2017 was inevitably the year of Dust. Philip Pullman’s return to the world of His Dark Materials dominated the world of children’s books so completely that I’ve not quite been able to bring myself to read it yet. I think I’ll wait until the, ahem, dust has settled. In the meantime there were plenty of other fine new books to get excited about – including two more titles from Mr Pullman.
The Adventures of John Blake, a graphic novel lifted from the pages of the Phoenix failed to excite my comic book club too much in July. But I unconditionally loved Daemon Voices, a collection of essays and speeches that explored the master’s craft. This is no ‘how to’ guide, but rather an eccentric series of musings on Pullman’s thoughts, passions and prejudices. You get a greater sense of his inner life than any traditional memoir, and in that sense it’s akin to Alan Garner’s transcendent The Voice that Thunders.
A more straightforward guide to the world of juvenile literature was presented by Roderick Cave and Sara Ayad for the British Library’s History of Children’s Books in 100 Books. Set out thematically and chronologically (from a 4th Century BC Sumerian tablet to Harry Potter), this brilliant survey places as much emphasis on the books produced for children before Alice in Wonderland as it does the golden age classics of Milne etc. The effect of this broad sweep helps put the over familiar modern material in its historical context and is unexpectedly illuminating.
There was a pleasing resurgence of children’s poetry this year, led by the ridiculously beautiful The Lost Words. Nature writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris’s book is a true passion project, rhapsodising about the natural world and the book itself as an object of beauty. Everyone who has seen this book has fallen under its spell, and many even took to twitter to create their own acrostic ‘word spells’ for their favourite animals. As a self confessed indoor type of person, here’s my ode to the garden snail.
At the other end of the poetry spectrum was a book that was just as joyfully interactive as the Lost Words. My Mum’s Growing Down is Laura Dockrill’s long awaited collection of poems for younger readers. My daughter and I were in fits reading these odes to disgraceful mothers out loud. The performance poet has also found her perfect visual foil here in David ‘Mr Gum’ Tazzyman.
It was my great pleasure to hear the writer David Almond at the Arvon Foundation reading from his latest book for younger readers. The Tale of Angelino Brown (illustrated by Alex T Smith) is a quirky adventure of a tiny angel adopted by a grumpy bus driver and his wife. Whimsical, lyrical and gently funny this is quite a departure from his best known work, and has a charm all its own.
Tales of terror were well served this year. I wrote over Advent about Ross Montgomery’s uproarious ‘portmanteau’ horror, Christmas Dinner of Souls, and at the start of the year revisited the classic 1970’s comic of the strange and supernatural, Misty. A story that could easily have fitted into that publication was Pam Smy’s Thornhill. A haunted house tale told across two time zones it cuts between the diary entries from a troubled orphan in the 1980s and another bereaved girl in the present day who uncovers a mystery in silent graphic sequences. The way Smy draws these stories together is very clever and has a nasty, knuckle gnawing inevitability.
Young Adult fiction served up some deeply troubling reads. Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call mixed a Hunger Games scenario with Irish folklore set against a striking Hieronymus Bosch like horrorscape. In this twisted fairy tale, Irish teenagers find themselves snatched from the mortal plane for three minutes to survive an onslaught from fairy folk intent on literally turning their lives inside out.
In Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest, out in paperback this year, the villains of the piece were a breed of ultra wasps who take up residence outside the home of a family with a very sick baby. Much of the unease here comes not from the physical threat but the psychological torment felt by the elder brother as he grapples with his feelings towards his dying sibling. And when the wasps do finally unleash their plan the effect is gut wrenching.
The Nest features striking black and white illustrations by Jon Klassen, the Canadian illustrator who was very busy this year creating yet more outstanding picture books with his writing partner Mac Barnett. First up was Triangle, the opening salvo in their ‘Shape Trilogy’, memorably described by the writer Philip Reeve as the ‘Mr Men for hipsters.’ Possibly true, but Klassen has an ability to create three dimensional characters and situations out of the barest material and Barnett is one of the funniest picture book writers around.
Better still is The Wolf, The Duck and The Mouse, an outrageously funny take on Aesop, or Kipling’s Just So Stories. When a mouse is gobbled up by a wolf he finds the belly of the beast already inhabited by a duck, who has transformed the stomach into a homey living room complete with table cloth, record player and a never ending supply of meals provided by their long suffering host. But the inevitable arrival of a hunter threatens their sweet situation, and together they must face the danger.
My favourite comic books this year were both continuations of old favourites. Alexis Deacon, who spoke to me in October about the books that shaped him, returned to the intoxicating world of Geis. Part two of this trilogy was a richer, more satisfying read packed with the sort of detail that has made him one of the great children’s book illustrators.
Over at Marvel comics Rainbow Rowell, the popular YA author, together with Kris Anka, took on the huge task of reviving Runaways, the comic book series that launched the career of Brian K Vaughan (Saga, Y: The Last Man). It turned out to be a pitch perfect continuation that combined the excitement of the original with Rowell’s own strengths as a writer of teenage characters. We’re only on part four, but I’m hopeful this reformation of my favourite superhero team will continue to match the best of Vaughan’s original.
Whilst real world explorers like Benedict Allen have been accused of reviving racist colonial nostalgia this year, children’s books have once again embraced classic tales of derring do and faced these ethical difficulties head on. Katherine Rundell, a fan of Edwardian adventure narratives, sets her story The Explorer in the Amazon during this period. Retaining the pleasures of reading about survival and discovery in an inhospitable environment she also manages to weave the ethical dilemmas faced by her young hero into a satisfying character arc.
My final great read of 2017, The Polar Bear Explorers Club is a more fantastical take on the genre. The writing is based on the classic ‘boy’s own’ adventures, but mixes this with the warmth and sparkle of a Harry Potter adventure. In fact Alex Bell’s story with its cast of Snow Princess’s, Unicorns and carnivorous cabbages was one of the most fully formed magical worlds I have encountered since I first picked up Rowling’s work all those years ago.