The 50 best children's books of 2013

by Ann Packer / 25 November, 2013
Ann Packer picks the year’s reading highlights for children and young adults.

Click here to enter the draw to win all 50 of the Listener's best children's books of 2013, valued at over $1200.

Please note: our list is numbered but not ranked.



The year’s most haunting novel is Julie Berry’s ALL THE TRUTH THAT’S IN ME (Harper Collins, $25), the chilling tale of a girl mutilated to prevent the revelation of an incident on which the stability of her American colonial outpost rests. Shunned by her family, the mute Judith addresses her account to true love Lucas in elegant canticles that sing of the changing seasons and the rhythm of daily life.


Who will guard the guardians? It’s the unspoken question behind Malorie Blackman’s NOBLE CONFLICT (Doubleday, $29.99), which plays out in a future society whose Guardians use a sophisticated surveillance network to keep the peace and repel an allegedly brutal enemy. Orphaned Kaspar, a new Guardian, has disturbing visions after meeting rebel Rhea and finds an ally in tech-savvy Mac, who happens to be the daughter of his Guardian mentor. Timely.


Faithful to the spirit of Shakespeare, BIRTHRIGHT (Puffin, $35) concludes TK Roxborogh’s Banquo’s Son trilogy of life in Scotland following the murder of Macbeth. Fleance’s Queen Rachel, suffering from severe pregnancy sickness, insists on ministering to those struck down by a disease conjured up by the same weird sisters who foretold Macbeth’s demise. The resolution of the love triangle involving “Flea”, his queen and his childhood sweetheart Rosie makes for a satisfying conclusion to the Dunedin author’s magnificent obsession.


CATTRA’S LEGACY (Longacre, $19.99), the first of Anna Mackenzie’s novels set in a Macbeth-like medieval kingdom, follows homeless orphan Risha as she sets out to discover the truth about her dead mother. Making alliances as she travels south, she learns skills of diplomacy that will stand her in good stead when her status is elevated. An eloquent, richly rewarding blend of romance, warfare and domestic life in the Middle Ages that will have readers queuing up for the sequel.


THE DISGRACE OF KITTY GREY (Bloomsbury, $16) is Mary Hooper’s appropriately simple first-person account of how a girl like milkmaid Kitty might slide so quickly from bemusedly assisting her employers’ daughters’ parlour games to the penury of London’s Newgate Prison. An insight into the why and how of the transportations that populated the Australian colonies.


A warning: Kate Griffin’s Victorian crime thriller KITTY PECK AND THE MUSIC HALL MURDERS (Faber and Faber, $24.99) is not for the squeamish. Yet the gruesome scenes in this debut novel aren’t gratuitous, rather (literally) “all in the cause of art”. Vulnerable hire-wire acrobat Kitty is perfectly placed to spy on the criminals undercutting her employer’s business; risking the same fate as girls who’ve gone missing, she infiltrates an element of high society willing to pay anything for the latest craze.


Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s gothic romance MARINA (Text, $37) sweetly documents the love between narrator Oscar, a Barcelona boarding school student, and the elusive Marina, who lives with her father in one of the city’s decaying mansions. But in search of a veiled woman in black who leaves roses on an unmarked grave, they discover a trail of Frankenstein-like deformity, dismemberment and, paradoxically, devotion.


Mixing magic with desire, Elizabeth Knox plays tricks with time in MORTAL FIRE (Gecko, $29.99), set in a secluded valley in Southland, the imagined territory of her Dreamhunter and Dreamquake novels. Endearingly staunch heroine Canny – a maths genius – and her larger-than-life Pasifika family are set against the Zarene tribe, living a rustic communal life in their hidden time-warp. A mesmerising blend of utopia and history doomed to repeat itself.


Perhaps the first novel for young readers set during the Korean War, BRAVE COMPANY (Puffin, $19.99) is David Hill’s story of a 16-year-old sailor on board HMNZS Taupo, who shoulders a family secret that gives him a personal take on the fight against communist forces. But as he experiences the reality of war, his attitudes inevitably change. Boy seaman Russell’s encounters with the enemy have surprising similarities to the river skirmishes of Julie Berry’s tale, set several centuries earlier.


Anthony Eaton’s Children’s Book Council of Australia honour book FIRESHADOW (University of Queensland Press, $19.95) – first published in 2004 – was written after he stumbled across the remains of an internment camp in South Western Australia. Skilfully crossing the time barrier between World War II and the present, Eaton brings immediacy to the two periods through characters who appear in the historical and contemporary scenarios.


With the Blue Mountains burning this October, it was easy to imagine the devastation at the heart of Claire Zorn’s debut novel, THE SKY SO HEAVY (University of Queensland Press, $19.95), set in the scenic region the day after nuclear explosions on the other side of the world. Fin and his younger brother Max, home alone when the worst happens, must conserve food and fuel and make the most of an apparently impossible situation. Bleak – yet not without hope.


Mandy Hager’s complex novel DEAR VINCENT (Random House, $19.99) tackles the subject of suicide and its painful, far-reaching legacy. Tara, whose sister has died suddenly, reimagines Vincent Van Gogh and Edith Collier in the safe haven of her college art room; at her after-school rest-home job, she meets Max, a retired philosophy professor and survivor of an earlier war. He and his grandson Johannes encourage her to visit Northern Ireland in search of the truth. Gritty and satisfying.


The only “sick-lit” novel in this year’s list, AJ Betts’s ZAC & MIA (Text, $26) would stand out in any company for its gut-wrenching honesty and irrepressible sense of (often black) humour (“Do I press the half-flush or the full? Some days I need a button that’s in-between”). Zac, incarcerated in a Perth cancer ward with mostly adult neighbours, keeps the stats as a way of dealing with his leukemia; Mia, who’s losing a part of her leg, knocks on his wall to begin a roller-coaster romance. Unforgettable.


Think Sherlock and (female) Watson in Melbourne … Ellie Marney’s EVERY BREATH (Allen & Unwin, $23.99) is a well-paced murder mystery involving a boy with a past, a country girl who hates being in town, two culturally diverse refugee teens and a down-and-out with his throat cut. A clever, insightful exploration of homelessness and identity – and a darned good yarn.


The message is simple enough: “Kill Alex Rider.” But will Alex’s bête noir Yassen Gregorovich, the Russian responsible for the death of his beloved uncle, carry out the instruction? In RUSSIAN ROULETTE (Walker, $25), master of suspense Anthony Horowitz turns his attention to Yassen’s life, from his simple childhood in a small village to his training by Scorpia, in Venice, and his fateful encounter with Alex’s spy father. Horowitz keeps the reader guessing right up to the last page. Brilliant.



SHE IS NOT INVISIBLE (Indigo, $30) is a cryptic crime tale that takes Francis Bacon’s quote about Fortune as its title. Marcus Sedgwick’s vision-impaired heroine Laureth – hanging on to younger brother Benjamin for her sake rather than his – runs away from London to New York in search of their writer father, who is not answering his cellphone. Highly entertaining and beautifully produced.


Another writer parent, Tuesday McGillicuddy’s mum, is the subject of FINDING SERENDIPITY (Allen & Unwin, $19.99), a first from an Aussie author duo writing as Angelica Banks. The magic of the imagination and words that fly off the page lead Tuesday and her dog Baxterr (his growl can be very threatening) in search of her mother via the heroine of Serendipity’s bestselling books. Enchanting.


More adventure, more magic and once again the power of words – THE APPRENTICES (Text, $26) is Californian Maile Meloy’s sequel to her popular The Apothecary. The year is 1954; Janie Scott is at boarding school in New England while her companion in chemistry, Benjamin Burrows, assists his apothecary father in the jungles of Vietnam. Can they avert nuclear disaster yet again?


Neil Gaiman’s ridiculously tall tale FORTUNATELY, THE MILK (Bloomsbury, $23) is amplified by Chris Riddell’s cartoons picturing the fates that befall a father left holding the fort while Mum’s off at a conference. On his way to get milk for the Toastios, Dad encounters every cliché in the comic book, from dinosaurs to vampires – and it’s all true, because “here’s the milk!”


Down to earth again, with DUNGER (Gecko, $19.99), Joy Cowley’s latest Marlborough Sounds tale, featuring city kids sent to help out their ageing hippy grandparents for the holidays. With the thought of $1000 each egging them on, the kids learn some valuable lessons, not least about their own capabilities – including how to bake, fish, chop wood and drive a (dunger of a) car. Hilarious and endearing.


