2022 has been another bumper year for children’s publishing. Thanks to our team of reviewers, here at BfK we’ve managed to review over 400 new books, still just a fraction of the publishing output. We asked a panel of experts to choose the best books of the year and their picks follow. Congratulations to SF Said, David Almond and Laura Carlin, Janelle McCurdy, and Jordan Stephens and Beth Suzanna, for winning multiple recommendations.
Ferelith Hordon, editorial advisor, Books for Keeps
Looking back over the past year there have been many exciting books to catch the eye. Picture books in particular exploring ideas, taking the format beyond its assumed audience of the youngest. An Artist’s Eyes (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books) by Frances Tosdevin and Clemmence Monnet uses the theme of difference – but in an eye-catching way. Our eyes are the same shape and function in the same way, we see in the same way, but our individual experience of the world around is different and unique. The gorgeous palette of the illustrations sings off the pages bringing the text alive to make the point. Singing off the page also are Laura Carlin’s illustrations for David Almond’s text in The Woman Who Turned Children into Birds (Walker Studio). Here, Almond reminds the reader that there is a spark in everyone, adults and children, that will allow them to fly and Carlin creates the perfect visual accompaniment.
Emily Drabble, Head of Children’s Book Promotion and Prizes, BookTrust
My first is a modern day classic Tyger (David Fickling) by SF Said. This is a thought-provoking, profound, political and spiritually profound book. The myths, legends and violence of real-life history are woven into the fabric of the story and they trigger lots of thoughts. I think it’s a modern day classic that children will be reading and we’ll be cherishing forever, a bit like Varjak Paw.
My second book is Mia and the Lightcasters (Faber), a debut by Janelle McCurdy which blew me away. Telling the story of Mia who must find and tame her Umbra then face the Nightmare plains and defy the Reaper King. This is an incredibly exciting book which will keep readers on the edge of their seats. It’s so imaginative, with next level world building. It’s utterly refreshing to find a sci fi fantasy book where all the heroes are children of colour too, still unfortunately rare and very much needed. If adults want to get young gamers reading this is the book to go for!
John Newman, the Newham Bookshop
I wanted to focus on my abiding love of illustrated text and the power of collaboration between writer and illustrator. David Almonds’s The Woman Who Turned Children into Birds (Walker Studio) is a resoundingly joyful celebration and Laura Carlin’s illustrations just add to the magic. In Colours, Colours Everywhere (Two Hoots) Julia Donaldson and illustrator Sharon King- Chai add even more magic to a world of nature and colour which is both a compulsive page turner and a beautifully designed book. Our Tower (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books) elevates Joseph Coelho’s finely honed text thanks to Richard Johnson’s vision of a world of wonder on the edge of a council estate. Last but not least, Oxygen Mask (Faber and Faber) by Jason Reynolds with stunning art work by Jason Griffin is a collaboration which began remotely with Griffin responding to the shared text. Ostensibly it’s about the pandemic but it embraces so much more.
Professor Teresa Cremin, the Open University
Tyger by SF Said (David Fickling Books) is remarkable book which demands re-reading, respect and in-depth discussion. The dystopian world that SF Said creates burns with injustice, but through their encounters with the mythical Tyger, Adam Alhambra and his friend Zadie open themselves to infinite possibilities and dig deep to discover their creative strength. Dave McKean’s illustrations brilliantly capture the running threads of fear, power, hope and imaginative freedom, and echo the complexity of this thrilling and fast paced narrative. Inspired by William Blake’s writing and so much more, this is exceptional writing- a book to keep, to share, to reread, debate and celebrate.
Zoey Dixon, Children’s and Young People’s Librarian, Lambeth Libraries
As a big fan of fantasy, I was very excited to see so many middle-grade fantasy novels by Black writers published this year, especially by UK writers. The Elemental Detectives (Scholastic) by Patrice Lawrence is a fast-paced adventure, seeped in history and is set in an alternative version of London but with roots in reality. The world building is amazing and the extensive research on the history of London is worked naturally into the narrative. Debuts from Janelle McCurdy’s Mia and the Lightcasters (Faber and Faber) and Alake Pilgrim’s Trinidad set Zo and the Forest of Secrets (Knights Of) fuse fantasy, sci-fi and elements of horror to create an atmospheric adventure to keep you on the edge of your seat. The Unmorrow Curse (Uclan Publishing) from Jasmine Richards borrows from Norse mythology and celebrates friendship in an action-packed magical adventure. I loved the twists and turns and the use of familiar characters to tell a new story. There’s more myth and magic in Mwikali and the Forbidden Mask (Lantana Publishing) by Kenyan author Shiko Nguru. Inspired by East African mythology, Mwikali learns important lessons about self-acceptance and being true to yourself all whilst battling monsters. I can’t wait to see the next books in these series and what next year brings for middle grade fantasy.
Jake Hope, chair of the working party for Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals.
