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The Listener's 50 Best Kids' Books of 2019

Climate change, mental illness, refugees, culture clashes and inter-generational tension – kids’ books in 2019 sure have been tackling the big issues. The Listener’s expert on books for youngsters, Ann Packer, picks her 50 favourites.

Young-adult Fiction

THE SECRET COMMONWEALTH: The Book of Dust Volume Two by Philip Pullman (David Fickling)

Lyra is now a university student and restlessly searching for new truths. While she sleeps, her daemon, Pan, witnesses a murder that sets them on a journey across Europe in search of a mysterious rose oil, which is said to allow viewers to see Dust. Philip Pullman’s latest is an allegory for a post-truth age; a highly readable blend of adventure, crime thriller and spy story.

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GOOD BOY by Mal Peet (Barrington Stoke)

A girl faces a recurring nightmare involving a black dog, which leaps out of Emma Shoard’s powerful pictures. Young-adult fiction, but not as we know it, this dyslexia-friendly novella from the late, great Mal Peet may be edited to a reading age of eight – but it’s aimed at readers of 14-plus.

Read more: Win the Listener's 50 Best Kids' Books of 2019

DIG by AS King (Text)

A couple who’ve made their money farming potatoes choose not to help their adult kids and teenage grandkids financially. The result is devastating for all. Mindboggling in its ingenuity, blistering in its portrayal of white supremacy, this is one for older teens and adults wanting an inside look at a mindset of America’s times.

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SLAY by Brittney Morris (Hodder)

Kiera, one of only a handful of black kids in her school, creates a virtual-reality game-playing sensation as a safe place for her peers to meet up. She is determined to keep her identity hidden – until a player is murdered, she’s labelled racist and a troll infiltrates the game. Best young-adult debut of the year.

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TOFFEE by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)

The plot’s reminiscent of Margaret Mahy’s Memory – teenage runaway meets demented old woman. But Irish Children’s Laureate Sarah Crossan brings her own magic to this theme in her verse novel about the friendship between Allison, who is fleeing an abusive father, and Marla, who thinks she is someone called Toffee from her own past.

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THE SURPRISING POWER OF A GOOD DUMPLING by Wai Chim (Allen & Unwin)

Catchy title … delectable cover! Anna Chiu, whose parents lead separate lives, is torn between the demands of school and the desire for a life of her own. The Sydney-resident Chinese-American author combines everything she loves about her culture with the reality of being the go-between for a parent bedridden with depression, in her first young-adult novel, set in north Sydney.

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THE HONEYMAN AND THE HUNTER by Neil Grant (Allen & Unwin)

A moving coming-of-age story about an Australian boy with an Indian mother, making a reluctant pilgrimage to the place of her birth, the Sunderbans – home of the Bengal tiger. A remarkable blend of Hawkesbury River lore, contemporary surfing culture and Bengali tradition.

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A DIFFERENT LAND by Paul Jennings; illustrated by Geoff Kelly (Allen & Unwin)

In this deceptively simple history lesson seen through the eyes of a young immigrant in post-war rural Australia, nothing is what it seems. For Christopher, whose mum gets a pub job as the result of mistaken identity, even going to the (shared longdrop) dunny is a nightmare.

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Junior Fiction (8-12)

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE ILLUSTRATED EDITION by JK Rowling; illustrated by Jim Kay (Bloomsbury)

The long-awaited pictorial Harry Potter Book 4 is a perfect introduction for those who are probably too young for the step up that this represents – but who’ve already seen the movies, shared the first three stories with an adult and can list every character. “Artistic wizardry” (the publisher’s phrase) really does cutely sum up Jim Kay’s brilliance.

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EXTRAORDINARY BIRDS by Sandy Stark-McGinnis (Bloomsbury)

Convinced she is born to fly, December has woven a myth around the scar on her back – wings will emerge under the right conditions. After living in a series of failed foster homes, she comes to Eleanor, a rural woman who practises taxidermy. Heartrending yet hopeful, and perhaps the most realistic “wings” story so far.

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THE YEAR WE FELL FROM SPACE by Amy Sarig King (Text)

A family splitting up, a teen who is into the stars. The problem for Liberty is it’s her dad who helped her draw the night sky, and he’s the one who’s left, precipitating a mental-health crisis for Liberty and her younger sister. The author, who writes for young-adult readers as AS King, has a very good handle on grief and healing processes.

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I, COSMO by Carlie Sorosiak (Nosy Crow)

Written by someone who knows every twitch of a dog’s tail, and every smell that goes with it, this family break-up from a dog’s viewpoint has to be a first. Elderly golden retriever Cosmo, protector of 10-year-old Max, plots to keep his parents together by winning a competition known as flow dog dancing. Believe it or not!

