught my attention – I particularly enjoyed the moment where our smiley narrator Octavia stands over the bloody body of Julius Caesar and cheerfully informs us he has been stabbed 23 times. Also available in the Discover! series is a book on the Ancient Egyptians and forthcoming titles on the Greeks and Aztecs.
Un Grand Jour de Rien by Beatrice Alemagna (Albin Michel Jeunesse)
The most beautiful picture book of the year, no contest. Un Grand Jour de Rien (a great day of nothing) was published in France in the Autumn and stood out with it’s beautiful palette of autumnal browns and arresting day-glo orange. Beatrice Alemagna, who also illustrated Astrid Lindgren’s Lotta in 2016, is an artist whose style is as free spirited as the children she depicts. Here we follow a bored boy on a journey into nature, which he discovers is every bit as entrancing as the game boy he loses in the unknown depths of a muddy lake.