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50 best books for kids

Struggling to choose a gift for a child? Ann Packer picks her top titles for young people.

Illustration/Getty Images
Illustration/Getty Images


Well, supersize me! 2015 has brought a wave of large-format non-fiction books – but none as comprehensive in scope as this, featuring 36 double pictorial spreads from Belgian illustrator Peter Goes. TIMELINE: A VISUAL HISTORY OF OUR WORLD (Gecko, $40) finishes with a sobering and timely note: “Peace and prosperity for all remains a distant dream.”

Artist Kristjana S Williams’ THE WONDER GARDEN, written by Jenny Broom (Wide-Eyed Editions, $40), is a supersized psychedelic overview of five natural habitats that’s ­guaranteed to engage the most reluctant reader.

Born Free’s Virginia McKenna introduces the large-format COUNTING LIONS (Frances Lincoln, $30), writer Katie Cotton’s impassioned plea for endangered wildlife. Stephen Walton’s hyper-realistic beasts are up-close, personal and beautiful.

From the ­publishers who gave us Molecules and Elements comes LIGHT, by Kimberly Arcand and Megan Watzke (Black Dog & Leventhal, $40). In the International Year of Light, a fitting topic for illumination.

Following his previous award-winning introductions to Kiwi art, interpreter extraordinaire Gregory O’Brien turns his vision to photographs in SEE WHAT I CAN SEE: NEW ZEALAND ­PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THE YOUNG AND CURIOUS (AUP, $35). His doodled endpapers are a treat.

Every New Zealand home needs a copy of Philippa Werry’s WAITANGI DAY: THE NEW ZEALAND STORY (New Holland, $25), a guide to the history of our founding document – and a day that remains contentious for many.

Old story, new edge: David Hill superbly sums up the life of our iconic mountaineer in FIRST TO THE TOP: SIR EDMUND HILLARY’S AMAZING EVEREST ADVENTURE (Puffin, $25), ably assisted by young illustrator Phoebe Morris.

Bob Kerr’s gift for telling history through pictures, whether for children or adults, means this could be any provincial town. ­CHANGING TIMES: THE STORY OF A NEW ZEALAND TOWN AND ITS NEWSPAPER (Potton & Burton, $20) encapsulates the big moments in our history in a universal and supremely accessible way.

The frenetic design makes EXPLORING NATURE’S PATTERN MAGIC (Mary Egan, $25) a challenge to negotiate, but Dee and Mike Pignéguy’s collation of the patterns that underlie the universe – “the mathematics of nature” – is a spectacular resource for school-aged and older kids in a diverse range of subjects.

‘The evidence is in,” writes Carole Wilkinson in ATMOSPHERIC: THE BURNING STORY OF CLIMATE CHANGE (Black Dog Books, $22). Setting the biggest challenge our kids and grandkids will face in a sound historical context, her message is clear: “You can make a difference.”

Veteran multisport legend Steve Gurney shares his passion for the great outdoors in THE BEGINNERS’ GUIDE TO ADVENTURE SPORT IN NEW ZEALAND (Random House, $35), a comprehensive guide to just about every adventure a Kiwi kid (or adult) might want to tackle.

Finally, for those adults who’ve never lost their love of picture books, British academic Martin Salisbury’s 100 GREAT CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOKS (Laurence King, $65) is a handsome, if personal, selection covering the field from 1910 to 2014.


Alphabet book of the year is ALPHA (Walker Books, $28), Isabelle Arsenault’s stylish take on the abecedarian, via the code used by emergency services and airline booking agents. Each object is loaded with significance. We can’t believe it hasn’t been done before.

French-Canadian Marianne Dubuc unfolds in simple details and few words a tender, seasonal love story about a gardening lion and wounded bird. THE LION AND THE BIRD (Book Island, $25) is a restrained and beautiful book.

“We come from the stars, we all go back to the stars.” The cave paintings against a night sky in Trace Balla’s SHINE (Allen & Unwin, $25) may just help reassure young children that love will carry on, even after the most devastating death.

