This year, BfK has carried reviews of over 400 new books, but which are the books we’ll remember in years to come? We asked those in the know to make their picks.
There are three books that for me have really stood out; each very different. First Chinglish by Sue Cheung, the voice of teenage Jo Kwan as she records growing up in the 1980s within a Chinese family, heart rending but ultimately hopeful. Transporting me back to the past – Britain as the Roman Empire falls – is The Short Knife by Elen Caldecott.Sharp writing and brilliant characterisation brings the period to vivid (and uncomfortable) life. Finally, in The Midnight Guardians Ross Montgomery marries the reality of war struck England with the magic of imagination to create an unforgettable journey. Ferelith Hordon, Books for Keeps
When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed is a graphic novel memoir that tells the remarkable life story of Omar, a young Somali boy and his experience of living in a refugee camp in Kenya. Poverty, loss, being a carer, education, and immigration are all exposed in this moving own voice narrative as told to and brilliantly depicted by Victoria. Revealing, memorable and ultimately hopeful, their book not only widens our understanding, it demands our engagement and response.
Katya Balen’s debut novel The Space We’re In, told from ten-year-old Frank’s perspective, captures the reader from the outset, drawing us into his world with such sensitivity and skill that we wear his trainers, experience his confusion and jealousy and feel his pain. The eloquence of Balen’s writing is enriched by Carlin’s masterful codes and illustrations which cause us to pause, ponder and engage more deeply. A beautiful book. Professor Teresa Cremin
Deftly written, speeding up for quick plot development then slowing down when establishing atmosphere, The Children of Swallow Fell by Julia Green, a gripping story of children surviving in the wilds of Northern England after society has broken down is an easy as well as a memorable read. Rather as if Lord of the Flies had been re-cast in the more optimistic tones and general approach found in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, everything finally works out despite scares along the way. Young people getting by on their own has always been a staple of children’s literature, and this sensitive and moving novel is a worthy addition to an ever-popular genre. Nicholas Tucker, honorary Senior Lecturer, Cultural Studies, University of Sussex.
2020 has had some definite highlights for lgbtq+ representations. In My Footprints Thuy finds the might she needs to rise above her peers’ prejudices by stomping out a snowy path, her two Mums foot-printing close beside her. Meantime, two more picture books, Plenty of Hugs and Julian At the Wedding, nod knowingly, intimately, to a queer audience through nuanced iconography while also enchanting readers everywhere with their outpourings of love. Julian’s world, in particular, is drenched in a carnivalesque joy. Nothing Ever Happens Here brings an authentic story of trans identity to a middle grade audience as Izzy witness one of her parents transition. Meantime, 2020’s excellent YA offerings included John R Gordon’s contemporary gothic, Hark, set in a divided US Southern state. And it just so happens that, with just one exception (Nothing Ever Happens Here) all of these narratives star queer characters of colour. Fen Coles, Letterbox Library
Ken Wilson-Max’s Lenny books are absolutely perfect for the youngest readers. These gentle but playful stories are relatable for every child and combine narratives set within the home and family with bold, bright illustrations that invite the reader into the world of the story and songs that encourage early readers to join in with the text. Alanna-Max have recently re-released Where’s Lenny?, a playful game of hide and seek between Lenny and his parents, and Ken has launched a new Lenny title, Lenny and Wilbur, which shares the bond between a child and their pet.
These are books that should be in the hands of children everywhere, allowing children to make personal connections with the stories they read and sharing the delights and pleasures reading can bring.Charlotte Hacking, CLPE
I have a weak spot in my reading repertoire – normally I just don’t enjoy thrillers or mysteries. So it was a great joy to find myself devouring Patrice Lawrence’s Eight Pieces of Silva, which cleverly combines a disturbing mystery with deep and vivid characterisation.
There are two narrators whose very different voices are beautifully done. Becks is the outspoken younger sister in a blended family; her older sister Silva is supposed to be in charge when their mum and dad go abroad for their honeymoon. But having seen them off at the airport, Silva simply fails to come home, leaving Becks to fend for herself. Beck’s feelings – puzzlement, anger, concern and a steely determination to find out what’s happened – are explored with great skill. Suspense is carefully built as we too, the readers, start to feel seriously worried about Silva as it becomes clear how vulnerable she is.
Being one of EmpathyLab’s founders, I’m always looking at books through an empathy lense. The scientific research into the empathy-building effects of books highlights the mechanisms of being transported into the story and really identifying with and caring about the characters. This book does both in spades.Miranda McKearney, EmpathyLab
What better gift than a book that inspires self-worth, confidence and empathy? Break the Mould by Sinéad Burke is just such a book, and more. Ten accessible, illustrated chapters explore such subjects as embracing difference, challenging inequality and finding a voice. It assures every child they are valued, they are unique and they are ‘enough’. They have the right to live in the sort of world they want, but also the power to make it that world. Alongside practical ideas for achieving goals, it instils an absolute confidence that anything is possible, reinforced by personal anecdotes (the author happens to be a little person) and examples of ‘unsung heroes’.
Sinéad Burke writes with natural fluency and warmth, the young reader always treated as an equal. In the beautifully reassuring voice of an old friend, she calmly and informally encourages and empowers. A book for everyone. This is one to give, but also to keep. Alex Strick, Inclusive Minds
I have chosen three poetry books, each very different but ones I know I will be recommending for years to come. Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi with Yusef Salaam is a verse novel inspired by Yusef’s experience of being wrongly convicted for a crime. It’s powerful, poignant and simply unforgettable. Ana Sampson’s new anthology She Will Soar is superb too, featuring a ‘bold choir’ of female voices, curated for maximum impact. And The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice by A.F. Harrold, illustrated by the incomparable Mini Grey, is a wonder – funny, inspiring, full of surprises and a delight to share with young readers. Andrea Reece, Books for Keeps