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EVIE AND THE ANIMALS by Matt Haig; illustrated by Emily Gravett (Canongate)

Evie, whose mum has died, has read everything she can find about animals of all kinds, including snakes. She also has a special skill – she can hear animals. Warned by her dad about the trouble that could get her into, Evie holds out, until the new school rabbit waylays her. Emily Gravett’s pictures add to the suspense.

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SONGBIRD by Ingrid Laguna (Text)

A gentle tale about a resilient Iraqi refugee, Jamila, in Australia. Typically, she is the intermediary between her mother, who speaks little English, and their new life. With her dad stranded in Iraq, Mama calls her out of school to help with tasks such as shopping. Joining the school choir offers Jamila a chance to be heard.

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THE CATERPILLAR SUMMER by Gillian McDunn (Bloomsbury)

Another story about a sole-parent family coping with a crisis. Dad has died, hardworking Mum’s backup plan fails, and Cat and her brother, Chicken, are sent to spend summer with grandparents they’ve never met. Why ever not? Not because Chicken has special needs, and probably not because they are of mixed race. Satisfying and heartwarming.

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SWIMMING AGAINST THE STORM by Jess Butterworth (Orion)

Subsidence caused by drilling, plus rising sea levels, threatens the coastal Louisiana home of Eliza and her younger sister, Avery. If they can find the legendary Creole loup-garou, the powers-that-be might just take notice. But deep in the swampland in hurricane season, the girls are exposed to even greater danger.

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THE DOG RUNNER by Bren MacDibble (Allen & Unwin)

A worldwide fungus outbreak has killed all Australia’s grains. Society is in meltdown. With Ella and Emery’s mum missing, they set out for Emery’s aboriginal homeland. A story about resourceful, resilient, respectful kids with a strong bond and well-developed moral sense, plus a message of hope that Kiwi kids, too, will recognise: the land endures.

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THE GOOD THIEVES by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury)

There’s nothing predictable about this author, whose novel The Explorer won the Costa award in 2017. An often-hilarious adventure set in prohibition-era New York, involving stolen gemstones, Lipizzaner horses, a flying trapeze school and a French chateau transplanted stone by stone to the banks of the Hudson.

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LIZARD’S TALE by Weng Wai Chan (Text)

Lizard lives rough in Singapore’s Chinatown at the beginning of World War II, before the island falls to the Japanese, surviving on odd jobs, petty theft and his wits. After he steals a box to order, his boss is murdered. An intriguing tale of spies and subterfuge, written from a refreshingly non-Western point of view by a now Auckland-resident Singapore native.

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ANNA AT WAR by Helen Peters (Nosy Crow)

Dedicated to “all the children who have had to leave their homes and make new lives in other places” is this moving account of one child’s arrival in Britain with the Kindertransport. With a cardboard label around her neck and one small suitcase, Anna is fostered by a kind couple and taken to Kent. But daily life during wartime is not straightforward ….

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THE SECRET STARLING by Judith Eagle (Faber)

After Clara Starling is abandoned by her ice-cold guardian uncle in a village near their derelict gothic mansion, she walks back to the empty house, to find a runaway from London, also seeking Uncle; they hunker down and concoct a survival plan. An intriguing mystery built on secrets and lies.

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PAGES & CO: TILLY AND THE LOST FAIRY TALES by Anna James (HarperCollins)

One of several books this year subverting the fairy-tale genre, this gorgeous production is Book 2 in a series, and set in Paris. Tilly, who lives above a bookshop, is a bookwanderer. She can travel inside the pages, mix up the characters and change the outcome of plots. But woe betide those who get stuck inside. A familiarity with the standard repertoire helps.

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THE TELEGRAM by Philippa Werry (Pipi Press)

Fourteen-year-old Beaty takes on the job of delivering telegrams advising families of the death of their sons in World War 1. Philippa Werry skilfully documents the historical reality of Beaty’s life for her young readers without imposing contemporary expectations.

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Picture Books

MONKEY ON THE RUN by Leo Timmers (Gecko)

This award-winning Belgian author-illustrator, who made the New York Times’ best picture-book list last month, never misses a beat as he choreographs his parade of animal characters stuck in a traffic jam – everyone from rich-listers to rubbish-truck drivers – in a textless tale within a tale. Mind-boggling mobile mayhem: Richard Scarry on speed with a dash of Heath Robinson.

