Top 50 children's books

by gabeatkinson / 13 December, 2012
A round up of this year's top 50 children's books.


A cancer treatment centre is an unlikely setting for a love story, but the extraordinary John Green makes it both believable and beautiful in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (Penguin, $26), an engaging and exhilarating roller coaster of a romance. Even as Hazel and Augustus run away for a romantic weekend, we know their story will end in tears – yet it’s uplifting, not maudlin.

Paul Griffin is back with BURNING BLUE (Text, $26), another sizzler from the Stay with Me author. After teen beauty queen Nicole is attacked with acid, hacker Jay Nazarro, an epileptic, falls in love with the victim as he becomes determined to discover her attacker’s identity. Up there with the best adult crime cliffhangers.

It’s been done before, but never like this. David Levithan takes the idea of body-swapping to extremes in EVERY DAY (Text, $26), a love story in which a boy wakes up each day in a different person’s body – not always male. As Justin, he falls in love with Justin’s girlfriend, Rhiannon, and to keep meeting her must actively engage with each character’s reality. Clever.

Some new Australian young adult fiction is as raw as the landscape. Vikki Wakefield’s eponymous FRIDAY BROWN (Text, $26) heads to the city after her mum dies of cancer, and meets up with the enigmatic Silence, whose ragtag “family” is led by a manipulative Dickensian mother figure not much older than Friday. Fleeing town in a stolen vehicle, Friday is the only one with the smarts to survive the harsh environment – but even she may not be able to save Silence. Deeply satisfying, surprisingly upbeat.

Definitely for older teens, CREEPY & MAUD (Fremantle Press, $26), rookie West Australian writer Dianne Touchell’s voyeuristic observation of the fragile relationship between self-obsessed teen neighbours who relate almost entirely through the filter of their window blinds, is searingly honest, often excruciating and blackly funny.

“We have all lost someone. It becomes a matter of what we do next,” says a wise character in THE INK BRIDGE (Allen & Unwin, $22.99). Australian Neil Grant puts a human face on the plight of boat people through the characters of Omed, a tongueless survivor of Taliban atrocities, and Hec, an Australian boy mute since the death of his mother. Ultimately, their silent friendship redeems more than the boys themselves.

Sleeping Dogs meets the Urewera raids in Mandy Hager’s nightmarish THE NATURE OF ASH (Random House, $19.99). In a New Zealand occupied by an Asian nation, Ash’s union official dad is killed in a bomb blast and he must escape the capital with his Down syndrome brother and an Asian student caregiver. As chaotic as many kids’ lives – and just as believable.

Like a gothic Boardwalk Empire for teens, Libba Bray’s THE DIVINERS (Allen & Unwin, $29.99), liberally seasoned with the lingo of the day, is set in Roaring 20s New York. Clairvoyant Evie, 17, packed off to the Big Apple after breaking the rules back home, breaks a whole lot more in her search for a reincarnated murderer signing himself Naughty John. Kerry Greenwood calls it, fittingly, “Mary Shelley after a long night on the laudanum”.

More gently paced and subtler in its use of extrasensory perception is Elizabeth George’s THE EDGE OF NOWHERE (Hodder & Stoughton, $24.99), the first of three young adult novels from the creator of the Inspector Lynley novels for adults. Becca, like Evie, hears others’ unspoken thoughts – including those of her murderous stepfather. On the run, she becomes separated from her mother but is taken in by strangers on Whidbey Island, off Seattle (the author’s home territory). At times beguilingly beautiful.

Names have been changed for fictional reasons but the facts remain: just days after the D-Day landing in 1944, and for no apparent reason, a German Panzer division massacred a whole French village. Although Natasha Farrant, who has previously written two novels for adults, warns her readers of what’s to come in THE THINGS WE DID FOR LOVE (Faber and Faber, $24.99), it’s only in the second half of this novel – until then a rather idyllic teen love story – that the horrifying events unfold.

