My favourites from around the world from 25 years of reviewing children’s books
You can’t ignore JK Rowling’s Harry Potter stories and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, but it’s books by Patrick Ness, Louis Sachar and Meg Rosoff, among others, that make the final cut
No survey of the highlights of British children’s books of the past 25 years can start otherwise than with a mention of JK Rowling and her Harry Potter novels, published from the late 1990s onwards. Whatever our views about their literary merits, there is no denying the influence they have had on children’s books generally and on children’s reading habits. Their popularity with adults was one of the first indications of the crossover phenomenon. If there was a downside to Pottermania it was the numerous imitations, invariably inferior, that it spawned.
More or less contemporaneously came Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, combining magnificent storytelling, a wonderful cast of characters and speculation on matters of the deepest theological and philosophical concern.
Issues of adolescent identity, particularly sexuality, were explored in a remarkable sextet of young adult novels by Aidan Chambers, concluding with This Is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn. Straightforward linear narrative is here abandoned in favour of postmodern metafictional techniques.
The best of the period’s futuristic novels came in the form of Philip Reeve’s stunningly inventive Mortal Engines quartet and Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy.
The arrival of the present century saw American young-adult books take a new direction with the publication of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, both initiating bestselling series, while Lemony Snicket’s Unfortunate Events and Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid sequences, aided by astute marketing, catered for the preteen reader.
But, series and sequences apart, the past 25 years has also brought a range of American children’s books characterised by thoughtful, insightful and often witty treatments of childhood and adolescence. By the early 1990s the notion of taboo subjects had all but disappeared, resulting in a new thematic and linguistic frankness, especially in writing directed at the young-adult reader.
Robert Cormier, already well established as a writer, made controversial use of this new freedom in novels such as Fade, We All Fall Down and Tenderness, while Jerry Spinelli, in novels including Maniac Magee, Wringer, Loser and Milkweed, constructed engaging narratives around themes of young male difference and isolation.
The overall seriousness of Cormier and Spinelli may be contrasted with the quirky lightness of touch and verbal playfulness typical of the writing of EL Konigsburg, who in The View from Saturday brings together bright articulate children and their paralysed teacher with entertaining and revealing consequences. Equally deserving of note are the novels of Sharon Creech, especially her Walk Two Moons, the parallel stories of two girls in search of their respective mothers. Three more recent Creech titles – Heartbeat, Love That Dog and Hate That Cat – are among the most successful examples of the currently popular verse novel.
Given the diversity of British and American children’s books of the past two decades, choosing a small selection for special notice is a daunting task. But here, after a fair number of changes of mind, are 12 titles that, as with the Irish selection, continue to entertain, stimulate and, perhaps, even occasionally disturb.
A Monster Calls
Patrick Ness (2011)
In a haunting narrative dominated by symbol and atmosphere, 13-year-old Conor faces up to the realisation of his mother’s terminal illness. Complemented by arresting black, white and grey images by Jim Kay.
Melvin Burgess (2005)
Derived from Norse myth and legend, this is the dark, frequently tragic story of 18-year-old Sigurd and his attempts to unite a country ravaged by conflict. Youthful idealism is tempered by experience.
Dying to Know You
Aidan Chambers (2012)
Karl and Fiorella, a boy and girl in their late teens; a novelist in his 70s. The triangle of relationships provides an extraordinarily touching narrative of lives transformed by an unexpected friendship.
Robert Cormier (1988)
As a teenager Paul Moreaux had inherited the ability to “fade”, to become invisible. But was his inheritance a gift or a curse? Now an adult, he candidly reviews his experiences. Who will believe him?
Louis Sachar (1998)
Stanley Yelnats, wrongly accused of theft, finds himself in the desert landscape of Camp Green Lake. His punitive sentence involves the digging – and more digging – of holes. Is there a buried treasure to be discovered?
How I Live Now
Meg Rosoff (2004)
Fifteen-year-old Daisy arrives from New York to spend what promises to be a perfect summer with her English cousins, but love – plus a third world war – intervenes, shattering many aspirations.
Life: An Exploded Diagram
Mal Peet (2011)
Set mainly in 1960s rural Norfolk, against the threatening Cuban missile crisis, this novel focuses on the childhood and adolescence of working-class Clem, with fascinating throwbacks to earlier generations of his family.
Frank Cottrell Boyce (2004)
Into the laps of brothers Damian and Anthony falls a huge sum of what will soon be invalid banknotes: what to do? Hilariously funny and, in places, extremely poignant.
Philip Reeve (2001)
First in a quartet of imaginatively conceived futuristic stories, this novel introduces the idea of “traction cities”, permanently on the move, and Tom, a boy keen to learn what has happened to his parents.
David Almond (1998)
In the disused garage of his new home a young boy encounters the strange being who is the Skellig of the title. The mystery surrounding the stranger fuels a fascinating narrative: is he an angel in disguise?
The White Darkness
Geraldine McCaughrean (2005)
Teenager Sym, coping with her father’s death, is coping also with her obsession with the life and death of Capt Oates, the polar explorer. An expedition to Antarctica will have repercussions for both.
Mikael Engström (2011)
This is the story of 12-year-old Mik, victim of an adult world apparently characterised, in the main, by fecklessness and degradation. But there is first love, too.
Best of the best
And the best of the best? It has to be a tie between Sam McBratney’s The Chieftain’s Daughter and Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls.