2017 has been a wonderful year for children’s books. The increasing range of high quality books available is a joy to children’s book lovers such as me. However not all my favourite reads of the year were published in 2017 so rather than create a ‘best of 2017’ list that would miss out some of my personal favourites that have made this year such a happy reading one I want to mention my personal highlights of the last year instead.
The Secret of Nightingale Wood
Oh how I loved this wonderful story. A very accomplished debut by Lucy Strange this is beautifully written, poignant, and utterly captivating. A perfect book for bookworms.
Set in 1919 the Abbott family move to the country after a tragedy that has deeply affected them all. Henrietta, or Henry as she is known, discovers that their new home is full of secrets and finds herself drawn to the mysterious wood at the bottom of the garden where she meets Moth. A woman with secrets of her own.
This story will stay with me for a long time, it’s ages since I’ve read a book that made me feel as though I was 12 years old again but Lucy Strange managed to do just that. She has captured perfectly that creeping anxiety that children experience when they know something is seriously wrong but are excluded from conversations and kept in the dark. This feeling is magnified by the grief that envelops the whole family. Despite the themes of loss, mental health and the effects of war this is a story brimming with hope and in Henry a great deal of courage too. She is such a wonderful character teetering on the edge but determined to cope. I loved her relationship with her baby sister as it felt so genuine. Fabulous characters, all of them, with truly sinister baddies who are chilling without becoming unbelievable.
There May Be a Castle
It is hard for me to review this wonderful book by Piers Torday. I simply could not stop reading. Deceptively simple at first this became an overwhelming read that kept me up late at night as I had to finish it. The story and the characters, particularly Mouse, have stayed with me and I’ve a feeling they will continue to do so. This remarkable book is multi-layered and leaves the reader pondering the many different ideas it contains.
I’m reluctant to describe the scenario, although this has been done elsewhere, I believe that the impact of this book is partly due to the unexpectedness of its themes. I think the reader’s response will be affected by so many things including mood when reading it, previous experience and attitudes. It is, I think, an extremely moving and almost heartbreaking read and yet there is hope within its pages too. It is about families, love, bravery, loss and growing up. At its heart it is really also about the importance of stories. Discussions could be wide ranging after reading this but I wonder if it’s best left as a personal read. However I find myself wanting to share it with others and talk about it. Even as I read it I wanted to ask others for reassurance. As it dawned on me what was happening and what I feared may happen next I struggled with desperately wanting to find out but being full of trepidation too. Never have I wanted so much to peep at the last page to find out if all ended well.
There’s so much more to say about this book but quite honestly I don’t know where to start. But I loved it very much.
The Island at the End of Everything
Every so often you come across a book that is special. This is definitely one of those books. Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s gorgeous writing style is so evocative of both time and place that I felt transported to another world. Utterly engrossing I found myself glancing up and being slightly surprised that the real world was carrying on around me.
In Ami the author has created an unforgettable character that as a reader you grow to care about very much. Although there is much sadness in the story there is also love and courage and perhaps most importantly, hope. The ending is beautifully perfect.
Although set in the early 20th century this has a resonance today. The discussion of how fear can create hatred and how the two can cause such damage has a horrible familiarity. However the importance of friendship and love shines throughout the story and it is ultimately a hopeful read.
Truly a gem of a book for all ages.
A Story Like the Wind
A small group of people huddle together in a tiny boat in a large sea. Strangers to each other but united by a common experience. They have each lost everything and yet each has a dream of seeking and finding refuge. They each have hope. A small hope.
Thirteen-year old Rami has lost his family and is alone on the boat save for his beloved violin. As his fellow travellers share their stories and offer to share their meagre possessions and food with Rami he declines as he believes that he has nothing to share with them in return. However Rami is wrong. As he tells the others that his violin means everything to him and they ask him to show them why he realises that what he can share with them is the power of music and story to heal and to offer hope.
Gill Lewis was inspired to write this story by a photo of a young Syrian playing his violin in front of a barricade of riot police at a border control. It is this and the knowledge of the young refugees who have lost their lives in similar circumstances whilst trying to reach a better life that adds to the heart-breaking poignancy of this story. And yet this is not a story of despair. There is a quiet dignity about the refugees as they cling to their dream of freedom despite their circumstances. The link to the traditional Mongolian fable about the origins of the horsehead violin is beautifully executed and the two stories intertwine both in the text and the illustrations. The traditional tale of a boy and his much loved stallion is one of courage, freedom and standing up against oppressors and thus mirrors in some ways the refugees’ stories.
The illustrations by Jo Weaver are haunting and perfectly complement the text. Amnesty International has endorsed this book and this is hardly surprising as it eloquently celebrates our common humanity and nurtures the values of kindness, compassion and tolerance. As an adult I found this a compassionate and very moving read and yet I would highly recommend it as an excellent children’s book for confident readers. The subject is handled with care and thoughtfulness and there is much to celebrate within the book despite the sadness.
