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The 50 best children’s books of 2011

If you're looking for something for the junior reader of the house, here's Ann Packer's picks from the past year.


Definitely the meatiest young adult novel of the year, Paul Griffin’s STAY WITH ME (Text, $26) successfully mixes first love – between a 15-year-old New York boy with a past and a bright spark of a girl from a dysfunctional family – with damaged pit bull terriers, which the boy has a gift for retraining. The ­writing, from the author of Ten Mile River, is raw and riveting.

Mal Peet’s LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM (Walker, $18.95), set at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, has an intense love story burning at its core, although mismatched lovers Clem and Frankie have more immediate concerns than worrying about nuclear war. Peet draws together two plots to meet in a devastating, contemporary denouement.

Juno grapples with love, Outside-style, as she faces life-threatening challenges in Fleur Beale’s HEART OF DANGER (Random House, $19.99), the final in this rite-of-passage trilogy. The strong-willed survivor of the dying world of Taris is living in Aotearoa and literally facing demons from her past – as well as discovering more about who she really is.

Love is not uppermost in Alex’s mind when he wakes one morning to find himself in the body of Philip, aka FLIP (Walker, $16.95). But in Martyn Bedford’s brilliant mind-swap novel, Flip is everything loner Alex is not – a girl magnet, good at German, an elite cricketer. A convincing page-turner.

DARK SOULS (Scholastic, $26) combines romance with a believable ghost story set in the old city of York, England, where New Zealand expat author Paula Morris spent time as a student. The town comes alive in more ways than one through the eyes of American Miranda, who sees ghosts everywhere in the most haunted city in the world.

Just who can you trust when everything around you is going up in flames? THE BRIDGE (Text, $26) – a first novel from Christchurch university research fellow Jane Higgins, who won Australian publisher Text’s prize for the best unpublished manuscript last year – tackles the theme of a city at war with itself with freshness and insight.

Set in a Star Wars future half a century hence, when coastal cities have been inundated and the world divided into haves, have-nots and fringe dwellers, Western Australian Lara Morgan’s EQUINOX: THE ROSIE BLACK ­CHRONICLES – BOOK TWO (Walker, $27.99) is as fast-paced as the first volume – and sets the scene for the next.

“Story is our way of understanding ourselves and explaining the bewildering world,” writes Jack Lasenby in CALLING THE GODS (HarperCollins, $24.99). Here he returns to his traditional style – but some way into this eloquent evocation of a coastal community of outcasts a new narrator appears. An Old Man (autobiographical, surely) reflects on his own civilisation as he witnesses the whanau putting down roots – same setting, but in some other historical moment, like a wrinkle in time – and holds his breath as he anticipates their end.

Cat Manno has shared a lifetime of stories with her grandad – which stands her in good stead as she hovers between life and death after being knocked down on a New York street. In FAR ROCKAWAY (Hodder, $34.99), by Stoneheart trilogy author Charlie Fletcher, Cat enters action-packed worlds straight out of ­classics by Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, et al to fight for her life as her body lies comatose.

BEING BILLY (Puffin, $21) is a breathtaking debut from UK writer Phil Earle. Billy is damaged but by no means doomed to the lifelong detention he seems to be courting at the home where his mum dumped him years earlier. Realistic, gritty and ultimately redemptive.


Whanganui-born Richard Newsome’s Billionaire trilogy grew out of stories he told his kids. THE MASK OF DESTINY (Text, $26) completes the trio with a rip-roaring romp that sees Aussie Gerald – who has inherited untold wealth from his great-aunt – and his twin friends Ruby and Sam in Greece seeking the Oracle. Enough slapstick and nail-biting near-misses to appeal to the most ­reluctant of readers.

A milliner’s assistant in Victorian London, saved from false accusation by an upper-crust detective, expands her ability to find things by mentally focusing on them. Australian Susan Green’s THE TRUTH ABOUT VERITY SPARKS (Walker, $16.95) is a mix of mystery, history and melodrama. I loved it.

American adult writer Maile Meloy turns her hand to YA fiction in THE APOTHECARY (Text, $26), set at the time of the Cold War – when nuclear annihilation really seemed possible. Like Sam Wanamaker, whose vision rebuilt Shakespeare’s Globe, Janie’s actor parents move their family from Hollywood to London when the House Committee on Un-American Activities gets too close for comfort. Another mix of mystery, ­history and gentle romance.