Inspired by Inuit stone carvings and pre-Columbian clay figurines, Shaun Tan gives new life to 75 Grimm tales in THE SINGING BONES (Allen & Unwin, $40), with talismanic little sculptures that capture the essence of the stories. Foreword by Philip Pullman; text by Jack Zipes.

The perfect bedtime picture book – Otago writer Elizabeth Pulford’s plaintive FINDING MONKEY MOON (Walker, $25) follows a boy and his dad as they search for a beloved toy left behind in the playground. An impressive debut from Wellington illustrator Kate Wilkinson.

In a whirlwind, wordless trip around the world, Ingrid and Dieter Schubert’s wee black dog holds on for dear life to THE UMBRELLA (Book Island, $30) as he’s lifted high above his home by autumn winds. Charming.

Dorothée de Monfreid’s SHHH! I’M SLEEPING (Gecko, $20) calls for much manipulation of its vertical board format to negotiate the ups and downs of this multilayered tale about a dorm room full of dozing dogs. Easy to find on the bookshelf – just as well.

Abandoned by his soulless carers, a dog with no name except the one he gives himself (Sad), finds there is life after near-death. Talented young Thai Australian Tull Suwannakit eloquently interprets the sadness and joy of Sandy Fussell’s SAD, THE DOG (Walker, $28).

Moggy magician Donovan Bixley conjures up feline fun in PUSSYCAT PUSSY­CAT AND MORE: PURRFECT NURSERY RHYMES (Upstart, $20), including a Venetian take on Edward Lear’s classic that hooked our Amelie.

Think Scarry on Speed – a motorcycling mouse pursues a gorilla in a Fiat Bambina through town and country in Lucy Feather and Stefan Lomp’s FOLLOW THAT CAR (Nosy Crow, $29), a rambunctious chase that should come with a noise warning.

Not the best production, perhaps, but Rosalind Malam and Sarah Nelisiwe Anderson’s RUSTLE UP A RHYTHM (Scholastic, $19), with its catchy evocation of every­day sounds, has enduring appeal. No toddler hand washing is now complete without a “gurgle, gurgle, glug”.

With a nod to Mary Shelley, FRANKY (Gecko, $20) is Leo Timmers’ inventive tribute to the power of the imagination and the importance of friendship. Sam’s devotion to robots pays off when the alien rellies come to collect his creation.

Patricia Grace draws on her whakapapa to tell the genesis of the chant made famous by the All Blacks in HAKA (Huia, $25), with Andrew Burdan’s illustrations. Also available in te reo.

Joy Cowley sings us to sleep with a home-grown version of the classic mother-and-child song in HUSH: A KIWI LULLABY (Scholastic, $27). Andrew Burdan’s muted moonlit pictures of our flora and fauna are followed by Ngaere Roberts’ te reo text and more stylised illustrations.

Forget electronic media: BOOK (Familius, $24.99) is David Miles’ and illustrator Natalie Hoopes’ sweet tribute to the importance of print and the wonderful world of books. Spot your favourite Sendak characters.

Korean JiHyeon Lee delicately conjures up a tentative encounter between a boy and a girl at a crowded swimming POOL (Chronicle, $35), ­suggesting that what lies beneath the surface may not be what it seems.

A simple, contemporary take on the classic toddler’s balloon story is EMILY’S BALLOON (Chronicle, $18) – which Komako Sakai rounds out with a nod to Margaret Wise Brown’s timeless Goodnight Moon.

The New York Times just voted Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson’s LEO: A GHOST STORY (Chronicle, $35) on to its 2015 Top 10 Picture Book list. A subtle exploration of what’s real and what’s not.

An instant hit with the first three-year-old we shared it with, THE DAY THE ­CRAYONS CAME HOME (Harper­Collins, $30) is Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers’ ridiculous sequel to The Day the Crayons Quit.


Sarah Crossan has tackled the unthinkable in ONE (Bloomsbury, $19), the story of conjoined twins. She makes everything about the sisters’ lives believable … so when the unbearable happens, be warned – you will weep.

Sibling rivalry is played out in ON TRACK (UQP, $21), a second verse story by talented Queenslander Kathryn Apel (Bully on the Bus), which finely balances both brothers’ points of view while the kids’ coach works on the bumbling Toby’s physical challenges.

