50 Best Books for Kids 2016

by Ann Packer / 01 December, 2016
Photo/Getty Images

Ann Packer picks the 50 best books of the year for young adult – and even younger – readers.

Young adult

BECK by Mal Peet (Walker)

This last novel by the late, great Mal Peet, seamlessly finished by Meg Rosoff, is the story of a mixed-race boy who is sent to Canada by the Christian Brothers, escapes and makes his way in the world of the Depression. Profound, memorable.

THE BONE SPARROW by Zana Fraillon (Orion)

How can a story set in a refugee camp be in any way life-affirming? This tale of a child born in an Australian detention centre has just enough goodness seeping through the cracks to hold the reader spellbound. Heartbreakingly good.

HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE by Jennifer Niven (Penguin)

Libby and Jack are an unlikely couple – each with a reason for investing in their developing friendship. One is fat, the other face-blind (prosopagnosic): their disabilities are at opposite ends of the spectrum but their love story is convincing.

THE MOONLIGHT DREAMERS by Siobhan Curham (Walker)

A satisfying story of the sustaining power of friendship – in this case, newly created bonds between four London teens who want to be themselves, yet feel constrained by circumstances that make them socially isolated.

THE ROAD TO WINTER by Mark Smith (Text)

Aussie writers do survival stories so well – perhaps it seems that way because we can relate to their settings. In the footsteps of John Marsden and Claire Zorn comes Mark Smith’s first post-apocalyptic novel – with two more to follow. Unforgettable.

SHOOTING STARS by Brian Falkner (Scholastic)

Brought up in the bush, hiding from a violent father, Egan must venture out after his mother fails to return home one night. He finds surviving on the streets of Auckland much harder than in the wild. Riveting.

SYLVIE THE SECOND by Kaeli Baker (Submarine)

Sylvie, the overlooked sibling of a teen with severe mental health challenges, falls in with the wrong crowd and begins to spiral downwards, until a loyal friend, a refreshingly wholesome admirer and a sympathetic adult help save her.

THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Text)

Ada is a plucky nine-year-old with a club foot who escapes her cruel mother’s clutches when evacuated from wartime London. Reluctantly taken in by a spinster, she finds salvation in horse-riding. A 2016 Newbery Honor Book.

Junior fiction

THE DIAMOND HORSE by Stacy Gregg (Harper Collins)

Another perfectly-formed, fact-based horse story for a wider readership, which links the aristocratic sister of Ivan the Terrible with a circus performer. Both ride what would become known as Orlov Trotters, and share guardianship of a dazzling diamond.

FRANKIE POTTS & THE SPARKPLUG MYSTERIES by Juliet Jacka, ill. Phoebe Morris (Puffin)

Already a hit in Australia, this new Kiwi series about a redhead and her skateboard-riding dog is sure to find favour with 7-10s who like a mental challenge. Three further titles are already out.


A gem of a book about a boy whose resilient spirit triumphs over everything life tosses his way. An abandoned mutt, a love of books and the friendship of an oddball girl all contribute. A treat for all ages.

GRANDAD’S WHEELIES by Jack Lasenby (Puffin)

Another bunch of Kiwi tall tales from the master, laced with a good dollop of historical fact and accompanied by homely and often splendidly Heath Robinson illustrations by Bob Kerr.

LITTLE BITS OF SKY by S.E. Durrant (Nosy Crow)

Little bit mystery, little bit memoir, tiny bit ghost story – Ira (real name Miracle) writes a diary because she feels she and her brother Zac are invisible. A surprisingly upbeat story of kids in care that is utterly convincing.

RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick Press)

Riveting storytelling and unforgettable characters drive this tale of an unlikely friendship between Raymie Nightingale, Beverly Tapinski and Louisiana Elefante, who each have their own reason for wanting to become Little Miss Central Florida Tire 1975. Classic DiCamillo.

THE ROAD TO RATENBURG by Joy Cowley, ill Gavin Bishop (Gecko)

Spinnaker Rat and his Ship Rat family escape with their lives after their home is blown up. In search of Ratenburg, their promised land, they find it is the journey, rather than the destination, that really matters.

RONA by Chris Szekely (Huia)

Rona is a star, a real cracker of a character, who lives in Northland with her Nana, Grandad and part-British bulldog Snuffy. Josh Morgan’s drawings add zest to these already fizzing stories. More, please!

THE SAM & LUCY FABLES by Alan Bagnall & Sarah Wilkins (Submarine)

Part tall story, part fable, these delightful tales sending up the modern world’s stupidity (bottled water, computers, exercycles) will have young audiences chuckling long before their punchlines. Perfect for reading out loud – every classroom should have one.

THE SECRET HORSES OF BRIAR HILL by Megan Shepherd, ill. Levi Pinfold (Walker)

A breathtakingly beautiful book, in the classic tradition of The Secret Garden, that rises above the desolation of its World War II hospital setting. Only Emmaline sees the winged horses in the mirrors of the old house – but can they save her?

SUNKEN FOREST by Des Hunt (Scholastic)

Mat Smith, his dad in prison, is sent to Gisborne to live with his gran. One wrong decision leads to boot camp on Lake Waikaremoana. New friends, a good cop and an enormous eel make for a classic Hunt combo.

Picture books

CAPTAIN SNEER THE BUCCANEER by Penny Morrison & Gabriel Evans (Walker)

This year’s best pirate title combines sumptuous visuals, lots of little people and a rollicking, rhyming text that has our mostly fearless buccaneer teetering on the edge of wanting his mum. Hilarious.

A CHILD OF BOOKS by Oliver Jeffers & Sam Winston (Walker)

A Child of Books invites us into an enchanted world made from stories and nursery rhymes, floating on a sea of references, washing up on typographic landscapes, in this “homage to the history of literature at large”.

CIRCLE by Jeannie Baker (Walker)

The bar-tailed godwit – as much our bird as it is Australia’s – makes the longest unbroken journey of any creature. The collage artist who has brought to life endangered ecosystems turns her attention to the birds’ epic flights, endangered by vanishing wetlands.

GUS’S GARAGE by Leo Timmers (Gecko)

Somewhere in his hoard of useful stuff, Gus – recycler par excellence – has a solution for everyone’s vehicular problems. Another superbly crafted story from the incomparable author of Who’s Driving.


“Hold On…Wait a second…” Lion’s friends are disappearing, though he’s looking more satisfied. Smart preschoolers will spot what’s going on, though the last page holds a surprise for everyone.

ME, TEDDY by Chris McKimmie (Allen & Unwin)

The autobiography of a black labrador, from chewy toddlerhood through to food-loving, walk-loving, people-loving adulthood, revealed in McKimmie’s inimitable mix of crayon scribble, collage and typographical craziness. For dog-lovers everywhere.

MOOSE ON THE LOOSE by Lucy Feather and Stephan Lomp (Nosy Crow)

Another crazy maze from the creators of Follow That Car! that will delight fans of the ultimate adventure puzzle – and drive their adults demented.

REFUGE by Anne Booth & Sam Usher (Nosy Crow)

The Christmas story is the ultimate refugee story: the parents taking refuge before setting off with the child Jesus, “through empty streets, whilst people were sleeping, hoping for the kindness of strangers. Again.” So simple. So relevant. So elegantly retold.

STRAWBERRIES FOR CHRISTMAS by Rebecca Beyer & Linley Wellington, ill. Christine Ross (Duck Creek)

Moving house is made bearable for Sam by the friendship of his new neighbour, an elderly gardener who teaches him about growing things – and creating Christmas traditions.

THE TALE OF KITTY-IN-BOOTS by Beatrix Potter, ill. Quentin Blake (Warne)

We may never know why the author did not illustrate this 1914 tale of two kitties herself, but even this diehard Potter fan fell in love with Quentin Blake’s palette-perfect channeling of her artistry. The text is pure Potter – though not for the youngest.

THAT’S NOT A HIPPOPOTAMUS by Juliette MacIver, ill. Sarah Davis (Gecko)

The hippo is hiding at the zoo, and the only one keeping tabs on him is Liam, so quiet his teacher doesn’t hear him. A firm favourite from the Kiwi duo who created Toucan Can!

THE VIADUCT POSTCARD by Susan Price, ill. Judith Trevelyan (Millwood)

There’s precious little history written for younger readers, so this charming tale of a trip to town in Wellington’s early days, told through the author’s family histories and photographs, is as valuable as it is charming.

WITCH’S CAT WANTED – APPLY WITHIN by Joy H. Davidson, ill. Nikki Slade Robinson (Scholastic)

Already much loved by granddaughter Amelie, this tale of a witch in need of a cat is firmly in the Mahy tradition – wondrous words, strong rhythm and a transformative dash of magic. A perfect match of storyteller and illustrator.