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THE IRON MAN by Ted Hughes; illustrated by Chris Mould (Bloomsbury)

A science-fiction novel or “a story in five nights”? The late poet laureate’s tale has been a film, a rock opera and illustrated many times. Chris Mould’s alluring spreads use a rich patinated-copper palette to depict the metal-munching giant who appears over a cliff to terrify the locals – all but young Hogarth, who has a cunning plan.

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SARAH’S TWO NATIVITIES by Janine M Fraser; illustrated by Helene Magisson (Walker)

The time is right for an interfaith picture book bringing together Christianity’s and Islam’s nativity stories. There’s not that much difference between Sarah’s gran’s Bible reading of the birth of Jesus and her Muslim gran’s version from the Koran – but the fact the Islamic baby Jesus has the power of speech certainly appeals to six-year-olds.

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THE HOUSE OF MADAME M by Clotilde Perrin (Gecko)

A new supersized flap and tab monster book from French illustrator Clotilde Perrin. Skeletons, ghouls and other ghastlies fill Madame M’s haunted house with Halloween delights, with only a golden phoenix to lighten the darkness. Not for the faint-hearted.

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WRINKLES by JR (Hachette)

Grandparents’ grooviness is endlessly fascinating to younger children. Published to coincide with a major exhibition at New York’s Brooklyn Museum, this version for kids of the work of Parisian photographer JR that featured in last year’s film Faces Places, introduces oldies from around the world.

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THE HOUSE ON THE MOUNTAIN by Ella Holcombe; illustrated by David Cox (Allen & Unwin)

For kids living with the reality of bushfires, being able to do something – anything – is vital. Ten years on from Black Saturday, fires encircle Sydney, and memories of Nelson and Christchurch are still raw. This down-to-earth story of preparations and rebuilding has an immediacy that draws on personal tragedy (revealed in an afterword).

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THE FATE OF FAUSTO: A Painted Fable by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins)

Be careful what you wish for … This tale for our times, realised in sepia with a dash of fluoro pink, follows an unremittingly arrogant man who brands everything he “owns”. But while the mountain appears to bow down to him, stamping his foot at the sea does not have the same result …

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CORNELIA AND THE JUNGLE MACHINE by Nora Brech (Gecko)

A child sent out to play while her parents unpack in their new home meets the boy next door, a treehouse-dwelling inventor. Another riff on fairy tales, this Norwegian fantasy is awash with visual references – a blue cloak, an eye-patch, a ladder climbing to the treetops – not immediately obvious in the exuberance of the treehouse/jungle scenario.

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I GO QUIET by David Ouimet (Canongate)

The shy ones get a voice in this first solo publication from Memphis-born former rock muso and street artist Ouimet. Every lyrical line of this exquisite fable sings, capturing the experience of the masked child, who ultimately finds solace in reading. Shades of Shaun Tan.

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HOIHOI TURITURI by Soledad Bravi; translated by Ruia Aperahama (Gecko)

Accurate te reo pronunciation is required to make sense of this brilliant translation – but in the same way that different languages have entirely different words for the sounds frogs make, for example, this Māori version of the best-first-book-ever for newborns is a resounding success.

ANOTHER by Christian Robinson (Simon & Schuster)

Quirkiness makes this NYT-listed, textless imaginative work compelling. Coloured bobbles on a child’s cornrows anchor a clever, visually upside-down, inside-out and all-inclusive exploration of a girl and her cat’s pre-sleep fantasy. One to reread multiple times.

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SMALL IN THE CITY by Sydney Smith (Walker)

Another from the NYT best list. The tall format emphasises a skyscraper cityscape from a child’s point of view. As the snow sets in, you realise who the child is addressing – and reassuringly, from an adult’s point of view, that the child is not alone. An instant hit with our Amelie, aged six.

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SLEUTH & SOLVE by Ana Gallo; illustrated by Victor Escandell (Chronicle)

Translated from the Spanish, this picturebook urges kids to use two different ways of solving problems – logic and imagination – to work out whodunit. Appealing.

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THE CAT FROM MUZZLE by Sally Sutton; illustrated by Scott Tulloch (Puffin)

This true story of a high-country cat that refuses to be relocated to town combines pictures, rhyming text, a good refrain and wacky, warm images of the mostly very bedraggled moggy that crossed a mountain range and mighty river to get home.

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Non-fiction

WORK IT GIRL, BOSS THE BEST-SELLER LIST LIKE JK ROWLING by Caroline Moss & Sinem Erkas (Frances Lincoln)

Biographies – we can’t get enough of them, it seems, and younger readers are devouring subjects as diverse as Frida Kahlo, Mahatma Gandhi and Agatha Christie. Classy collage graphics work brilliantly as a foil for the harsh early life and years of failure that beset JKR.