Sassy code-cracker Ruby Redfort, who first appeared as a fictional character in Lauren Child’s Clarice Bean novels, finally gets her own ridiculously funny spy story. RUBY REDFORT, LOOK INTO MY EYES (HarperCollins, $19.99) is the first in a new tween series by the author who, like her character, “watched far too much American TV” as a child.

Following on from the success of Raymond Huber’s Sting, this bee’s-knees detective sequel would be worth it just for the awareness it raises of the plight of the world’s bees. But WINGS (Walker, $17.99) has gone down really well with kids, too.

Before JK Rowling, there was Diana Wynne Jones. After JK Rowling, there is still Diana Wynne Jones. The Howl author’s EARWIG AND THE WITCH (HarperCollins, $18.99) is a chapter book for younger readers about a smart child called Earwig – who actually loves her orphanage home, because she can always get her own way. When she’s taken into foster care by a witch and a mandrake, all hell breaks loose. Wickedly funny.

Black lions, a house of balloons and a girl with the rather ridiculous name of Cecilia Undergarment sound an unlikely mix, but New Zealand author Brian Falkner pulls it off in NORTHWOOD (Walker, $22.99), a slightly subversive and nicely packaged fairy tale made even more attractive by Donovan Bixley’s illustrations.

Jim Kay’s dark illustrations give weight to A MONSTER CALLS (Walker, $31.99), Patrick Ness’s moving story about a boy whose mother is dying. Conor’s recurrent nightmares arise from his refusal to face his greatest fear – although the monster he unwittingly summons doesn’t frighten him at all. A deeply personal account of an inner battle, as heroic as any from Ness’s mammoth Chaos Walking trilogy.

Jacqueline Wilson’s feisty girls are pretty good at getting out of the messes caused by their negligent caregivers but LILY ALONE (Doubleday, $39.99) is almost defeated when her mum runs off with a teenage boyfriend, leaving her in charge of three siblings. No kid should have to live like this – but plenty will recognise the scenario.

There’ll be those who identify with ­Jacquie McRae’s Libby, too, in THE SCENT OF APPLES (Huia, $20). Life is sweet for the young teen, living with her mum, dad, nan and beloved poppa on a cider apple orchard – until a tragic accident changes everything. Sent to boarding school, she is befriended by Charlie, a bright young Maori girl whose family helps Libby come to terms with grief and the self-harm it’s engendered. Deeply satisfying.

In spite of the blurb suggesting SECRET HORSE (Faber and Faber, $21.99) is about the foal on Abby’s family’s Alabama horse farm, Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley’s second horsey story for kids is more about the self-sufficient girl’s relationship with a big show jumper. Lyrical, slow-moving and illuminating – a pleasure to read.

Only child Michael is stifled by his prim mum – until his cousins move in around the corner. Joy Cowley’s Wild West Gang was around long before Outrageous Fortune – so it’s great after many years to have an omnibus edition of STORIES OF THE WILD WEST GANG (Gecko, $30), featuring the seven-strong family that creates ongoing mayhem. Classic Cowley.

Michael Morpurgo – author of War Horse and the New Zealand International Arts Festival’s upcoming play Private Peaceful – can be relied on to interpret historical events for young readers with insight. Based on stories of German POWs who worked on British farms during and after World War II – and centred around England’s historic 1966 soccer World Cup win – the Michael Foreman-illustrated LITTLE MANFRED (HarperCollins, $24.99) is another gentle gem.

Leigh Hobbs’s MR BADGER AND THE MAGIC MIRROR (Allen & Unwin, $17.99) could have been written 50 years ago – but this character is a recent creation from the cartoonist who has won every major Australian children’s choice award for Old Tom, Horrible Harriet, Fiona the Pig et al. Enough illustrations to keep new readers going.


Birdie Black stitches up a Christmas story to warm the heart as well as the body in JUST RIGHT ($28.99), from the newest UK publisher, Nosy Crow. Rosalind Beardshaw’s joyful pictures show a bolt of red cloth snipped and sewed into first a cloak, then a jacket, hat, gloves and tiny scarf – each made from scraps passed on for another to use.