THE BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO NETBALL by Maria Tutaia (Random House)

This successful series turns its focus on the game that legions of Kiwi – and Australian – girls will play at some stage in their lives. A Silver Fern at just 18, Tutaia has since played over 100 tests.

THE CUCKOO AND THE WARBLER by Heather Hunt & Kennedy Warne (Potton & Burton)

The call of the shining cuckoo is the signal of spring – but behind the enchanting song is a tale of treachery. Glorious greens bring the interwoven stories of pipiwharauroa and riroriro to luscious life.

THE CURIOUS GUIDE TO THINGS THAT AREN’T by John D Fixx & James F Fixx, ill, Abby Carter, (Walter Foster Jr)

This alphabetical exploration of abstract and physical concepts will appeal not just to four-year-olds at the “Why?” stage, but also to their parents, who may be struggling to explain such ideas as cold, memory and time, let alone zero.

THE GENIUS OF BUGS by Simon Pollard (Te Papa)

Ahead of a major exhibition at Te Papa comes this superb survey of bugs in breathtaking close-up by a Kiwi spider biologist whose favourite jungle is his back garden.

HOW SUPER COOL STUFF WORKS by Caroline Bingham (Penguin)

An eye-catching package masquerading as a laptop that demonstrates the vast range of new technologies available for our kids. One to share with adults as well as children.

JACK & CHARLIE: BOYS OF THE BUSH by Jack Marcotte (Puffin)

No TV, no PlayStation – nine-year-old Jack’s life on the West Coast is a survivalist’s dream. Stunning photographs help make the boys’ story an entertaining read for all ages.


A valuable resource for playcentres as well as homes, this compilation offers new ideas for open-ended play – think black playdough with glitter for space scenarios, and practical projects such as a pine-cone bird feeder.

THE SKELETON BOOK by Robert Winston (Dorling Kindersley)

More than ghoulish Halloween motifs, skeletons are the very foundation of our bodies. This is the perfect book for kids becoming aware of their bones – before they start breaking them.

SPEED KING by David Hill and Phoebe Morris (Picture Puffin)

An excellent account for younger children of Invercargill’s legendary Burt Munro and his extraordinary accomplishment in breaking a world speed record in 1967, aged 68, that still stands. From the award-winning duo that brought us First to the Top.

12 HUIA BIRDS by Julian Stokoe, ill. Stacy Eyles (Oratia)

Extinction is forever, so the huia exists only in paintings, songs and stories. A striking reminder of the many ways this beautiful bird was wiped out, from Aotearoa’s earliest days of settlement. It will make you will weep.

THE ULTIMATE BOOK OF SPACE by Anne-Sophie Baumann, ill. Olivier Latyck (Twirl)

An introduction to the solar system and space travel, with the aid of flaps, tabs and pop-ups – the comparative rockets page is great but we like the half-globe best.

A WORLD OF INFORMATION by James Brown & Richard Platt (Walker Studio)

A stunning, large-format book featuring stylish prints by Brown and facts by Platt (Incredible Cross-Sections), of lower-tech stuff like knots, Morse code, bicycles. Sure to keep school-age kids engrossed for hours.

Collections & Special editions

ANNUAL, ed. Kate De Goldie & Susan Paris (Gecko)

A handsome production is this first New Zealand annual, offering something for everyone from some of our best writers, illustrators, photographers and cultural commentators. Not just for kids. 

AN ARTIST’S ALPHABET by Norman Messenger (Walker Studio)

An elegant book from an illustrator at the top of his powers, this beautiful production from Walker’s new imprint shimmers with visual references. A collector’s item.

HERE I STAND – STORIES FOR FREEDOM, ed. Amnesty International (Walker Books)

Some outstanding children’s writers have contributed to this Amnesty International publication exploring human rights under threat, John Boyne, Neil Gaiman, Chris Riddell and Jack Gantos among them. An interview with Chelsea Manning completes an inspiring collection.

MAUI AND OTHER MAORI LEGENDS by Peter Gossage (Puffin)

An overdue collection from the late artist who brought Maori legends to glorious graphic life, pretty much before anyone else, and inspired a generation of young Maori illustrators.

SNARK by David Elliot (Otago University Press)

This handsome work “for grown-up children of all ages” by multi-award-winning Dunedin author-illustrator Elliot brings together Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark and Jabberwocky poems to discover what really happened to the Snark expedition.


Kids on both sides of the Tasman will know every word to these classics from the Kiwi author-illustrator who lived in Oz for 30 years before returning to live in Auckland. The mouse who sank the boat is still our favourite.

This article was first published the the December 10, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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