Worthy and wonderful: The best children’s and YA fiction of 2016
No need to force ‘worthy’ books on young readers this year. Some of the best books of 2016 are not preachy, but all are carefully crafted and engaging works of literature
Julian Gough and Jim Field’s ‘Rabbit’s Bad Habits’
There is a terrible tendency for grown-ups to bestow only “worthy” books upon the young people in their lives at Christmastime, using a similar kind of logic to the insistence on finishing off one’s sprouts before opening a Selection Box. Adults, I implore you: let them have the treats this Yuletide.
Reading improves literacy and empathy and teaches us so much, but, just as with adult fiction, children’s and young adult fiction works best when the themes are woven into captivating stories, rather than loudly preached. Many of the titles here are “worthy”, addressing important themes – tolerance, compassion, difference, grief – but more importantly, they are carefully crafted and engaging works of art and literature.
For the very youngest readers (1-3), Animals by Ingela P Arrhenius (Walker Studio, £15) is a stunning picture book, larger than most and simply but vibrantly portraying different animals on each page. Jean Julien’s This Is Not a Book (Phaidon, £6.95) is another quirky title for this age range, with fold-out pages to play with.
Dictatorial toddlerReaders aged 3-5 will adore the dictatorial toddler in Kate Beaton’s King Baby (Walker, £6.99) as well as the exuberant and highly imaginative Lila in Yasmeen Ismail’s Nothing! (Bloomsbury, £6.99). The animal world is always a popular setting for this age group; Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick’s Owl Bat Bat Owl (Walker, £11.99) uses two different families to subtly explore tolerance and community in a wordless picture book that reminds us just how crucial the visual is in this form.
Barroux’s Welcome! (Egmont, £6.99) similarly sneaks in an important message about compassion in a tale of polar bears trying to find a new home. And Diane and Christyan Fox’s A Dog Called Bear (Faber & Faber, £12.99), in which Lucy finds it very stressful dealing with Bear – who may not be quite the pet dog she was looking for – is both funny and heartwarming.
This is an age category where elements more favourable to older readers can sometimes sneak in. Jon Klassen’s We Found A Hat (Walker, £12.99), the third in his “hat” trilogy, offers up a tense situation where a turtle must choose between wanting something very badly and betraying a friend. Jory John and Lane Smith’s Penguin Problems (Walker, £11.99) features a hyper-self-conscious penguin whose repeated use of “literally” and a sarcastic “oh great” may well appeal to young adults more so than junior infants, but is fiendishly cute all the same. And Sam Winston and Oliver Jeffers’s stunning A Child of Books (Walker, £12.99) is a complex intertextual work of art – featuring the text of classics woven into the illustrations – which succeeds both as a picture book and as something to be fawned over by older readers.
Beret-clad dogFor older again (6+, though always remembering every child is different), the Claude books by Alex T Smith – featuring a beret-clad dog and his sidekick Sir Bobblysock – are consistently engaging and zany. Lights! Camera! Action! (Hodder, £5.99), in paperback this year, sees the pair on a film set, while Santa Claude (Hodder, £8.99) is the most recent, Christmas-themed instalment.
Character-led series are particularly appealing for this age group. Julian Gough and Jim Field’s Rabbit’s Bad Habits (Hodder, £5.99) is the first in the Rabbit & Bear series, detailing an unlikely friendship with a healthy dose of quirky humour. For more reluctant readers, the practical workbook nature of Chris and Andrew Judge’s Create Your Own Spy Mission (Scholastic, £5.99) offers a more interactive experience.
In terms of beautiful gift editions for young readers, Faber & Faber have just released Ted Hughes’s “lost classic”, The Tigerboy (£6.99), with illustrations from Joe McClaren, while Beatrix Potter’s recently-discovered The Tale of Kitty-In-Boots is brought to life with artwork from Quentin Blake (Warne, £12.99). And readers of all ages will love Fatti and John Burke’s Historopedia (Gill Books, €24.99), a stunning visual journey through Irish history from the Stone Age to the marriage equality referendum.
Readers aged 9+ have adored Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series for close to a decade now. The latest – and 11th – instalment is Double Down (Puffin. £12.99), combining text and comic strip to provide an insightful and tongue-in-cheek take on modern childhood and education. Irish-language lovers will be pleased to hear that the first volume is now available as Gaeilge, translated by Máirín Ní Mhárta – Dialann Dúradáin is published by Futa Fata (€9.95).