Every so often, a horse story comes along that surpasses the genre. Aucklander Stacy Gregg, with a string of successful titles under her belt, brings to life the sometimes heart-wrenching and often amusing tale of the equestrian daughter of Jordan’s late King Hussein in THE PRINCESS AND THE FOAL (HarperCollins, $24.99). HRH Princess Haya bint Al Hussein became an Olympic high jumper, carried the flag for her country in Sydney and is currently head of the international body governing equestrian sport. Don’t be put off by the pink cover!


On his birthday in 1914, everything changes for Londoner Alfie, hero of John Boyne’s STAY WHERE YOU ARE & THEN LEAVE (Doubleday, $26.99). His dad becomes a soldier, his mum a nurse and his neighbour a conscientious objector, and the Czech sweetshop owner and his daughter are taken away as enemy aliens. When Alfie finds out by chance where his missing father really is – in a hospital for men with shell shock (now post-traumatic stress disorder) – he hatches a plan to spring him.


Anna Branford’s entertaining Violet Mackerel books are perfect read-alouds for girls just graduating from picture books – and a welcome alternative to the pink/princess/fairy variety. VIOLET MACKEREL’S POCKET PROTEST (Walker, $25) sees the irrepressible nine-year-old and her new friend Rose mounting an ingenious campaign to save their favourite oak tree from the chop. Sarah Davis’s illustrations add to the charm.


For boys, Kiwi Vince Ford’s SCRAP series (Scholastic, $15) about an abandoned sheepdog pup starts with TALE OF A BLOND PUPPY, followed by OH MY DOG! (Scrap’s dyslexic) and DOG ON TRIAL. Who’d have thought shaggy (sheep)dog stories could be such fun? They’re also packed with common sense as well as sound role models for boys who may just see themselves in the fatherless mutt.



Petit Collage creator Lorena Siminovich’s board book YOU ARE MY BABY: SAFARI (Chronicle, $16.99) uses a clever format to introduce little ones to five baby animals – giraffe, crocodile, monkey, elephant and lion. Sharing a common spine, the words of the parents overarch the babies’ in their tiny book within a book. A wee gem.


It’s all a game to Little Donkey – and his Mama has heard all the excuses. For all those households where toddlers try every trick in the book to not eat, Rindert Kromhout and Annemarie van Haeringen’s Mama Donkey has the answer – we’re off to the park to feed the ducks … with the rejected food. EAT UP LITTLE DONKEY (Gecko, $19.99) is a clever sequel to this duo’s counting book, 123 Little Donkey.


Wellington illustrator Ruth Paul’s technicoloured dinosaurs from Stomp return in MY DINOSAUR DAD (Scholastic, $19.50), a father and baby romp calling on rhyming text, contrasting attributes and such robust adjectives as squat, knobbly and tickly to make constant rereading a joy.


One of those cumulative tales that calls on all the predictive powers the preschooler is developing, BANG (Gecko, $19.99) works so well precisely because it is virtually text-free, apart from the “Bang” of the title – one of our grandson’s first words. Leo Timmers, author of Who’s Driving, gives his larger-than-life characters a rotundity that has them virtually rolling off the page. The crocodile is our favourite.


Bruiser, Gavin Bishop’s bulldozer with the big heart and a penchant for tearing the tab on a can of oil, is back in an adventure straight out of shaky Christchurch, BRUISER & THE BIG SNOW (Random House, $21). Preschoolers who’ve learnt his catch-cry – “Oi! Get out of my way!” – know to wait for the tiny sound that follows – in this instance, the “triiiinnng” of a tricycle bell under a mountain of snow.


In HENRY’S MAP (Random House, $19.99), David Elliot’s pernickety pig of the same name makes a plan of the farm surrounding his neat’n’tidy sty. “He’s making a map! And we’re all in it!” shout his animal friends. But when they look out over the farm, it’s empty. Piggy panic is averted as – in a metaphysical moment – the cavalcade trots off to each marked spot to find … themselves, in their own place.