It’s not Holes – but Louis Sachar still packs a powerful punch in FUZZY MUD (Bloomsbury, $23), a slightly bizarre story about hazardous waste, friendship, bullying and bravery. All too possible.

Suspend disbelief and give yourself over to the magic of Martine Murray’s MOLLY AND PIM AND THE MILLIONS OF STARS (Text, $20). Utterly charming.

Stacey Gregg continues her highly readable horse stories for the non-horsey reader with THE GIRL WHO RODE THE WIND (HarperCollins, $25), which links the world’s most dangerous race – the Palio – with Italian resistance in World War II.

Kate Greenaway Medal winner Jim Kay shows he is up to the task of bringing to pictorial life JK Rowling’s HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE: ILLUSTRATED EDITION (Bloomsbury, $70) – and the sequels to follow. It’s hard to go past Diagon Alley for detail, but Kay’s experience at Kew Gardens can be seen in his rendering of Hagrid’s ivy-covered home and garden, complete with dragon scarecrow.

It was a year for graphics – novels, biographies and memoirs. From Julie Hunt and Dale Newman, KIDGLOVZ (Allen & Unwin, $28) is a gothic fable about a talented child prodigy kept captive by his money-hungry guardians. Black and white, with shades of Cabret (Hugo).


Openings don’t come much more dramatic than in Stephanie Oakes’ extraordinary debut novel THE SACRED LIES OF MINNOW BLY ­(HarperCollins, $30). More harrowing than Fleur Beale’s cult trilogy, this tale comes straight out of Grimm (see The Singing Bones) – yet it contains a smidgen of hope. Stick with it.

FIRE COLOUR ONE (HarperCollins, $18) is a savagely funny novel by award-winner Jenny Valentine about art collectors, family feuds and pyromania. Scintillating.

A convoluted text that requires the reader’s total attention, Jandy Nelson’s I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN (Walker, $18) explores the tangled web that exists between Jude and her twin Noah, the boys they fall in love with, their parents (yes!) and their art.

Sibling rivalry is also the theme in HUCKING CODY (Mary Egan, $25), Hawke’s Bay author Aaron Topp’s not-just-for-freeriders tale of teens who ride bikes off cliffs and live to tell the tale.

Finch and Violet meet on their ­Indiana high school bell tower in ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES (Penguin, $18). Jennifer Niven’s searing exposé of bipolar disorder is also, in spite of its devastating ending, an exhilarating ­celebration of living creatively.

Carnegie medal-winner Patrick Ness gently sends up small-town America and the superhero genre in THE REST OF US JUST LIVE HERE (Walker, $28), an upside-down version of pulp fiction about a bunch of friends focused on just staying alive.

Paul Griffin always shocks (Stay with Me, Burning Blue), but ADRIFT (Text, $26) breaks all taboos. Never a fun read, this novel throws five late teens together in a leaky boat with an Atlantic storm brewing. Not all will survive.

Nick Lake’s ­morally complex thriller THERE WILL BE LIES (Bloomsbury, $19) follows hearing-impaired 17-year-old Shelby Cooper as her life built on (her mother’s) lies unravels. The coyote backstory matters, so stick with it.

A brilliant sequel to The Bridge, Christchurch writer Jane ­Higgins’ HAVOC (Text, $26) plays out like some real-life West Bank conflict. Scarily plausible.

JUST A QUEEN (UQP, $26), Jane Caro’s sequel to Just a Girl – which chronicled the machinations of the court of Henry VIII from his daughter’s perspective – is a splendid and highly readable introduction to the life of Elizabeth I.

EVIE’S WAR (Random House, $20), ­written while Anna Mackenzie was on a residency in Belgium, details life in the trenches of WWI from a Kiwi nurse’s perspective. A valuable addition to our war literature.

Jackie French, who wrote an insider’s guide to Romeo and Juliet, presents an alternative and highly entertaining version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in OPHELIA: QUEEN OF DENMARK (Angus & Robertson, $20).

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