Zany humourDavid Walliams is also fiercely popular, with comparisons to Roald Dahl well deserved. Illustrated by Tony Ross, The World’s Worst Children (HarperCollins, £14.99) introduces us to a range of youngsters who have terrible things happen to them – often due to their own failings. He is best known for his zany humour, but his latest book, The Midnight Gang (HarperCollins, £12.99), which begins in the children’s ward of a hospital, also touches on more serious themes (without getting too solemn). It may be his best yet.
Readers looking for something more “grown-up” than Walliams (as though ridiculousness is something any of us should grow out of) might want to delve into Ross Welford’s Time Travelling With A Hamster (HarperCollins, £5.99), in which Al travels back to the 1980s to save his father’s life. Time travel might be a mini-trend this year: Judi Curtin’s heroines similarly venture back to a pre-smartphone era in Time After Time (O’Brien, €9.99).
For a sensitive look at what it means to see the world differently from everyone else, try Ann M Martin’s How To Look For A Lost Dog (Usborne, £6.99) – also one for animal-lovers. Mechanical animals propel the plot in Peter Bunzl’s Cogheart (Usborne, £6.99), a steampunk adventure with a determined heroine and compelling twists. And engaging with animals in a completely different way is Ali Benjamin’s moving and authentic The Thing About Jellyfish (Macmillan, £6.99), which sees its young protagonist turn to science in the hope of explaining the sudden death of her best friend.
Menacing fairyTwo of the funniest books for older children and young teens this year are Irish. Paul Gamble’s The Ministry of S.U.I.T.S. (Little Island, £7.99) features a menacing Tooth Fairy, pirates, bears and a pleasing number of humorous asides. It shares its tongue-in-cheek nature with Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark (Puffin, £6.99), which opens with a sly nod to the ubiquity of orphans within fantasy novels and the persistent trope of the “chosen one”, then takes us on a compelling exploration of what it means to be a hero and the cost of fighting evil.
Francesca Simon of Horrid Henry fame steps into teenage fiction with The Monstrous Child (Faber & Faber/Profile Books, £9.99), combining an authentic adolescent voice with Norse mythology. Just as dark but – painfully – closer to reality is Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow (Orion, £12.99), narrated by a refugee who has never known life outside a detention centre. Also inviting empathy for those less fortunate than most of its readers is ER Murray’s Caramel Hearts (Alma Books, £7.99), in which a teenage girl copes with a fractured home life, an alcoholic mother, and teetering on the edge of poverty.
For junior feminists, the must-read titles are Anna Carey’s The Making of Mollie (O’Brien Press, €8.99), which focuses on the suffragette movement in Dublin in 1912, and Holly Bourne’s modern-day Spinster Club series, recently completed with . . . And a Happy New Year? (Usborne, £9.99). Both authors have successfully managed to balance the political and personal, with convincing and relatable characters at the heart of these ultimately empowering stories.
Thought-provokingThe year has given us a number of more thought-provoking titles, including recent Costa nominee Brian Conaghan’s The Bombs That Brought Us Together (Bloomsbury, £12.99), which presents a convincing and sympathetic male narrator in a world not quite like our own. Deirdre Sullivan’s Needlework (Little Island, €9.99) is a poetic and haunting account of recovery from abuse and the power of creative expression. Delving into what it means to be an immigrant in America today, The Sun Is Also A Star (Corgi, £7.99) is Nicola Yoon’s powerful follow-up to her debut, Everything, Everything.
This has also been a year where transgender voices have been heard, rather than simply written about, for teens: Arin Andrews’s Some Assembly Required (Simon & Schuster, £7.99) is an honest and moving memoir, while Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl (Usborne, £7.99) combines a traditional love story with the struggles of being completely honest with new friends.
Finally, say hello to dystopian Ireland. Peadar Ó Guilín’s gripping The Call (David Fickling Books, £10.99) draws on folklore to help shape a futuristic world where teenagers are hunted down by the Sidhe, while Sarah Maria Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts (Greenwillow Books, $17.99) presents a post-apocalyptic Dublin as the backdrop for a lyrical Frankenstein retelling. Both are smart and engaging reads that prove that dystopian fiction can and should extend beyond the love-triangle/chosen-one cliche.
Claire Hennessy is the author of Nothing Tastes As Good (Hot Key Books).