Kim Kane and Sara Acton’s ESTHER’S RAINBOW (Allen & Unwin, $29.99) introduces preschoolers to the magic of everyday rainbows – the sort you might see by chance when the sun catches a prism. Esther uses all her senses – not only visual – to experience the discrete colours that make up the magical light streams. She tastes violet in Granny’s chocolate creams, smells green in mint from the garden and feels the orange in clay at preschool. Charming.


Don’t be put off by the title – THE BORING BOOK (Puffin, $25) is anything but. Award-winning Kiwi illustrator and book designer Vasanti Unka pops simple mini-books within a bigger book to show what can happen when the text decides to play word games. Exciting, brainy, noisy or silly – words can be fun. And ultimately, “The right words at the right time can be mighty”.


Diana Noonan takes up the story of her best-selling Best-Loved Bear in THE TEDDY BEAR’S PROMISE (Craig Potton, $19.99), a tender tale linking generations. Rediscovered in Gran’s attic, the faithful old teddy – left on the shelf after being outgrown years ago by his owner – has been waiting patiently for another little boy to love him. All he needs is a new ribbon.


Possibly the most beautiful picture book of the year, MAIA AND WHAT MATTERS (Book Island, $29.99) is translated from Tine Mortier’s Flemish original. Exquisite illustrations by Kaatje Vermeire chart the special friendship between an impetuous little girl in a red-spotted dress and a sunhat and her elderly, lace-collared grandmother, who tell each other stories and eat biscuits and sweets “until they’re sticky with sugar and covered in crumbs”. Their bond survives both Grandma’s stroke and later the death of Grandpa. Breathtaking.


The extraordinary migration of the godwits is brought to life in the context of New Zealand’s gum-digging, winemaking Croatian immigrants in Nicola Muir’s BABA DIDI AND THE GODWITS FLY (New Internationalist, $18.50). Artist Annie Hayward realises both the sombre and more joyful aspects of the people’s history, as grandmother Baba Didi compares their resilience to that of the birds. The foreword is by Helen Clark; royalties go to Unicef.


Cabin boy Barnaby in Stephanie Thatcher’s THE QUIET PIRATE (Duck Creek, $19.99) is a gentle antidote to the swashbuckling variety, preferring to “watch and listen and think” – at least on the outside. His teeny-tiny voice is too soft to be heard above the horrendous hullabaloo made by his shipmates … until fate intervenes and he’s the only one left on board. It’s his turn to be a real pirate – “loud and proud”.


The unmistakable voice of Margaret Mahy recites the story of DASHING DOG (Harper Collins, $29.99) on the CD that accompanies a busy interpretation by Donovan Bixley of the exploits of the waterfront hero – here realised as a large poodle, who creates chaos before redeeming himself by rescuing a child who’s tumbled off the pier. Our hero returns, “dragging and dripping … but utterly beautiful”.


They truly were “the little engines that could”. The Fell engines that worked the Rimutaka Incline were designed to cope with the steepest grade of the railway connecting the capital with the Wairarapa. Philip Webb’s haunting illustrations and Joy Cowley’s clickety-clack text bring to life the last HERO OF THE HILL (Scholastic, $31), and the community of people who lived at Cross Creek and the Summit, on the route that’s now a popular cycle trail. Top marks to the publisher for a handsome production. Royalties go to the Fell Museum, Featherston.


History is in the wind blowing through THE SONG OF THE SHIP RAT (Scholastic, $19.50), Ben Brown’s sea shanty-cadenced lyrics recounting an ageing rodent’s travels. Yearning to return home to a shed beside the sea, he finds his friends gone and nothing as he remembers it – so he hoists the flag and sets sail again. Helen Taylor’s illustrations evoke a nostalgic mix of historical reality and remembered ghosts.


Te Arawa’s love story of Hinemoa and Tutanekai – surely the most romantic in Maori literature – is brought to life in a picture book for older children, SWIM: THE STORY OF TUTANEKAI AND HINEMOA (Huia, $24). Hinemoa’s perseverance and her flute-playing lover’s devotion are lyrically related by Chris Szekely (Rahui) and beautifully realised in Andrew Burdan’s dreamy paintings. Tahoe, the translation in te reo Maori, is by Tutanekai’s descendant Scotty Morrison.


