The Best Children’s Books of 2011
At the end of last year Books for Keeps invited a range of distinguished children’s book writers, illustrators, critics, librarians, booksellers and other specialists to choose their best book of 2011. Their choices include fiction, picture books, poetry and non-fiction from a year notable for the quality and diversity of its output, despite the difficulties faced by the booktrade and the decimation of library services. Inevitably given such riches to choose from, some titles that I hoped would be selected have not been and to my mind Anne Fine’s The Devil Walks (Doubleday), Fabio Gerda’s In the sea there are crocodiles (David Fickling Books) and Moira Young’s Blood Red Road (Scholastic) are as noteworthy as the many excellent titles discussed here. BfK Editor Rosemary Stones
Gregory Rogers, Kate Greenaway Medal winner
Hervé Tullet, Chronicle Books, 56pp, 978 0 8118 7954 5, £9.99 hbk
For anyone who thinks an iPad is the ultimate in kids entertainment, you haven’t seen this book in the hands of children. In a world that is driven by all things wiz-bang and techno, Hervé Tullet’s Press Here proves that the imagination is way more powerful than anything Mr Jobs could offer.
But beware! This book contains serious fun and you will be forced to surrender yourself to the power of the dot. The true genius of Press Here, apart from being the ultimate ‘less is more’ book, is that the reader can’t help but fall, hook line and sinker, for the game that Tullet wants us to play. And the game is simple – playing with dots.
I was totally absorbed and obeyed the book’s every command as the game unfolded. I jiggled, shook, tilted, pressed and blew my way through the pages, oblivious to the onlookers’ stares of amusement as this adult happily made an idiot of himself. I won’t buy into this argument that eBooks and iPad-type technology will see the death of traditional books. Just watch the kids go dotty over this one. Thanks, Mr Tullet, for your simple magic. (Under 5s)
Alexis Deacon, illustrator
I Want my Hat Back
Jon Klassen, Walker, 40pp, 978 1 4063 3683 2, £11.99 hbk
I first encountered Jon Klassen’s work in his animation, ‘An Eye for
Annai’. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend seeking it out. I Want my Hat Back is his first picture book as both author and illustrator. It is a brilliant book and one of very few to understand that sometimes less is more when you are trying to tell a story. The main character neither changes position one inch nor looks at anybody else until the book is half way done. When he does move, to collapse prostrate in despair, it is all the more significant.The dialogue is as sparse as the pictures. It is also hilarious. The minimal approach works with children too. Those I have read this book with laughed even harder than I did. There is a great feeling of power that comes from knowing what has happened even though neither the words nor the pictures will admit to it. Of course you don’t have to buy it for a child. I got it for myself! (Under 5s)
Peter Hunt, Professor of Children’s Literature, Newcastle University
Little Red Hood
Marjolaine Leray, trans. Sarah Ardizzone, Phoenix Yard
Books, 40pp, 978 1 9079 1200 9, £7.99 hbk
If there’s anyone out there who is worried about the future of children’s publishing, here’s a book to cheer them. It’s all frighteningly good:author, translator, publishing house – all young, fresh, independent, and talented. A book that made an old hack academic sigh with pleasure at the minimalist originality, and small readers on the knee turn the pages with rapt attention, and then turn back for a rerun. What else could you ask for? (5+)
Rosemary Stones, Editor, Books for Keeps
David McPhail, Frances Lincoln, 32pp, 978 1 8478 0120 3, £12.99 hbk
Walking down a residential street to the post box with a letter addressed to the President, a small boy witnesses warplanes passing overhead about to release their cargo of bombs, a house demolished by a tank, soldiers kicking in a door and a man beaten up for defacing a political poster. When a bigger boy lounging by the post box tries to bully him, the small boy at last retaliates by shouting ‘No!’ His ‘No!’ reverberates and events rewind, this time with different outcomes – the house rebuilt, the soldiers offering gifts, the man recovered and so forth. The boy’s letter asks the president what rules the adult world has in response to bullying of the kind the book portrays.