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THE DOUBLE DANGEROUS BOOK FOR BOYS by Conn, Arthur and Cameron Iggulden (HarperCollins)

Not just dangerous, this all-new, second “book to hide in a treehouse – after you’ve used it to build one” looks at such useful activities as making lasagne and starting a fire with a battery. Robustly bound, fun for all ages and not just for boys.

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THE GOBBLEDEGOOK BOOK: A Joy Cowley Anthology by Joy Cowley; illustrated by Giselle Clarkson (Gecko)

In the best tradition of Quentin Blake comes illustrator Giselle Clarkson’s sassy take on a quirky selection of poems and stories from the Grandmother of the Nation. My fave is Uncle Andy’s Singlet; Amelie prefers Do Not Drop Your Jellybeans. A bouquet to designer Vida Kelly for her golden production and ribbon bookmark.

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THREE KIWI TALES by Janet Hunt (MUP)

This sequel to How To Mend a Kea carries on documenting the work of vets at Massey University’s specialist recovery centre, Wildbase Hospital, in Palmerston North. As well as backgrounding the evolution of our five kiwi species – the Latin name means “no wing” – it follows three fascinating case studies of kiwi rehabilitation.

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SPACE ON EARTH by Dr Sheila Kanani; illustrated by Del Thorpe (Alma Books)

On the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing comes a book jam-packed with facts about the difference space travel has made to our daily lives – from cameras of every kind to smart textiles – from a Royal Astronomical Society educator, planetary physicist, science presenter and space comedian.

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WILDLIFE OF AOTEAROA by Gavin Bishop (Puffin)

What an assignment – beginning with the watery world of newly hatched longfin eels, this comprehensive overview of our fauna is both historical and forward-looking. Museum collections and famous animals lighten the mix while younger readers can follow the (mis)fortunes of tuna larvae Tahi to Rima as they elude predators page by page. Seamless integration of te reo with English in the text and an extensive glossary add immensely to the resource.

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DINOSAUR HUNTER by David Hill & Phoebe Morris (Puffin)

Yes, Virginia, we did have dinosaurs. And they were discovered by a Hawke’s Bay farmer’s wife, who discovered a passion for geology when she took her husband’s place in a night class. Palaeontologist and citizen-scientist Joan Wiffen, the latest subject of this award-winning duo’s picture book biographies, died in 2009, aged 87.

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FIRST MAP: How James Cook Charted Aotearoa New Zealand by Tessa Duder; illustrated by David Elliot (HarperCollins)

A handsome, tall hardback jacketed in a folded copy of the original chart drawn by Captain James Cook 250 years ago. Tessa Duder, a veteran sailor, skilfully steers her text between “the shoals of opposing viewpoints” on the first encounters. Elliot’s sepia-tinged, occasionally bloodstained drawings blend historical accuracy with mystique in a design evocative of weathered parchment. 

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THE ADVENTURES OF TUPAIA by Courtney Sina Meredith; illustrated by Mat Tait (Allen & Unwin)

Tupaia’s time has finally come, with an Auckland Museum exhibition focusing on the Tahitian priest-navigator without whom Cook might not even have arrived in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Varied enough textually and visually to hold the attention of young readers, this accompanying book is told in a dramatic mix of verse, prose and stylised vignettes, with the occasional comic-book sequence.

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MOPHEAD by Selina Tusitala Marsh (AUP)

A lively autobiography from the recently retired poet laureate and first person of Pacific descent to gain a PhD in English from the University of Auckland. Bursting with textual and visual puns, this handsome hardback elevates the graphic memoir above its comic-book origins while assuring its place in the hearts of kids for whom such books remain a welcome bridge to literacy.

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MY FIRST WORDS IN MĀORI by Stacey Morrison; illustrated by Ali Teo and John O’Reilly (Puffin)

Beginning with heads, shoulders, knees and toes, this simple pictorial dictionary covers just about every day-to-day scenario a Kiwi family might encounter, with conversational phrases a bonus. Ka pai! But where are the days of the week?

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WHEN THE WHALES WALKED by Dougal Dixon; illustrated by Hannah Bailey (Australian Geographic)

A straightforward introduction to evolution, mass extinction and the implications for humankind’s future. This attractively illustrated, well-designed overview, timeline and exploration of the main classes of animals is loaded with fascinating words young readers will have never heard of – and love to pronounce.

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WHY YOU SHOULD READ CHILDREN’S BOOKS, EVEN THOUGH YOU ARE SO OLD AND WISE by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury)

For adults who cannot resist a stunning new picture book or young-adult novel, this gem of an essay reminds us why children’s books are important not only to young readers but also to the child within us all.

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This article was first published in the December 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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