I can’t believe UK artist Jane Ray has not previously turned her attention to THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS (Orchard Books, $34.99). As always, her interpretation is elegantly charming – the nine dancing ladies are flappers; the pipers play every wind instrument imaginable. As the menagerie multiplies, the beloved remains serene in spite of swans in the bath tub swimming in surplus milk, and a multicultural drum corps that has neighbours covering their ears.

An exuberant celebration of summer holidays is BEACH BAG BOOGIE (HarperCollins, $19.99), with Lindsay Wood’s rhyming text vibrantly interpreted by Rebekah Holguin’s spreads of Jasper and his family having a ball at the beach. Who knew there were so many variations on impromptu dances of joy?

Another iconically Kiwi package is illustrator Donovan Bixley’s version of OLD MACDONALD’S FARM (Hodder Moa, $19.99). The music’s included, and endpapers itemise 35 classic Kiwi objects for kids to spot in the pictures, from hokey-pokey ice cream to garden gnomes.

Who knows why the bus has Heaven on its destination board? One thing’s certain: the stray vehicle becomes a kind of paradise by the time the (ethnically diverse) community has finished making it their base. Bob Graham’s A BUS CALLED HEAVEN (Walker, $29.99) is a good candidate for the peace-promoting White Raven Award.

A simple story with a strong message about predation, FANTAIL’S QUILT (Page Break, $22) will have preschoolers anxious about the fate of the fantail babies right to the last page. Pukerua Bay writer Gay Hay and Porirua artist Margaret Tolland capture the spirit of the elusive birds and their shady bush setting.

The whio, with its very specific habitat requirements – clean bouldered rivers with abundant invertebrate diversity – is one of our most endangered species. In WHETU THE LITTLE BLUE DUCK (Duck Creek Press, $29.99), Jennifer Beck documents the little dabbler’s life cycle, introducing a tramper to help raise public awareness of habitat destruction. Renee Haggo’s illustrations veer slightly into anthropomorphism, but otherwise convey an accurate picture of the whio in its environment.

It’s taken 50 years but Dr Seuss’s THE ­BIPPOLO SEED AND OTHER LOST STORIES (HarperCollins, $26.99) are worth the wait. Here are classic cautionary tales of disasters averted and heroes who get out of tight spots by fast talking. Kids will love the craziness of the title story’s duck and cat who out-shout each other with wishes for “eight thousand buckets of purple ice cream” and “nine billion Hopalong Cassidy suits”. Vintage Dr Seuss.

Maurice Sendak’s first picture book since Outside Over There (1981) has raised as much dust as did that changeling story. The rollicking BUMBLE-ARDY (HarperCollins, $29.99) – which grew out of a Muppets segment and makes more sense in its own way than the traditional Three Little Pigs – features an orphaned porker who organises his first-ever ­birthday party. Of course it’s dark – what did you expect?

One of the best anti-monster picture books for some time, Jenny Hessell’s PHOEBE AND THE NIGHT CREATURES (Scholastic, $19.50), with Donovan Bixley’s illustrations, has the resourceful girl rounding up bogeymen on her way to the loo in the middle of the night. There’s a solution to everyone’s problems in the bathroom, it seems!

What did we read to our kids before Margaret Mahy came along? Extraordinarily, her first eight books were published simultaneously in 1969 – but if you can’t find original copies of such classics as A Lion in the Meadow and The Man Whose Mother was a Pirate, THE MARGARET MAHY TREASURY (Puffin, $45) comes close – and may be better value. Illustrated by some of the biggest names in children’s books, including Steven ­Kellogg and Quentin Blake.

Two New Zealand picture books with distinctive metre bring to mind popular songs. Ruth Paul’s STOMP (Scholastic, $19.50) takes a follow-the-leader formula, turning it around to put baby dinosaur in the lead – and the firing line – on the way home from a day out. The strong march rhythm provides a structure for sophisticated visual humour from this seasoned Wellington author-illustrator. For older children, rollicking rhyme makes Lucy Davey’s OUT OF BED, FRED! (Scholastic, $19.50), illustrated by Wellington graphic designer Harriet Bailey, a worthy recipient of the Joy Cowley Award for a previously unpublished picture book. The plot alone, with sister Shirl outwitting her seven brothers, would be enough to make this story memorable; Mum’s refrain, giving each of her eight kids a rhyming wake-up call, is icing on the cake. Fun from start to finish.