A powerful fable for our times, this almost wordless picture book will provoke discussion and questioning for young readers, all too aware from their television screens of the real life wars currently being waged in the world. David McPhail’s intense crosshatching and fluid line together with his sombre palette carry the narrative well. (5+)
Martin Salisbury, Course Director, MA Children’s Book Illustration, Anglia Ruskin University
Tiny Little Fly
Michael Rosen, ill. Kevin Waldron, Walker, 32pp, 978 1 4063 3097 7, £6.99 pbk
As the electronic book gains momentum and the publishing of picture book ‘apps’ continues to grow, it has become clear over the last year or two that the traditional paper picture book has needed to assert its difference by emphasizing its physicality. So we are seeing increasingly beautiful, tactile publications that celebrate scale, colour and the quality of ink on coated and uncoated paper, embossing, laminating and all those other things that the unchanging, backlit screen cannot compete with. One of the biggest and best of last year was the stunning Tiny Little Fly. What could be better than a marriage of the words of Michael Rosen and the pictures of Bologna Ragazzi Award winning artist, Kevin Waldron? The book is a celebration of what only a book can do. Rosen’s clever text is brought to life by Waldron’s stunning use of the large pages to emphasize the contrast in scale between the eponymous tiny fly and the enormous animals that it bothers. A fabulous book to hold, touch, smell and own. (Under 5s)
Ferelith Hordon, Chair, the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Judges 2011
The Language of Cat
Rachel Rooney, Frances Lincoln, 96pp, 978 1 8478 0167 8, £5.99 pbk
Looking back over the year, it is almost too difficult to see the tree for the forest. Far from books being on their death bed, even more seem to have been born, many heavily promoted with fanfares and fuss. There has been much to celebrate, but for me, the book that stands out slipped in quietly and unobtrusively. Poetry, especially for young people, languishes on the margins, all too often relying on anthologies full of the familiar or battering the reader with laughs. What a treat to find The Language of Cat by Rachel Rooney. This debut collection is full of gems that can appeal to both a young reader – and an adult. Rooney makes sophisticated use of language – I love the opening poem ‘Who?’ – and is at ease with a variety of poetic forms and rhythms. If this sounds serious, it is not. The whole is imbued with a subtle humour, presented with a smile and accompanied by charming line drawings by Ellie Jenkins. Above all The Language of Cat celebrates words ant the poet’s craft. This slim little book contains treasure. (8+)
Elizabeth Hammill, co-founder, Seven Stories
It’s a Book
Lane Smith, Macmillan, 32pp, 978 0 2307 5313 6, £10.99 hbk
Lane Smith enters the print versus digital debate with a spare, wickedly funny, paean to the virtues of the book, powered by his characteristic verbal and visual high jinks and media savvy design. His protagonists are a book-loving monkey and a high-tech jackass who can’t fathom the appeal of the switchless, buttonless, soundless, cordless object his friend is so absorbed in. Sitting together, one with a laptop, the other a book, donkey pesters monkey: ‘What do you have there?’ ‘It’s a book.’ ‘Do you blog with it? …scroll down? … text? …tweet? Monkey’s refrains – riffs on the title – only tell jackass what a book isn’t
Shown a dramatic illustrated passage from Treasure Island, donkey sees ‘Too many letters’ and reduces these to minimalist text speak: ‘LJS: rrr! K? 1o1! JIM: ( !:) His curiosity kindled, he seizes exasperated monkey’s book. A sublime wordless sequence shows him succumbing to its power. Repeated images where a clock marks passing time and the movement of donkey’s ears and eyes, the interaction of imagination and narrative, reveal a reader becoming ‘lost in a book’ and capture why reading a book is different from reading digital media. Despite a stunning last line, Donkey, converted, has the last word on the back cover – giving bibliophiles reason to rejoice. (5+)
Marilyn Brocklehurst, the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre
One Dog and his Boy
Eva Ibbotson, Marion Lloyd Books, 288pp, 978 1 4071 2423 0, £10.99 hbk
It’s so exciting when a book like this one is published because you know you can draw it to the attention of so many children who will instantly take it to their heart. Hal’s rich and busy parents barely notice him. They know he wants a dog for his birthday but don’t anticipate how devastated he will be when Fleck, the temporary rented dog they have acquired from a bizarre dog-borrowing operation called Easy Pets, needs to be returned to the store. Hal decides to run away with Fleck to his grandparents, and a journey ensues which involves a delightful – and dastardly – set of human and canine characters. The cleverly constructed plot is at times tense and exciting, at others poignant and moving, and ultimately provides a satisfying and heart-warming conclusion as all the best classic stories do. The excellent illustrations by Sharon Rentta bring Fleck vigorously to life. For eight year olds and up this is a terrific read-aloud or read-it-yourself by Eva Ibbotson, the wonderful story-teller responsible for Journey to the River Sea – one of my all-time favourite books. She died in 2010 and will be sadly missed. (8+)
