TikTok, mystical beasts, romantasies (no, us neither), it’s been another busy and exciting year in children’s publishing. Fads aside, which are the books that really stood out and which are the books we’ll be reading in years to come? We asked a panel of experts to pick the best books of 2023.
Professor Teresa Cremin, Professor of Education (Literacy), the Open University
The Final Year by Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton (Otter-Barry Books). This powerful verse-novel deservedly hit the headlines on publication and has remained in the spotlight since. There’s a rawness and immediacy in 10-year-old Nate’s voice and rising anger which evokes close engagement and empathy. He’s been split from his best mate PS, who’s placed in another class and makes friends with the school bully. Struggling to cope and with SATs looming, Nate must also face his brother Dylan’s sudden illness and hospitalisation. Joe Todd Stanton’s black and white illustrations imaginatively capture Nate’s fear and vulnerability, as well as moments of connection with Caleb and his teacher Mr Joshua. Connecting to David Almond’s books Skellig and the prequel My name is Mina, Matt Goodfellow reaches out and reaches deep here, punching home messages about the power of story and self-expression, (‘wings and words sir’), about hope in periods of intense pain, and about the crucial role of friends, family and teachers. As Nate learns ‘in the darkness you find your people’. This is a must read.
Urmi Merchant, co-founder and director of the children’s specialist bookshop and events space Pickled Pepper Books
Greenwild by Pari Thompson (Macmillan Children’s Books) interweaves the world of botany, themes of the environment and aspects of otherness into a fast-paced eco-fantasy, perfect for middle grade readers looking for a new series. 11 year old Daisy Thistledown has escaped her boarding school and is looking for her missing mother. When being chased through London, she discovers a portal to a magical world, the Greenwild, in Kew Gardens. There she teams up with a botanical genius, a boy who can speak to animals and a cat with attitude to channel the magic of the Greenwild to not only save this world, but her own, and find her mother. This is sure to enchant readers, young and old.
Charlotte Hacking, Interim Executive Director, Learning and Programmes Director CLPE
The Artist by Ed Vere (Puffin) is an exquisite picturebook. Ed Vere perfectly captures the wonder, joy and empowerment that creativity brings to us all through the tale of a young dinosaur who leaves her home to (quite literally!) make her mark on the world. Ed is such an advocate of the power of creativity on children’s education and wider well-being that he also sensitively guides children through the fact that being creative is about looking at the world through new eyes, being brave, taking risks, and learning to adapt when things don’t go as planned. The carefully chosen words and ingeniously crafted illustrations, which show creativity in action through cut out and taped vignettes, surrounded by scribbles, spatters and doodles, interspersed with rich full bleed spreads draw us into the dinosaur’s world, investing us in her story and evoking empathy in the reader.
Graphic Novels and Comics are incredibly popular with children, but as our Power of Pictures research at CLPE showed, many adults don’t include these in their own reading. They are incredible for engaging children in reading, and for building reading stamina. This is why, when I see a fantastic example, I always recommend it. Donut Feed the Squirrels by Mika Song (Pushkin Children’s Books) is one such title. After burning their breakfast pancakes Norma and Belly catch a whiff of a donut. But the donut seller isn’t up for giving one to a pair of squirrels. Will a hefty dose of ingenuity and a little help from Gramps get them what they want? The illustrations are full of complex simplicity, the characters are wonderfully expressive and the colour palette is vibrant without being overpowering.
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.
Philip Womack is expert in bringing the supernatural into contemporary environments and in Ghostlord (Little Island Books) he provides readers with enough for even the wildest imagination to feast on. It starts almost immediately with teenage Meg Lewis, transplanted with her mother to the remote English countryside, seeing apparitions. These lead her to making contact with the ghost of a young boy imprisoned for 500 years by a wicked necromancer. But is the unfortunate lad for real, and should Meg and her new adolescent male friend Skanders get involved? A sequel to the much praised Wildlord but a complete story in itself, this full-blooded fantasy-mystery never lets up from first page to last.
Ferelith Hordon, editorial advisor Books for Keeps
Out of many outstanding titles over the past year, three really stood out, drawing me into their worlds. First, from Finland – Rhubarb Lemonade by Oskar Kroon translated by A. A Prime (Hot Key Books). Teenager Vinga stepped off the page, an unforgettable character inviting me to share her island summer with her – and I did. Equally immersive is The Swing from Britta Teckentrup (Prestel). Reflective, mesmeric her colour saturated illustrations cross time, seasons and human relationships, the swing the one constant. Finally a verse novel – Matt Goodfellow in The Final Year (Otter-Barry Books) opened the door to the real experience of a boy facing his last year in Primary school – immediate, vivid and accessible. I walked with him.