A right gothic heart-stopper is BLACK HEART BLUE (Penguin, $26), Louisa Reid’s contemporary tale of twins Rebecca and Hephzibah, daughters of an English vicar. No idyll this; their restrained voices reveal in turn – one from beyond the grave – a life of unspeakable abuse. Rebecca’s treatment at the hands of The Parents is particularly horrifying – born with Treacher Collins syndrome, she has been denied any of the treatments available for children with cranio-facial deformities. Surprisingly, it ends on a positive note.

The year is 1916. Two brothers, one a soldier and the other a conscientious objector, go off to war in Europe. Acknowledging his debt to Archibald Baxter, David Hill brings to life in sickening detail in MY BROTHER’S WAR (Puffin, $19.99) the horror and inhumanity of the conflict in which so many men of his grandfather’s generation were lost – especially the brutal punishment meted out to conscientious objectors.

War again. Australian Suzy Zail’s THE WRONG BOY (Walker, $21.99) is a story of friendship and redemption across an unthinkable divide. Blonde Jewish teen Hanna, from the Warsaw ghetto, is a gifted pianist – which may save her life. Each day, she plays for the Birkenau commandant and his sullen son in their elegant home. Often stomach-churning, this is not for the faint-hearted, but is well worth the journey.

Best-selling Australian author Maureen McCarthy sets her story of four generations of Catholic women in THE CONVENT (Allen & Unwin, $28.99), an imposing building, now an arts centre, that has been home at some time to each of them – Peach; her birth mother, Cecilia; grandmother Edna; and great grandmother Sadie. This splendid saga, which covers important issues in its broad historical sweep, is also acutely personal – the author’s own mother was raised in this Melbourne convent from age three.


Auggie, a 10-year-old making the transition from home-schooling to an ordinary classroom, wants nothing more than to blend in. But when you have no ears or cheekbones (Treacher Collins again), there’s no way people can ignore you. First-time writer RJ Palacio’s WONDER (Bodley Head, $24.99) is an astonishing achievement – heartwarming, often hilarious and above all uplifting.

The disabilities are not so obvious in LIAR AND SPY (Text, $21), from Newbery Medal-winner Rebecca Stead. Moving into a New York apartment when his architect father loses his job, Georges meets homeschooled kids Candy and Safer. Scrabble messages, school bullies and a Spy Club; this is both subtle and profound – as its author intended, a “confusing and true book about friendship”.

If you’re lucky, you’ll know a child just like Liam, the Masked Avenger who keeps watch over his quiet Perth street. Craig Silvey’s THE AMBER AMULET (Allen & Unwin, $21.99) is a wee gem of a hardback that will delight as much for its collage illustrations as for its tale of a boy with an overactive imagination who gets caught up in an adult world.

Another treat as much for its illustrations as its poignant story is Kate De Goldi’s THE ACB OF HONORA LEE (Random House, $34.99), in which Perry befriends her estranged granny Honora – descending into dementia – through the creation of a very personal alphabet. The multi-talented Gregory O’Brien’s quirky artworks complement a perceptive and satisfyingly timeless tale.

Also to have and to hold: Sarah Crossan’s THE WEIGHT OF WATER (Bloomsbury, $21.99), in which Kasienka leaves a culturally rich past in Eastern Europe for an unknown future in Britain, is a beautiful package. Her mother’s stolidness, the meanness of her surroundings, the bitchiness of classmates and the camaraderie of fellow immigrants are eloquently laid down in blank verse. A treasure.

Truth is stranger than fiction, and some of Michael Morpurgo’s best stories are based on historical fact. In the Michael Foreman-illustrated A MEDAL FOR LEROY (HarperCollins, $24.99), the author of War Horse recreates the man who became Britain’s first black army officer in World War I – recommended for a Military Cross that has never been awarded – through Michael, half-French and slowly uncovering his own history after the death of the aunties who held the family secrets.

There are secrets aplenty in Susan Brocker’s rip-roaring yarn of the 1860s goldfields in THE DROVER’S QUEST (HarperCollins, $19.99), featuring feisty Charlotte, who runs away from an orphanage and dresses as a boy to search for her missing father on a cattle drive (not “drove”, even in America) to the West Coast. The author’s love of the New Zealand bush and her intimate knowledge of horses, dogs and cattle shine through a rollicking text.