Clive Barnes, formerly Principal Children’s Librarian, Southampton
Green Glass Beads: A Collection of Poems for Girls
Jacqueline Wilson, Macmillan, 288 pp, 978 0 2307 5815 5, £9.99 hbk
Care, knowledge and enthusiasm are the hallmarks of this outstanding anthology. It has a wonderful range of poems, introducing its readers to poets from Shakespeare to Duffy, and has arranged them to surprise and delight. The personal touch is there in the choice of poems: some written originally for children but many written without any particular audience in mind; some that are familiar but many that I, at least, am meeting for the first time and many that you won’t find in other anthologies. It’s there, too, in the choice of subjects. Yes, it’s a collection for girls, so you would expect sections on Friends and Family and Love and Animals and even Nymphs, Mermaids, Fairies and Witches, but there is nothing saccharine, rather there is a sense of wonder, tenderness and fun. There are moods that are missing or only glimpsed, of anger, bitterness or fear; but these omissions, and Jacqueline Wilson’s charming introduction, only
add to the sense that you really are sharing her favourite poems and somehow gaining an insight into what makes her laugh, cry and dream. (8+)
John McLay, Artistic Director, The Telegraph Bath Kids LitFest
Ruby Redfort: Look into My Eyes
Lauren Child, HarperCollins, 978 0 0073 3406 3, £12.99 hbk
Hey, busters! It was a long time coming after news of this fiction deal was first announced in 2009. Normal life was a total yawn while we all waited for the first ‘Ruby Redfort’ novel, the super-awesome new creation from multi-million-copy bestselling author Lauren Child. But is it any good? Was it worth the wait? Do you want to know? Of course you do, bozos! Well, it is pretty good, in fact. A definite favourite of mine and touch of light relief amidst the darkness and dystopia of so much of the other fiction published alongside it. Ruby is an old-beyond-her-years genius code-cracker, a daring detective, and a gadget-laden special agent who just happens to be a thirteen-year-old girl. She and her slick side-kick butler, Hitch, foil crimes and get into loads of scrapes with evil comic-book villains, but they’re always ice-cool in a crisis in this first book of a series.
Does it stretch credulity? Yes! But who cares? It has a lovely lightness about it. A genuine, child-friendly readability that is engaging and refreshing. I warmed to it instantly and look forward to reading the next instalment! I’m very much hoping it will not be quite as long a wait. (9+)
Julia Eccleshare, Children’s Books Editor, The Guardian
The Unforgotten Coat, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Walker, 978 1 4063 3385 5, £10.00 hbk
At a time when so many books are heavily descriptive and overly-long, Frank Cottrell Boyce’s trust that readers can imagine a story and take the sense of it without him having to tell or even show them everything is delightfully refreshing. Apparently almost a fragment rather than a full blown novel, The Unforgotten Coat is nonetheless a gem of a story. And an important one, too. The superficially lightweight feel is accentuated by the physical appearance as it is written as if in an exercise book by Julie who looks back on an extraordinary incident that happened when she was in Year Six. In her account she describes the unexpected arrival at the school of Chingis and Nergui, two brothers from Mongolia. When they ask her to become their ‘Good Guide’ and show them what they need to know, Julie gets completely caught up in their stories and the imaginary and all too horribly real dangers they face. There is some fantasy to make it all palatable but no fake sentimentality or ducking of the harsh reality of the boys’ situation. Frank Cottrell Boyce’s familiar warmth and underlying compassion enable him to make moral points about society’s need to be tolerant and understanding without ever preaching. (9+)
Philip Pullman, Carnegie Medal winner
The Magic of Reality: How we know what’s really true
Richard Dawkins, ill. Dave McKean, Bantam, 272pp, 978 0 5930 6612 6, £20 hbk
Richard Dawkins has become known in the past few years more for his opposition to religion than for his great talent as an explainer of science, which is a pity. In this book he manages to combine both interests, but the more important one wins. He takes a number of creation myths (how the rainbow came, why we have seasons, and so on), and looks at the science behind the matter concerned. The explanations he gives for these great natural phenomena are so clear and vivid that the only word I can find for them is beautiful.