RAHUI (Huia, $20) is a beautifully produced picture book, combining artwork by Malcolm Ross with a searingly simple text by Chris Szekely that embodies the concept of rahui, the Maori traditional period of mourning imposed after a death. After a boy drowns, the beach is off-limits for swimming and food-gathering until his headstone is unveiled a year later. The illustrations transcend cultural boundaries – indigenous peoples ­everywhere will identify with this account.

I thought Margaret Wild’s VAMPYRE (Walker, $32.99) might be cashing in on the current YA trend; I should have trusted the Australian Children’s Book of the Year winner not to do that. Stumbling upon the old spelling, she began thinking about how some children are pressured to join “the family business”. New illustrator Andrew Yeo beautifully realises the vampyre boy’s world as he tries to break free of expectations. ­Provocative, yes; clichéd, no. Try it.

A timely reminder of the importance of speaking clearly and correctly, MIND YOUR GRAMMA (Scholastic, $21) is Yvonne Morrison’s laugh-out-loud dialogue between an elder and her granddaughter. Nikki Slade Robinson’s elegantly edgy illustrations make ­miscommunication fun. Scatological writing doesn’t usually impress me – but the plot of POO BUM (Gecko, $35) is hilarious. Stephanie Blake is a big seller in France. Find out why.


Let’s start with the youngest. Wanting to stimulate language in her new baby, Kiwi Emma Bolser started making picture books with a single word and image per spread. Sound takes precedence over meaning in her BOOK OF FRUIT AND VEGETABLES, featuring less common produce – okra, feijoa, daikon. Babblebooks also explore HERBS AND SPICES; COLOURS and BABIES ($13.99/$50 for the set).

For preschoolers, Ole Konnecke’s THE BIG BOOK OF WORDS AND PICTURES (Gecko, $30) rounds up all that really matters, from the time they get up in the morning to when they venture out into the world. An excellent first lexicon.

Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki’s I SPY NZ ART ($19) is a little alphabetical beauty, from John Pule’s tapa-inspired Take These with You When You Leave (an aeroplane, among other things) and Robin White’s A Buzzy Bee for Siulolovao to Niki Hastings-McFall’s zigzaggy Dangerous Curves. A splendid introduction to the revamped gallery’s collections and an invitation to kids and adults alike to look more closely.

Not just for beginners, Daniel Lipkowitz’s THE LEGO IDEAS BOOK (Dorling Kindersley, $50) includes over 500 ideas from makers including UK designer Duncan Titmarsh, aged 40, one of six featured Lego builders. There’s everything from an analysis of the basics – bricks, that is – to finding your own way of making things; from vehicles, animals and structures from the past and future to the newest Lego specialty: robotics.

Who knew bikes affected the lives of so many people? Following a visit to Cambodia, Australian author-illustrator Colin Thompson collated THE BICYCLE (ABC Books, $35), featuring stunning images by artists from Shaun Tan to Quentin Blake showing just how central the cycle is to life all over the globe. For all ages, with royalties to Save the Children Fund.

Anh Do’s story may be Australian but the message is universal. Do and wife Suzanne’s sensitive portrayal of the journey of THE LITTLE REFUGEE (Allen & Unwin, $29.99), one of the boat people who have become a thorn in the side of successive governments, shows the resilience that made this Vietnamese child become a successful comedian and “Australia’s Happiest Refugee”. With illustrations by Bruce Whatley. Proceeds to charity.

Illustrators Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski, the team that brought us H.O.U.S.E., turn their attention to D.E.S.I.G.N. (Gecko, $40), with Ewa Solarz supplying the text. It features everything from the uber-cool – Philippe Starck’s lemon squeezer – to the life-changing – Yves Behar’s small green “one laptop for all”. Entertaining and educational.

DoC archaeologist David Veart’s DIGGING UP THE PAST: ARCHAEOLOGY FOR THE YOUNG AND CURIOUS (AUP, $39.99) is a good introduction to a complex subject, bridging the gap between classical European archaeology and our own early Polynesian and more recent colonial past – including Wellington’s Plimmer’s Ark, Arrowtown’s ­Chinese goldminers and the perfectly preserved huts of the Antarctic explorers. Similarly encyclopaedic is Dave Gunson’s THE BIG BOOK OF NEW ZEALAND WILDLIFE (New Holland, $39.99), which covers every base from algae to marine ­mammals. A must-have for every home and classroom.

Ann Packer writes a monthly roundup of children’s books for the Listener.