A sadder animal story transcends its origins to beam a message of hope in THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN (HarperCollins, $16.99), Katherine Applegate’s fable based on the true story of a captive gorilla in a US mall. Ivan speaks for all gorillas and his empathy with his sideshow fellows, elephants Stella and baby Ruby, moves him to find a way out. Julia, daughter of mall caretaker George, assists.


The magnificent MISTER WHISTLER (Gecko Press, $34.99) is a book that celebrates author Margaret Mahy as much as her timeless tale of a man who misplaces his ticket on the way to catch a train. Gavin Bishop’s realisation of her character is breathtaking – Whistler undresses in an attempt to find the ticket, performing a dazzling song and dance routine that carries him to ultimate success, but not before he has stripped to his elegant underpants. Smart kids, of course, will have spotted the ticket between his teeth.

Oliver Jeffers’s creations follow their own quirky logic – as in the story of Wilfred and Marcel in THIS MOOSE BELONGS TO ME (HarperCollins, $29.99). Parents of preschoolers will recognise the arbitrary rules the boy imposes on his pet that, like the best of companions real or imaginary, simply arrives one day. Unfortunately, this moose is living a double life. Supremely economical with words, Jeffers balances lavish Victorian landscapes with simple stick figures to illustrate his tale.

Every kid (and every parent) who ever wore specs will love ARLO NEEDS GLASSES (Workman, $29.99). Barney Saltzberg cleverly casts his narrator’s dog as the one who needs help; mutt Arlo loves to play but can’t catch balls any more, so is taken to have his eyes checked. A simple pop-up with tabs showing eye charts; try-on specs (Superhero, Mad Scientist); and a final pop-up spread of doggy-title books – because now that Arlo can see, he loves to read.

Another dog stars in OH NO, GEORGE! (Walker, $27.99) by Chris Haughton, author of last year’s award-winning A Bit Lost. Who can resist cake – especially in psychedelic colours? Haughton taught very small children for a year, so it’s no surprise his refrains capture toddler-speak across cultures. Our grandson Jack – already in command of “uh-oh!” (A Bit Lost) – has now added “oh no!” to his repertoire.

Author-illustrator Penny Dale covers all the bases in DINOSAUR ZOOM (Nosy Crow, $29.99), an unlikely combination of dinosaurs and vehicles in a madcap story about a surprise birthday party. Guests of every colour travel through landscapes from desert to mountains, in racy cars, tractors, trail bikes and crane trucks, with appropriately noisy rhymes. It could have bombed, but it works.

Again – who’d have thought iceblock sticks could inspire a storyteller? ROSIE’S MAGIC HORSE (Walker, $27.99) is surely the last picture show from Russell Hoban – who died last year – and his longtime collaborator Quentin Blake, who’ve concocted a sweet treat around a girl’s cigar-box collection. Rosie and her dream horse gallop over jungles, deserts and oceans in search of treasure to pay the family’s bills. As the old stick says to the young one: “In your dreams.”

It’s show and tell time featuring a family member. All the other kids have interesting tales to tell but our narrator just has cantankerous old Frank, his live-in grandad. In THE FRANK SHOW (HarperCollins, $29.99), we know what Frank doesn’t like – noise, today’s music, new things, haircuts, doctors – the list goes on. But when Frank starts to tell the class his story, he wows them all. The brilliant David Mackintosh not only wrote the story, but drew the excellent pictures and designed the cover as well.

“We’re here about the mammoth in the fridge,” says the firefighter. So begins the unlikely tale of Michael Escoffier’s A MAMMOTH IN THE FRIDGE (Gecko Press, $34.99/$19.99), translated by Linda Burgess, with very French illustrations by Matthieu Maudet. Having defeated its would-be saviours, the beast ends up, as night falls, in a tree – until our child narrator lures it down to join his bedroom menagerie of other extinct and mythical creatures.

