The Best Children’s Books of the year featured war, a walking house, boats (so many boats), rockets, a rockstar, an unfortunate ape, a lost magician, mermaids and more war. This is 2018.
The Day War Came by Nicola Davies illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
Hard to choose a favourite book from Nicola Davies in a year where the prolific writer of books about the natural world has published A First Book of the Sea (with Emily Sutton) and was nominated for the Kate Greenaway medal for King of the Sky, a moving pigeon based historical picture book illustrated by Laura Carlin.
The one that moved me most was a departure from her usual tales from nature. The Day War Came is a tale of a girl who loses everything in an unnamed conflict, and washes up, along with the shoes of lost children on a far away beach. In an unwelcoming new country she is again turned away, this time from school where there aren’t enough chairs, a detail prompted by a true story. This is an important, timely and deeply empathetic book. Visit helprefugees.org to help.
Through a Life by Tom Haugomat
This silent illustrated book is a meditation of a life spent in the shadow of the US space program as imagined by French graphic artist Tom Haugomat.
This spacious book, pardon the pun, works a little like a View-Master slide show. You click through the key moments of one man’s life between his birth in 1956 and the end of his life in 2026. All of the images in Through a Life are rendered in red, blue and beige, it’s incredibly stylish and really rather moving.
The Real Boat by Marina Aromshtam and Victoria Semykina (translated by Olga Varshaver)
The creation of Russian writer Marina Aromshtam and illustrator Victoria Semykina, this is a classic seafaring yarn about a happy little paper boat who leaves behind the gentle world of the duck pond and heads for the ocean to join the real boats.
Semykina’s collages are a particular revelation. Look out too for her atmospheric spot illustrations for the Irish fantasy novel Begone the Raggedy Witches with Celine Kiernan.
Coal Black Mornings Brett Anderson
Not a children’s book, but one of the best books about childhood I’ve read. Suede singer Brett Anderson spends the first half of this memoir recalling his unusual upbringing with the sort of clarity that many actual children’s book writer’s would kill for. Colourful is perhaps the wrong word to describe his unusual childhood, as every carefully chosen word is covered in a fine layer of coal dust, but the characterisation of his father is particularly vivid.
Anderson Sr. was an eccentric failure living in a sort of Bohemian bubble, a Liszt fanatic stranded in the middle of a poor council estate. He dominates the first half of a book which stubbornly refuses to fall for any sort of rock no roll cliches. Brett’s relationship with his mother and sister Blandine is somewhat easier, the latter introducing him to pop music and literature. As Brett wasn’t much of a reader, Blandine would pay him two pence an hour to listen to her read from Watership Down, Toliken or Rosemary Sutcliffe. Coal Black Mornings is packed with yards of this sort of lovely detail.
The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson
As strange and wonderful as you’d hope a coming of age story set in the shadow of a home built on chicken legs and surrounded by skulls might be. Based on folk stories about the witch Baba Yaga, with a good dash of the author’s own Slavic family heritage spicing the pot.
Captain Rosalie by Timothe de Fombelle and Isabelle Arsenault (translated by Sam Gordon)
The second book about war, this one set in France as the 1914-18 conflict rages somewhere in the distance. Rosalie is a girl who only remembers a time when there was war. She barely knows her father, who is fighting at the front, except through the hopeful letters that her mother regularly reads to her.
Rosalie isn’t interested in listening though, in her head she is Captain Rosalie, a girl on a mission to find out what is really going on with her father.
Quietly devastating, beautifully written and illustrated with a perfect blend of colour and shadows, this is a book about the way fact and fantasy combine so powerfully in the minds of young children.
More Would You Rather by John Burningham
A belated sequel to John Burningham’s 1978 classic of much the same name, More Would You Rather is a rowdy playground game that will be familiar to millions of children – and their weary parents.
My own son is particularly devilish at setting up impossible choices and moral traps for me to stumble into. More often than not I’ll cop out with a pathetic, ‘Well, I’d really rather neither.’ Forty years on, John Burningham proves to be an equally sharp and absurd player of the game.
The Lost Magician by Piers Torday
Continuing many of the ideas about imagination that he explored in his exceptional novel, There May Be a Castle, The Lost Magician could have been called There May Be a Wardrobe (but you won’t necessarily like what you find inside). It’s a deliberate attempt to take the template C.S. Lewis created for the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and to imagine it from a modern perspective.
The second world war has just finished and four siblings find their way into Folio, a world accessed through a hidden library and populated by warring fictional folk and their hard, logical non-fiction foes. There is none of Narnia’s religion in the Lost Magician, but Torday does believe in the power of a good book, and he’s certainly got one here.
The Legend of Sally Jones by Jakob Wegelius (translated by Peter Graves)
A picture book prequel to my favourite novel of last year, the utterly delightful Murderer’s Ape. Here we discover how Sally Jones, the gorilla with the worst luck in the world, came to be.
This simian series of unfortunate events sees Sally taken by hunters, sold to a jewel thief, then on to a circus, zoo and lowlife bar. Through it all she maintains a quiet dignity and impresses with her boundless ingenuity and deep loyalty. Poignant, with bags of heart and some knowing chuckles, you need the Legend of Sally Jones in your life.
Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
God, this book is fabulous and absolutely brimming with joy. Based around the real life Mermaid Parade which happens every June in New York’s Coney Island, Julian is a Mermaid tells the story of a boy determined to become the thing he loves.
Jessica Love observes this unique, New York milieu in much the same way as Maurice Sendak did back in the 1950s and 60s. In a book filled with wild, larger than life characters you recognise every one of them as real. It is a story about finding your place inside that world, about discovering yourself and your niche.