His purpose in writing the book is clear: he wants to persuade the reader, young or old, that science has better explanations for things than superstition or religion do, that it’s not just much more likely to be true, but more fascinating, more wonderful. His explanations would do that by themselves without his debunking of the myths, but he includes a passage on David Hume’s scepticism about miracles, which is well worth reading for its own sake.
Dave McKean’s illustrations are not just decorative, they are explanatory in the best possible way. This is a marvellous book. (9+)
Nicholas Tucker, Honorary Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies, Sussex University
H.M.Castor, Templar, 336pp, 978 1 8487 7499 5, £10.99 hbk
You might have thought that enough fictionalised history had already been written about that old rogue Henry VIII, particularly during the last decade. But this fine novel proves any such assumption wrong. H.M.Castor re-creates Henry as an utterly convincing character, a victim not just of vanity and oafishness but also to memories of an affectionless childhood and a conviction that his sacred mission is to re-occupy England’s disputed territories in France. There is also the succession to make sure of, with everyone fearful of a return to pre -Tudor lawlessness in the absence of a strong, succeeding male king. Henry’s separation from Catherine is touchingly described, with neither party wanting it to happen but realpolitik winning out in the end. Vivid historical detail abounds, with glimpses of jousts, hunts and pageants as well as fine clothes, exotic jewels and rarefied food. More a flawed human than the bluebeard of popular report, Henry’s moody personality dominates from first page to last, with no-one – either at the court itself or else reading the book now – ever quite sure what he is going to do next. Read and enjoy. (10+)
Alan Gibbons, children’s writer and organiser, the Campaign for the Book
Bali Rai, Corgi, 336pp, 978 0 5525 6211 9, £6.99 pbk
Sometimes you pick up a book that stares in the face of an uncomfortable reality and delineates its every feature with fearlessness, honesty and integrity. Bali Rai’s Killing Honour is one of those books.
The author comes from a Punjabi Sikh background. It would be all too easy to shy away from the issue of honour killing. Bali refuses to do that.
As he says in an interview on the Sugarscape website, the fact that 17,000 women every year are the victims of honour-related violence is not a cultural issue, as some misguided observers would have it. It is: ‘men exercising brute power over women.’ When Sat’s beloved sister Jas marries into the Atwal family her life becomes a descent into Hell. She disappears and Sat tries to find out what has happened to her. The Atwals allege that she has run off with her lover. Sat knows this is wrong. Shockingly, the other members of his family abandon their own daughter, forcing Sat to rethink his whole value system.
This is a fierce, angry book and all the better for it. As Bali says in the interview: ‘If I took the anger out of it, it wouldn’t be right.’ (12+)
Damian Kelleher, journalist and writer
A Monster Calls
Patrick Ness & Siobhan Dowd, ill. Jim Kay, Walker, 216pp, 978 1 4063 1152 5, £12.99 hbk
I’ve always liked pictures as well as words in my books; I can think of plenty of children’s stories that would benefit from a few exquisite illustrations. Parents are always so keen to move their children on to ‘chapter books’, but isn’t it a little sad to wave goodbye too soon?
