It is those few days between Christmas and New Year when we start to anticipate what the coming year may bring and also a time to reflect on the last twelve months. Others have written about their favourite books of 2021 and I have enjoyed reading lists of top tens and top twenties of fiction for different age groups and picture books too. Despite the number of books I have read this year I know there are many excellent ones on my shelves and ‘want to read lists’ that I have not yet managed to read. Therefore I am not collating a ‘best of 2021’ list. Instead I prefer to share some of the many books that have had an impact on me over the last year, either lifting my spirits, providing an escape, making me think or teaching me. Despite the difficulties it has been a good year for children’s books and that, I think, is a cause for celebration.
Among the many books published in January was a debut that I had been eagerly looking forward to reading. The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr is an evacuee story with a difference. This beautifully told, tender story of two young brothers, a mystery, and a community that holds secrets of its own captivated me from the opening scenes to its satisfying conclusion. It was really rather special. I have to admit that historical fiction for children is probably the genre that regularly appeals to me and I was spoilt for choice in 2021. Fiction set in Ancient Rome is a little harder to find and I was intrigued to find out more about Annelise Gray’s first novel for children. Circus Maximus: Race to the Death is an epic adventure with a personal story at its heart and is a book that both excites and engages the reader from the opening page. Hugely enjoyable, full of breathtaking action the story hurtles the reader into a different historical world featuring, in Dido, a character who today’s young readers will relate to and root for. I loved this and am very much looking forward to reading the sequel which is published in February.
Returning to World War 2, Tom Palmer’s meticulous research is evident in the detail of his stories and Arctic Star is no exception to this. This book is rooted in the true story of the Arctic convoys and Tom Palmer has tackled a subject of unimaginable loss, endurance and bravery and succeeded in writing a book that deserves a place in every single school classroom and library. I learned a lot from this thoughtful and engrossing story. When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle is the winner of the Books Are My Bag Readers Choice Award and The Times Children’s Book of the Year so I am not alone in rating this book highly. An extraordinary story told with compassion and understanding. Dealing with the darkest of human emotions; anger, loss, grief, fear and humiliation it shows us that these can be overcome with love, understanding and forgiveness if we can only learn to allow it, it is a story I will not forget.
Before I leave history behind for this year there are two more books that I must include. For older readers of 12 plus When The World Was Ours by Liz Kessler is an outstanding and powerful book. Days after I finished reading this I was still thinking about it; a compelling, heartbreaking story it is also one that highlights the importance of friendship, hope and love and those seemingly tiny moments that can, in reality, make a huge difference. A story of the Holocaust that had a profound impact on me. Hilary McKay has a way of writing that encourages me to believe her characters are real people, more so I think than any other writer around at the moment. Spanning the period from 1931 until 1947, The Swallows’ Flight is superb, a story of immense hope and love which restores your faith in the infinite possibilities that life holds. I will treasure this book and it is one I know I will read again and again.
Not all my reading in 2021 involved visiting historical events. Sometimes a book takes me completely by surprise and this year that book was The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell. It is a children’s book so wise, tender and comforting that as I read it I wanted to press it in to the hands of everyone I know. A beautiful and lyrical story of family, loss, friendship and forgiveness it completely captured me. A wonderful and enthralling adventure that can be enjoyed for its own sake this is also a sensitive life lesson in learning to forgive and to live each day fully. Another lovely book dealing with the subject of family and grief is The Elephant by Peter Carnavas. The short chapters, the charming illustrations so perfectly complementing the story, and the narrative voice all combine to make this an accessible and appealing book for children. I read this in one sitting as the lump in my throat grew steadily bigger. It’s a really kind book and one I would recommend if you have missed it.
I have long been a fan of Gill Lewis’s books for children; she incorporates an understanding and love of nature in her work that I particularly enjoy. Swan Song published by Barrington Stoke is a thoughtful and sensitively written story about teenage mental health which highlights the power of nature to restore and heal troubled minds. A lovely book with a valuable and comforting message. A Street Dog Named Pup is a profoundly moving, compelling and powerful read that will break the hardest of hearts yet is so full of love and loyalty that it restores your faith in the importance of the bond of friendship and the value of hope when times are dark and difficult.
I found the title, The Book of Stolen Dreams impossible to resist. This epic fantasy adventure is exhilarating, exciting and compelling but also, ultimately, moving. David Farr is probably best known as a theatre director and screenwriter for dramas such as The Night Manager and this is his first book for children. An intricate plot, fantastic characters and an imagined world that is both vivid and believable make this a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.
Illustration can, when it is done well, intensify the emotional impact of fiction written for children and young people. This year I read two remarkable books that are excellent examples of this. Hideaway by Pam Smy manages to be both raw and disturbing and hopeful and loving. The pairing of text and illustrations is beautifully executed and in one particular section of the book the stunning pictures alone ‘speak’ to the reader in a profoundly moving manner. Julia and the Shark, the latest book by awarding-winning author Kiran Millwood Hargrave, is the first that is a collaboration with her artist husband Tom de Freston and it is stunning in both presentation and content. Although slightly different in tone to her previous titles for children Hargrave’s fluid writing style and ability to convey great emotion in few words is apparent in this story of family, environment, friendship and mental health.
There were many other books that I read and enjoyed over the last year but I could be here until 2023 if I mentioned them all. But…I also want to quickly highlight Melt by Ele Fountain which has a mystery to solve, engaging characters to empathise with and themes of family, friendship and conservation and StormTide, the thrilling conclusion to the FloodWorld trilogy by Tom Huddleston set in a dystopian world ravaged by climate change both of which have a timely resonance that will appeal to many.
Well, this has grown into a long list and I’ve not touched on picture books, non-fiction and poetry! If you want to read more about any of the books mentioned you can click on the title to read my full review. The books are also listed on Bookshop.org if you have been tempted. It has definitely been a good year for children’s fiction. I wonder what 2022 will bring?
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