In September 2019 the Guardian published the 100 best books of the 21st Century. It contained only five children’s titles, two of which were published in the year 2000 – wrong century – and featured ZERO picture books. Outrage! I was spurred to action and rallied the troops on Twitter.
The response nearly broke my mentions: over 1000 votes and 600 nominated books later and I had what felt like a pretty representative list of the vast range of incredible books published since 2001.
100. A Series of Unfortunate Events: The End (series) by Lemony Snicket and Brett Helquist (2006)
If you are interested in lists with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other list. The End, was the thirteenth installment of Daniel Handler’s baroque tragical comedy. Be warned reader, I have grouped together votes for books that are part of a [series] and assigned them to a single title. This is partly to account for votes made for books in series that straddled the centuries, but mainly to avoid cluttering up the list with too much of the same thing.
99. If All the World Were by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Allison Colpoys (2018)
98. Life, an Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet (2011)
97. Vango by Timothée de Fombelle, translated by Sarah Ardizzone (2010)
96. There May be a Castle by Piers Torday (2016)
95. Phoenix by S.F. Said, illustrated by Dave McKean (2013)
There isn’t a lot of Sci-Fi on this list unfortunately, but there is a lot of illustrator Dave McKean. He’s the most popular creator on this list with 4 titles to his name. This ambitious space opera (written by master craftsman S.F. Said) features some of his most mind expanding visuals to date.
94. You Choose by Pippa Goodheart, illustrated by Nick Sharratt (2003)
93. A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond (2015)
92. My Swordhand is Singing by Marcus Sedgwick (2006)
91. The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield (2015)
90. The Serial Garden by Joan Aiken, illustrated by Peter Bailey (2008)
The longest serving author on the list, Joan Aiken gets a special mention here for this collection of stories about the Armitage family. The author of the Wolves of Willoughby Chase began writing these fantastical adventures as a teenager, and one of the earliest was accepted by the BBC in the late 1930s. She continued to revisit them right up to her death in 2004 and they were collected in this volume soon after.
89. Who Let the Gods Out? by Maz Evans (2001)
88. Pax by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen (2016)
87. Lockwood and Co. (series) by Jonathan Stroud (2013)
86. The Storm Whale by Benji Davies (2013)
85. The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius, translated by Peter Graves (2014)
One of the problems with any list about children’s books is an inevitable bias towards anglophone books. This one’s no different, with a measly 3 titles in translation. This elegantly illustrated Swedish gem follows the globetrotting adventures of a sentient ape called Sally Jones and deserves to be much better known.
84. Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo (2016)
83. Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers (2005)
82. Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders (2014)
81. Mrs Noah’s Pockets by Jackie Morris, illustrated by James Mayhew (2018)
80. Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce (2005)
This list should be filled with books by Frank Cottrell Boyce, the thinking child’s David Walliams. This is my personal favourite, a story about the power of art, family and community set in post industrial north Wales. Make this man the next Children’s Laureate, or better still Prime Minister.
79. The Worst Princess by Anna Kemp, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie (2012)
78. The Brilliant World of Tom Gates [series] by Liz Pichon (2011)
77. Lirael [series] by Garth Nix (2003)
76. Black Dog by Levi Pinfold (2013)
75. The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak (2014)
What’s not to love about a book for children that sets out to humiliate the adult reader? Innovative, rude and hugely funny it comes from one of the creators and stars of the US version of the Office – the only celebrity author to make this list. Bluurf!
70. The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell, illustrated by Gelrev Ongbico (2015)
‘Once upon a time, a hundred years ago there was a dark and stormy girl.’ So begins Katherine Rundell’s winter’s tale which draws on Grimm’s fairy tales and the work of Snoopy. This book already feels like a classic, a feat the author achieves with alarming regularity (see also numbers 23 and 13).
69. The Girl of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2016)
68. Beetle Boy by M.G. Leonard and Julia Sarda (2016)
67. Alex Rider: Scorpia [series] by Anthony Horowitz (2004)
66. Cloud Busting by Malorie Blackman, illustrated by Helen Van Vliet (2004)
65. Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds and Chris Priestly (2017)
Verse novels are definitely helping prop up the poetry stats on this list, with Malorie Blackman just behind the versatile US writer Jason Reynolds. There’s a reasonable (if not brilliant) showing for diverse voices on this list, which is good considering how few are actually published in the UK each year.
64. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems (2003)
63. The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (2015)
62. The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler (2003)
61. Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson (2001)
60. The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman, illustrated by Chris Wormell (2017)
Philip Pullman’s only appearance, thanks to the peculiarities of the Gregorian calendar which denied the many votes for the Amber Spyglass (2000). We also lost the super popular Holes (1998) to the 20th century. If you’ve got a problem, take it up with Pope Gregory, and the Magisterium.
59. Cherub: The Recruit [series] by Robert Muchamore (2004)
58. Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf (2018)
57. Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah (2001)
56. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne (2006)
55. Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love (2018)
Based around the real life Mermaid Parade which happens every June in New York’s Coney Island, Julian is a Mermaid is fabulous and absolutely brimming with joy. It was one of my books of 2018, if you’ve got time for another list.
54. Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll (2017)
53. The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd (2007)
52. I, Coriander by Sally Gardner, illustrated by Lydia Corry (2005)
51. Railhead by Philip Reeve (2015)
50. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo (2016)
The first of a seemingly endless tide of books about inspirational women from history, a case of children’s books being ahead of the zeitgeist. Before the #metoo and #timesup movements broke, Rebel Girls became an international phenomenon and part of a concerted effort to remember forgotten women’s stories. This is the only non-fiction book to make the list.
49. A Boy Called Christmas [series] by Matt Haig, illustrated by Chris Mould (2015)
48. Fortunately the Milk by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell (2013)
47. How to Train Your Dragon [series] by Cressida Cowell (2003)
46. Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn (2002)
45. The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson, illustrated by Kathrin Honesta (2019)
The newest book on the list (published just a month ago), Sophie Anderson creates enchanted stories with their roots in Slavic folklore. Her hugely imaginative debut, the House with Chicken Legs, features higher up the list and makes another memorable appearance here.
44. Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce (2004)
43. The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb (2012)
42. Codename Verity by Elizabeth Wein (2012)
41. The Wizards of Once [series] by Cressida Cowell (2017).
40. Coraline by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean and Chris Riddell (2002)
Coraline is a fusion of the best bits of Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl matured in Gaiman’s own vast imagination for over a decade. Strange and unsettling but also magical and funny this was the author’s first novel for children and remains his best.
39. Inkheart [series] by Cornelia Funke, translated by Anthea Hunt (2003)
38. Skulduggery Pleasant [series] by Derek Landy (2007)
37. Wolf Brother [series] by Michelle Paver (2004)
36. One by Sarah Crossan (2015)
35. Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler (2001)
The only author on the list to have an entire section of WHSmith’s dedicated to her, Julia Donaldson has her highest of three entries with a tale of a witch and her broom taxi service. Sublime rhymes and intoxicating artwork by partner Axel Scheffler make this better than the Gruffalo.
34. The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay (2018)
33. The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (2013)
32. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman (2001)
31. The Truth Pixie by Matt Haig, illustrated by Chris Mould (2018)
30. The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge (2015)
The fact that this won the overall Costa book of the year is the least interesting thing about Frances Hardinge’s Victorian fantasy. Science, superstition and gothic grand guignol combine as one of children’s fiction’s best drawn heroines embarks on a quest to uncover the fate of her father aided by a tree that feeds on her lies.
29. The Storm Keeper’s Island by Katherine Doyle (2018)
28. Once [series] by Morris Gleitzman (2005)
27. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (2004)
26. The Legend of Podkin One-Ear [series] by Kieran Larwood, illustrated by David Wyatt (2016)
25. You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum! [series] by Andy Stanton and David Tazzyman (2006)
There aren’t enough funny books on this list, no Walliams, Wimpy Kid or Captain Underpants. The highest charting is the best of the bunch though. The Mr Gum books mix surreal humour and wild wordplay accompanied by David Tazzyman’s fittingly gonzo illustrations.
24. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)
23. The Explorer by Katherine Rundell, illustrated by Hannah Horn (2017)
22. The Fault in our Stars by John Green (2012)
21. The Wee Free Men [series] by Terry Pratchett (2003)
20. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (2003)
One of the few points of overlap with the Guardian’s list (where it came in one place higher), the Curious Incident was a massive crossover success at a time when it appeared books for children and adults were entering the same cultural sphere. This first person account of a boy with undisclosed ‘behavioural problems’ was a forerunner of a raft of YA novels that focused difference not disability.
19. Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend (2017)
18. Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer (2001)
17. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell and Dave McKean (2008)
16. Oi! Frog [series] by Kes Gray, illustrated by Jim Field (2014)
15. The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane, illustrated by Jackie Morris (201).
Nature writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris’s book is a true passion project, rhapsodising about the disappearing words used to describe our natural world. This big, beautiful book inspired one reader to launch a crowdfunding campaign that put a copy in every Scottish primary school.
14. Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell. MG, 2013
13. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief [series] by Rick Riordan (2005)
12. The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson (2018)
11. Varjak Paw by S.F. Said, illustrated by Dave McKean (2003)
10. The Arrival by Shaun Tan (2006)
It filled my heart to see so much love for this astonishing work of art. The story of an immigrant arriving in an unnamed city that is part US metropolis, part sci-fi dreamworld. Entirely wordless this moving meditation on struggle and the power of community is also the only graphic novel on the list.
9. The Knife of Never Letting Go [series] by Patrick Ness (2008)
8. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005)
7. Mortal Engines [series] by Philip Reeve (2001)
6. The Hunger Games [series] by Suzanne Collins (2008)
5. I Want my Hat Back [series] by Jon Klassen (2011)
I love this list. Nestling incongruously among the dystopian drama and blockbuster kidlit franchises is this hilariously deadpan picture book about a bear in search of his hat. Jon Klassen went on to pen two more hat based mysteries and completed a trilogy to rival the Hunger Games or Harry Potter.
4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows [series] by J.K Rowling (2007)
3. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017)
2. Wonder by R.J. Palacio (2012)
1. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Siobhan Dowd, illustrated by Jim Kay (2011)
The winner, by some margin, is this unique book about a boy dealing with the terminal illness of his mother. Intensely powerful, it is the product of three brilliant creators; Ness, who has another classic in the top ten wrote the book based on an idea from Siobhan O’Dowd author of the London Eye Mystery (53). Jim Kay is on art duties and his visceral black and white images become one with the text to produce an overwhelmingly immersive experience.