Fans of Edward Lear will not be disappointed by Gruffalo, author Julia Donaldson’s whimsical take on his classic poem in THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT (Puffin, $26). Charlotte Voake perfectly captures the spirit of the romance between the Owl and the Pussycat as they sail off in a beautiful blue balloon, taking “some jam and a honey-roast ham” to eat with their runcible spoon.



Can genius be summed up in a picture book? Yes, and with style. Jennifer Berne and Vladimir Radunsky’s ON A BEAM OF LIGHT: A STORY OF ALBERT EINSTEIN (Chronicle, $29.99) distils the life story and scientific journey of the great man in engaging illustrations and eloquent statements that use red type for the big ideas. “He asked questions never asked before. Found answers never found before. And dreamed up ideas never dreamt before.” Superb.


The New York Times calls Seymour Simon “the dean of the field” when it comes to science books for kids. SEYMOUR SIMON’S EXTREME OCEANS (Chronicle, $32.99) succinctly updates everything to do with the sea: on it, under it, affected by it. There’s comprehensive coverage of hurricanes and tsunamis – and Simon is not afraid to address the facts and implications of climate change.


Using the same format as their award-winning At the Beach, Ned Barraud and Gillian Candler introduce kids to an environment closer to home IN THE GARDEN (Craig Potton, $20). Attractive illustrations identify the mix of native and introduced species around us, from birds and butterflies to bugs, many with Maori names. A short glossary, good index and invitation to “find out more” from Kiwi sources will encourage curiosity.


WATCH OUT SNAIL (Page Break, $22) reveals the life of New Zealand’s carnivorous giant Powelliphanta snail, whose threatened habitat has brought it worldwide fame. Gay Hay’s robust text accurately sums up the characteristics of the snail and its predators and Margaret Tolland’s larger-than-life illustrations include a shiny shell that slithers across the pages. Life-cycle facts plus a Maori glossary back up the life-and-death description of the nocturnal hunt.


Safety is paramount in Paul Adamson’s comprehensive and long overdue THE BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO HUNTING + FISHING IN NEW ZEALAND (Random House, $34.99). Every chapter has a glossary, appropriate rules and regulations and black-and-white photos illustrating our long tradition of hunting, shooting and fishing. Planning, pooches and pests are covered, there are recipes using each of the (mostly pest) animals in young hunters’ sights, and there’s even a chapter on whitebait.


English food writer and mother-of-two Sue Quinn’s bumper cookbook, based on her own experiences, will inspire young cooks – but will let them know when to call in adult help. THE KIDS’ ONLY COOKBOOK (Quadrille, $29.99) covers not only basics such as Mac’n’Cheese but also the mind-boggling Kick’N’Roll Tin Can Ice Cream. How to Not Chop Off Your Finger and other cool tips plus Epic Fail Alerts make preparing over 50 recipes dead easy.


Children’s writer, morning TV art and craft presenter and honour award-winner at this year’s WOW, Wellington’s Fifi Colston is well placed to help kids create their own WEARABLE WONDERS (Scholastic, $21). From coming up with ideas and working out a budget to getting – preferably free – all the stuff to work wearable wonders, this is a valuable resource for kids, adults, classrooms and homes.


A BOOK IS A BOOK (Gecko/Whitireia, $24.99) is a quirky collection of musings about books and their capacity to entertain, intrigue, captivate, educate or simply stave off boredom. If you’ve ever read in the bath, up a tree or in bed, you’ll recognise yourself in poet Jenny Bornholdt’s text and illustrator Sarah Wilkins’s charming pictures. “Some books are small because some writers are very tired” obviously does not apply in this instance.


Ian Graham’s BUILD THE ROCKET (Silver Dolphin/New Holland, $29.99) is a splendid combination of fact-filled book (32 pages) and slot-together kitset for a 2½ foot-long model that will boost the knowledge of wannabe astronauts. Everything about the space race is covered, from its beginnings in 1957 with the launch of the Russian Sputnik (“satellite”) to What’s Next. Also available: Build the Shark.

Click here to enter the draw to win all 50 of the Listener's best children's books of 2013, valued at over $1200.

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The Listener's 50 best children's books of 2012.
The Listener's 100 best books of 2012.

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