The Night Spinner (Dreamsnatcher 3)
The final, and in my opinion the best, book in the Dream Snatcher trilogy by Abi Elphinstone opens with Moll and Gryff back in Tanglefern Forest about to embark on their quest to find the last Amulet of Truth and defeat the terrible Shadowmasks and their dark magic once and for all. Their adventure begins with a night time journey by train to the far north where Moll and her friends must brave the barren northern wilderness, scale mountainous peaks, defeat goblins, bog-monsters, witches and giants while the sinister and evil Shadowmasks lurk unseen but always present. All the time Moll clings to the faint hope that her friend Alfie is not lost to them for ever.
Having followed Moll and her friends from the start I loved how much the characters have developed in this final story. Moll is a hero for today’s generation being brave, determined, resilient and loyal and, now she has matured, able, usually, to curb her impatience and impetuous behaviour when needed. Throughout the story the reader becomes aware of her thoughtfulness and kindness too. Her friend Siddy is now a much braver soul now but is still drawn to pets with a difference, this time a ferret called Frank who adds a touch of humour to the story. The central partnership of Moll and Gryff is key to the series and I know many young readers are particularly drawn to the wildcat. I thought some of the new characters had a striking impact too, in particular Kittlerumpit and Bruce.
Abi Elphinstone has again created a world that feels very real to the reader and this time the landscape is inspired by her native Scotland. The vivid descriptions convey a sense of scale and once again this highlights the enormity of the task facing the children. The map by Thomas Flintham at the beginning of the book is a lovely touch and enables the reader to follow the children’s trek and adds to the feeling of being part of Moll’s world. There is a lovely slightly traditional feel to this story despite its setting in a magical world. At times it is scary but never too scary for its intended audience and children will be united in their wish to see their heroes beat the baddies.
In addition to being a brilliant adventure story for children this is also a story that children can learn much from. It is a wonderful example of the importance of friendship and loyalty but most importantly of never giving up hope. That is, I think, a valuable message for children. I am quite sad to say goodbye to Moll and her tribe of friends.
Letters from the Lighthouse
I do so love the way Emma Carroll writes historical fiction as it takes me back to my favourite childhood stories.
It is February 1941 and a bomb blast takes place in London. Afterwards Olive can remember little about the night her elder sister went missing. Olive’s mother decides that the city is no longer safe for her children so Olive and her younger brother, Cliff, are evacuated to coastal Devon. Once there they eventually find themselves staying with the mysterious lighthouse keeper.
At first Olive struggles with life in the country and sadly makes an enemy of the challenging Esther. In addition to coping with the changes to her circumstances Olive is determined to solve the mystery and secrets linked to the disappearance of her sister, Sukie. She soon becomes drawn into a dramatic and exciting adventure which keeps the reader guessing. Once again the author has created believable characters that a reader can engage with. Olive is a likeable heroine who copes remarkably well with her situation showing a maturity and kindness that readers can learn much from. I found Queenie intriguing too and liked her rather spiky attitude. It is Esther, though, whose story has the most impact. I’m reluctant to give away too much of the plot but one of the major strengths of this book is the way in which through Esther readers can empathise with people today who are suffering prejudice in similar ways to Esther and her family. Emma Carroll writes about weighty issues including grief and loss with a warmth and kindness that is appropriate for her intended audience.
This is children’s historical fiction at its best, a gripping adventure with believable characters and events that have a resonance today. A wonderful book and highly recommended.
The Goldfish Boy
Twelve-year-old Matthew is trapped in his bedroom by crippling OCD, spending most of his time staring out of his window as the inhabitants of Chestnut Close go about their business.
That is, until the day he is the last person to see his next door neighbour’s toddler, Teddy, before he goes missing.
Now Matthew must turn detective and unravel the mystery of Teddy’s disappearance – with a little help from a surprising and brilliant cast of supporting characters.
When I first picked up this book by Lisa Thompson I knew nothing about it but this has become one of my favourite reads of the year because it combines an engaging and well plotted mystery with a character I grew to care about very much. This is a wonderful story for highlighting to young readers the importance of accepting those who for whatever reason may be a little ‘different’. Matthew learns to confront his fears in a way which is believable, heart-breaking and courageous.
This would prompt thoughtful discussion in schools and may be a lifeline for children in a similar situation to Matthew.
I just managed to fit this in before Christmas and absolutely loved it. It is an original, inventive and hugely enjoyable read.
Ten year old Fidge and her cousin, the ghastly Graham, find themselves stuck in a world filled with Wimbly Woos ruled by the tyrannical Wed Wabbit. She must solve a series of difficult clues to return home to her mum and little sister Minnie. The whole situation is appalling and worse still it is her own fault. However if anyone can cope in this situation it is the practical and down to earth Fidge. I know this plot sounds crazy and yes it is but it works brilliantly.
Somehow Lissa Evans manages to make this story both hilarious and extremely moving. This is an exciting adventure which I read in one sitting and yet it is full of wisdom and heart too. Wed Wabbit is shortlisted for both the Costa and Blue Peter Awards and I can understand why. I think this would engage the most reluctant of readers.
All of these brilliant books can be bought online by clicking on the titles above. They are also available to borrow from your local libraries.