Irish picture-book writer Lorraine Francis and Belgian illustrator Pieter Gaudesaboos collaborate on SAMMY AND THE SKYSCRAPER SANDWICH (Book Island, $24.99), a supersized board book about a boy who keeps adding layers to his mammoth meal, like some out-of-control Hungry Caterpillar. The delicious text is mixed with a stylised cornucopia of ingredients in the first title from this Kapiti-based publisher and translator of bestselling Belgian children’s books.

ittle Baa Baa and Quirky Turkey are back for another game of one-upmanship in I LOVE LEMONADE (Dreamboat, $29.99), Mark and Rowan Sommerset’s witty sequel to their 2011 New Zealand Post Children’s Choice award-winner, Baa Baa Smart Sheep. But who will win the game this time? It’s up for grabs until the very end.

Getting dressed is such a big deal for preschoolers. Australian Mini Goss’s handknitted dogs Barry and Stella try on and discard garments in TOO COLD FOR A TUTU (Allen & Unwin, $24.99) before venturing outside on a day that’s almost too cold for Stella’s Nanna-made tulle skirt. This veteran illustrator – who hadn’t knitted before her painted first version of this story was rejected by her publisher – has since knitted a baby elephant sculpture for Melbourne Zoo.

A gentle three-part meditation on angels, Tohby Riddle’s UNFORGOTTEN (Allen & Unwin, $39.99) is replete with visual references to classical sculptures, metropolitan cityscapes and classics like The Happy Prince. “They come to watch over and to warm and to mend,” he writes – but when they are exhausted others come to perform that service for them. A picture book for all ages that will repay multiple readings.

THE OLD MAN AND THE CAT (Puffin, $19.99), Anthony Holcroft’s 1984 morality tale about a magic flute, is beautifully realised by Leah Palmer Preiss in glowing golden tones that complement the lyrical text. The dangers of enchantment are spelled out in the story of the creation, theft and subsequent destruction of the flute.


Several new editions combining best-known and more obscure stories mark the bicentenary of the Grimm brothers’ collections of “children’s and household” tales. Philip Pullman’s 50 GRIMM TALES FOR YOUNG AND OLD (Puffin, $50) stands out for its sound introduction to what he calls “the cream” of the Kinder- und Hausmarchen, for his prose (straightforward as befits the tradition), for the notes that follow each story – and for the sheer elegance of the package.


A valuable resource for all New Zealanders, Riria Hotere and Simon Morton’s 100 AMAZING TALES FROM AOTEAROA (Te Papa Press, $34.99) comes with DVDs from the TV series that inspired it. This “behind the scenes at the museum” collection covers every area of Te Papa’s work, from collection and conservation to exhibitions, by way of objects as varied as whalebones, bats for kilikiti (Samoan cricket) and Michel Tuffery’s corned-beef-can cow.

Behind the scenes again, Shaun Tan’s SKETCHES FROM A NAMELESS LAND: THE ART OF THE ARRIVAL (Lothian, $115) is a fascinating documentation of what its author calls the “iceberg keeping everything afloat” beneath his creative project. Tan, grandson of immigrants, won numerous awards for his wordless masterpiece The Arrival, which has since become a successful stage play. It’s in a slipcase with the original book; for serious collectors, there’s also an edition in a vintage suitcase, at $440.

Raman Prinja, professor of astrophysics at University College London, brilliantly interprets his subject for a young audience in THE UNIVERSE ROCKS: THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO SPACE (QED, $21). Superbly presented and fantastic value, it alternates simply packaged heavy-duty topics with activities the youngest reader will enjoy.

From the same publisher comes PLANET EARTH (QED, $24.99), Steve Parker’s introduction to earth science by habitats – deserts, rainforests, polar regions and oceans. With a strong environmental message, the text is in visually flowing double spreads that include “Wow!” and “It’s so … (sharp/hidden/confusing)” slots for kids with short attention spans. A clear table of contents, glossary and index all lead quickly to topics as diverse as Deadly Killers and Using Camouflage. Ringbound for easy use.