Connections and belonging are explored with great warmth and emotional understanding in The Missing Piece (Bloomsbury Children’s Books), a picturebook written by Jordan Stephens and illustrated by Beth Suzanna. Like the puzzle that acts as the metaphor at the heart of the story, this is a book that is worldly, wicked and wonderful. Choose Love (Graffeg) is a collection of poetry which admirably raises empathy and understanding around refugees. Every word in Nicola Davies poems is meticulously hewn and Petr Horacek’s abstract art carries an urgency and directness, the two combine to create a deep and long-lasting impression. Aftershocks (Old Barn Books) by Anne Fine is a book of contradictions, it is at once familiar, yet otherworldly. It is a ghost story yet is rooted in real and highly relatable emotions. It’s ambition and scope are large, yet at once it explores the intimacy of personal grief. It’s a remarkable novel which defies easy categorisation.
Fen Coles, Letterbox Library
LGBTQ+ representations took a slice of the starring roles in publishing for younger children this year but it felt a little slight compared to 2021. Lancet-Grant/Corry spun another magical tale in which Ava and her two ‘Marvellous Doctor’ dads oversee the care of sickly dragons, fairies and unicorns in The Marvellous Doctors for Magical Creatures (OUP). LaCour/Juanita told a very relatable story in Mama and Mummy and Me in the Middle (Walker Books) in which a child sighs and frets over the empty space left in the middle when one of her mums works away from home. (Both book feature interracial couples). Paperback editions of the charming The Boys and the comical Who’s Your Real Mum? plumped up the picture book offerings. A highlight in the middle grade category was Alice Austen Lived Here (Scholastic), not just for its two non-binary protagonists but also for its nuanced understanding of LGBTQ2+ history, its celebration of a wider queer community and for its – hurrah! – refreshingly informed and knowledgeable use of the word, ‘queer’.
Natasha Radford, Chicken and Frog children’s bookshop
Where do I begin when I’m writing about Vanessa Harbour’s Safe (Firefly)? Although it is a powerful sequel to Flight, it can be read as a standalone. This highlights the craft behind Vanessa’s writing. The relationship between Kizzy and Jakob is poignant, as their shared experiences create a common ground. Whilst the narrative is seated very much within the time period of World War Two, there are, sadly, many lessons for children (and adults) to take from this powerful book. Safe is an ideal class read for teachers, but also an important read for anyone who wants to understand the impact of the displacement of children.
The Missing Piece (Bloomsbury) is a beautifully illustrated picture book, which sensitively deals with issues of empathy, friendship, and family. Sunny experiences the world through vibrant colours and rich aromas, leading the reader on a journey of the senses, as she searches for the missing piece to her puzzle. What she finds is more valuable than a jigsaw piece. She discovers new friends in her neighbourhood – new cultures and experiences that fill her heart. Sunny’s resilience and zest for life is infectious. A truly joyous read.
Charlotte Hacking, Central Learning Programmes Director at CLPE
Joe Todd-Stanton is an exceptional picturebook maker. His knowledge of how to weave together words and pictures, using every element of visual storytelling to create narratives, is nothing less than outstanding. The Comet is a quiet yet powerful story of belonging, wrapped up in the experience of Nyla and her dad moving home, from the countryside to the city. Every word is judiciously chosen and, combined with the evocative illustrations, allows us to step into their world and their experiences, evoking deep empathy for the characters as they move through their difficult but ultimately hopeful journey; creating a sense of awe, wonder and magic along the way. There are wonderful messages about the power of creativity in helping us to make sense of and work through experiences, which is so important in the current climate. The book invites many re-readings to revisit and explore specific details in the sumptuous spreads that might be missed on a first read.
Books for the youngest readers are often taken for granted, but it a real and specific skill to craft and illustrate narratives for this age group. Zeki Rise and Shine and Zeki Sleep Tight by Anna McQuinn, illustrated by Ruth Hearson (Alanna Max) deserve applause and celebration. This is a team of writer, illustrator and publisher who deeply understand their audience and how to engage and enchant their readers and cater for their specific needs. These quiet stories centre on real and everyday experiences that every child can relate to. The rich and evocative language enriches a growing vocabulary and invites the reader to join in. The carefully observed illustrations capture attention, build visual literacy skills and richly develop characters and their world. The books are published perfectly for tiny hands – in a perfect size, with heavyweight paper and rounded corners. Perfect reads for 0-5 year olds.
Tyger is S.F. Said’s first book in nine years, and the time taken has absolutely been worth it. This is the work of a master storyteller who has taken the time and care to create an epic tale, set in an alternate Britain in which the Empire never fell and slavery was never outlawed, with superbly crafted characters, which is critical for our times. In my humble opinion it’s his best book yet. A superb gateway for children to begin to explore and make sense of the history of the past, its impact on the present day and the potential for the future wrapped up in a page turning and gripping adventure. Dave McKean’s exquisite illustrations, as ever, give another dimension to the story, immersing and engaging the reader in the world of the story and its characters even further.
All the books mentioned are listed in the BfK Christmas Gift Guide.