Jake Hope, chair of the working party for Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals
Have you Seen a Magpie? (CYPI Press) is an extraordinary concertina book written by Dai Yun and illustrated by Yu Rong. The book reproduces the traditional Chinese scroll painting ‘Along the River During the QingMing Festival’ by painter Zhang Zeduan. It shows the landscape and everyday life of people in the capital city Bianjing 900 years ago. The painting celebrates the festival spirit and hustle and bustle of the Qingming festival. The painting is reproduced with new hand-drawn characters to help children, engage with, read and understand the painting through the medium of play. The reverse of the concertina tells the fictional story of Duan’er, painter Zhang Zeduan as a child, and an adventure he has along the river, the people that he meets and the magpie that draws everyone together as it flaps and flutters along the riverside. It’s full of tradition, discovery and fun!
Zoey Dixon, Children’s and Young People’s Librarian, Lambeth Libraries
Away with Words by Sophie Cameron (Little Tiger) was one of my most unexpected reads this year and had me thinking, imagine if you could see the words we speak, what would you do with them? This device, where words become tangible objects once spoken, highlights the power of communication and the importance of making one’s voice be heard. It’s a celebration of language and words. Kids, especially those for whom English is an additional language, will relate to Gala’s struggles of fitting in. The placement of the text on the page, including blank spaces that indicate missing words that Gala doesn’t understand, allows you to really empathise with her. I really loved the LGBTQ+ inclusion, and how it represents a different kind of blended family not usually shown. A simple, subtle, and yet powerful story, it is told with a lot of heart.
Fen Coles, Letterbox Library
2023 witnessed a rich casting of LGBTQ+ characters. Middle Grade novels, Glitter Boy by Ian Eagleton (Scholastic) and Just Like Everyone Else by Sarah Hagger-Holt (Usborne) and picture book, Out of the Blue Robert Tregoning and Stef Murphy (Bloomsbury) all foreground a (white) child exploring their identity with, first, hesitancy and, then, pizzazz. Uniting these creators is that they all grew up under the homophobic legislation, Section 28, and their work feels like a truly glorious uprising. Queer genre subversions in 2023 included several fairytale rewrites with mixed results. Standouts include Tales From Beyond the Rainbow, adapted by Pete Jordi Wood and various illustrators (Puffin Classics), a proud reclamation of fairytales across cultures and a reimaging of ‘The Frog Prince’ in which kisses bring out all the rainbows (mixed race couple). Our topmost 2023 LGBTQ+ dazzlers are: Budgie, by Joseph Coelho and David Barrow (Barrington Stoke) with its rare portrayal of an older gay man (mixed couple); the paperback edition of the under-exposed Over the Shop, by JonArno Lawson and Qin Leng (Walker Books) starring a queer PoC couple and a visual shower of queer signifiers; Everything Possible, by Fred Small and Alison Brown (Nosy Crow), a picture book anthem to children with an explicitly queer-inclusive message or, to paraphrase: ‘the only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re done’.
Pam Dix, Chair of IBBY UK
In my research on illustrated information books from around the world, I have been fascinated to find several author/illustrators using fabric and needlework as part of their storytelling, reminiscent of the work of Faith Ringgold. The work of the Brazilian artist, embroiderer and writer Flavia Bomfim is particularly exciting. In O Adeus Do Marujo, which translates as The Sailor’s Goodbye, (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Pallas, 2022) she looks at the life of the important 1890s sailor, João Cândido, imprisoned after leading a revolt to stop the mistreatment of sailors in Brazil. In prison Candido himself learned embroidery, so Bomfim’s embroidered images, superimposed on to striking indigo illustrations and photographs, are particularly poignant. The indigo refers to trading between Brazil and West Africa and slavery. This book won a special mention at the Bologna Ragazzi awards this year. An English edition is to be published by Tara Books.
Dr Rebecca Butler writes, lectures and tutors on children’s literature
My first choice is Sing If You Can’t Dance by Alexa Casale. Casale’s portrayal of Ven and her medical condition acquired as a teenager, will resonate with anyone with a similar life-changing experience. The black humour Ven uses in relation to medical appointments and the profession jumps off the page, imbued with veracity. Casale does not shy away from describing the negative aspects of life with a chronic condition. This book will bring about conversation on topics which are often buried or unexplored. Thieves’ Gambit by Kayvion Lewis is an electrifying thriller with an unusual premise and an unanticipated twist at the end. If you have ever wanted to know what goes on in a criminal mind and how audacious heists are planned and executed, this is the book for you. Whether you want to or not, you will be rooting for Rosalyn Quest, however devious her objectives.