SAFARI: A PHOTICULAR BOOK (Workman, $49.99) brings to life seven stars of the African plains, plus the gorillas of the lowland forests. Dan Kainen’s update on old technology allows the eight animals to strut their stuff with a mere turn of the page and Carol Kaufmann’s essay and the background on each creature’s lifestyle and habitat lift this treasury above the merely gimmicky.

Taking up where the movie left off, Sumner Burstyn follows the Ottley-Karena whanau’s nomadic back-country lifestyle in a handsome book version of their film, THIS WAY OF LIFE (HarperCollins, $34.99). Each of the seven kids gets a chapter on their horse-trekking and hunting expeditions with dad Peter, plus time spent with mum Colleen – including her trip with son Wellie to a frozen Berlin for the film festival featuring their life story on the big screen. Superb.

SPOT WHAT! Metropolis (Hinkler, $19.99) is Nick Bryant and Rowan Summers’s Australian answer to Richard Scarry or Where’s Wally? – a very urban melange of stuff hiding in car parks, an archeological dig, a junkyard and so on. Some unexpected items are specific to a spread, others lurk in every picture and there are harder challenges, too. An intelligent alternative to telly for curious kids.

Dinosaurs rule for heaps of kids; origami is a passion for others. Mari Ono and Hiroaki Takai combine the two in DINOGAMI (Cico Books, $34.99), which demonstrates how to make all your favourites – from ankylosaurus to triceratops – using supplied printed papers. Every step is clearly demonstrated, with a difficulty rating from one to three.

Each generation needs a fresh take on the old crafts that never lose their appeal. In RAINY DAY BOOK OF THINGS TO MAKE AND DO (Ryland Peters & Small, $34.99), Catherine Woram and Clare Youngs do justice to stitched, glued and cut-out projects, from paper crafts, dolls-house furniture and painted driftwood sculpture to simple clothes. Clear instructions, an emphasis on upcycling and a minimum of clutter make this suitable for preschoolers to intermediate-age kids.

John McCrystal’s polar bear is already well known in over 100 Kiwi primary schools. In SHACKLETON BEAR GOES SOUTH (Public Interest Publishing, $25/$40 with bear), the perfect poster boy for Antarctica, who looks every bit the part, meets every creature from penguins to sea elephants, checks out historical items of interest en route and explores his namesake’s hut. A great concept, well realised.

Displaying our iconic bird is as challenging for an illustrator as for a wildlife curator. In KIWI: THE REAL STORY (New Holland, $29.99), artist Heather Hunt enlivens her dark backdrops with flashes of colour, with her bird a series of white scribbles capturing the nocturnal creature’s movements as if under an ultraviolet spotlight. Annemarie Florian’s text, endorsing the kiwi’s attributes (cricket-cruncher, mantismuncher), nestles in dramatic double-page spreads.

Joy Cowley’s MANUKURA THE WHITE KIWI (Random House, $19.99) is the true story of the rare white kiwi that hatched at Pukaha Mount Bruce in May 2011. The master storyteller’s simple text describes the bird’s origins and cultural significance and brings the reminder message of how special life is. Bruce Potter’s illustrations convey physical details as well as the emotion surrounding the bird’s arrival.

We’ve all heard of the randy kakapo that took a shine to Stephen Fry, among others. Much has happened since we listed Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop’s Houghton Mifflin hardback in 2010; royalties from SIROCCO: THE ROCK-STAR KAKAPO (Random House, $24.99), Sarah Ell’s valuable update on the bird that’s become a poster boy for his endangered breed, will help the cause.

It’s a mammoth task, lining up a brief history of civilisation with the lifespan of a New Zealand native tree, but Marnie Anstis, with illustrators Patricia Howitt and Kelly Spencer, pulls it off in TAKETAKERAU: THE MILLENNIUM TREE (Steele Roberts, $35). Older than the Colosseum, older than Lake Taupo, this tree still stands – the ancient and sacred puriri, near Opotiki, is believed to be over 2000 years old.

Ann Packer is a writer and journalist.

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