That’s part of the reason why I love A Monster Calls. It’s a grown-up book with pictures for teenage readers. It deals with Big Issues with Big Capital Letters. Terminal Cancer. Bullying. Absent Parents. These aren’t unique in YA fiction, but they are handled in a mature and engaging way by Patrick Ness. Still, what makes this book fly is the monster that stomps into Conor’s room at night, leaving its trail of yew needles. Jim Kay’s spiky, inky drawings with their textures and threats drag us into a dark, dangerous parallel world. As the monster relates stories to Conor, it allows him to make sense of his situation. Kay’s illustrations thrill us every bit as much as Ness’s text; the two complement each other, wrapping the reader up in the story, and squeezing until the tears come rolling down. And wouldn’t Siobhan Dowd have loved it? (12+)
Na’ima B. Robert, children’s writer
Phil Earle, Puffin, 272pp, 978 0 1413 3135 5, £6.99 pbk
‘Being Billy’ tells the story of Billy Finn, a ‘lifer’ who has spent eight years in a care home, getting into trouble, skipping school, while remaining fiercely protective of his twin brother and sister. When we first meet Billy, he has broken into the home of his former foster parents, just to be able to get a decent night’s sleep. This is the paradox that is Billy: a rough-edged teenager who himself needs to cuddle up in a familiar bed just to get some rest.
At times, the book is hard to read, Billy difficult to relate to, but this is, after all, reality. There are thousands of children just like Billy in our care system. I feel it is important for young readers to understand and empathise with the experiences of other young people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves on the harsh side of life.
Tough, realistic and unflinching, Being Billy is not a ‘nice’ book. Billy himself is not a ‘nice’ kid. But the sensitivity of Phil Earle’s writing allows us to see the fear, uncertainty and tenderness that lie beneath his hardened exterior and maybe make us less likely to judge those whose experiences we have little chance of understanding fully. (14+)
Keren David, journalist and children’s writer
Megan McCafferty, Corgi, 336pp, 978 0 5525 6539 4 £6.99 pbk
My favourite YA book of 2011 tackles weighty subjects like teenage sex, religion and economics, with exquisite wit and exuberant inventiveness.
In Bumped, Megan McCafferty imagines a world where a virus has made all adults infertile. Only teenagers can conceive and bear babies, and they are encouraged to do so. Main character, Melody lives in a world where teens are ‘bump’ either professionally, with lucrative contracts from adoptive parents, or as amateurs, getting pregnant and then selling their babies. Her estranged twin sister Harmony lives in a religious community which encourages teens to marry and breed very young. Melody’s fertility has been well and truly exploited by her adoptive parents, and she’s set to ‘bump’ with celebrity stud, Johndoe. Harmony’s on the run from her marriage. When the girls meet, their plans go awry in ways that are unexpected, hilarious and ultimately moving.
In a year when dystopia was all the rage, Bumped avoided the grim dreariness that so often comes with the genre. Instead Megan McCafferty holds up a satirical mirror to contemporary America’s confusion around sex, religion, pregnancy and celebrity. The result is clever, entertaining and memorable. The sequel, Thumped, is due in 2012. (14+)
Nicolette Jones, journalist and writer
Life: An Unexploded Diagram
Mal Peet, Walker, 416pp, 978 1 8442 8100 8, £7.99 pbk
Surely the most remarkable young adult book of the year, this is a comic, touching, satirical coming-of-age story set in Norfolk, interspersed with an electrifying behind-the-scenes account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the opening paragraph, during the War, a Hurricane startles Clem Ackroyd’s mother into giving birth early by shooting her chimney pot to bits (“‘I was expectun’, she’d often say, over the years, ‘But I wunt expectun that.’”). From this first explosion onwards, this chronicle of Clem’s life is irresistible. As a sixth
former he falls in love with Frankie, the local landowner’s daughter, and their compelling, illicit and compulsive relationship gives the story its focus, but in fact every detail of Clem’s family history, back through two generations, of the mad machinations of American warmongers, and of the Norfolk way of life is riveting. The tale builds to a heart-stopping climax and a poignant resolution, which lingers. The book has indignation, passion, wisdom, humour, surprise and an exhilarating choice of words. This, for instance: Clem’s desires are contemplated in “fingery darkness like woodlice under a brick”. Readers will love it, writers will wish they had written it, and, if there is any justice, prize judges will recognise it. (14+)