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The 50 Best Books for Kids in 2017

On a train or in a tree, at the bach or by the sea … enjoy 2017’s top reads for kids and young adults.

Illustration/Getty Images

Young adult

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (David Fickling Books)

The start of a new trilogy that’s a prequel to Pullman’s His Dark Materials series introduces Lyra as a babe of six months, sheltering with nuns across the river from where 11-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his daemon Asta live. Initially anchored in the real world, the story crosses into a parallel universe as a biblical flood submerges the Oxford countryside and Malcolm’s canoe becomes their ark.

Release by Patrick Ness (Walker Books)

Exquisitely crafted, elegantly written and at times very funny, the coming-of-age story of Adam – gay son of a small-town fundamentalist preacher – is interlaced with that of Katherine, a murdered local girl restlessly re-enacting her death in a parallel universe.

The Severed Land by Maurice Gee (Puffin)

Pared-back prose marks this unexpected novel from one of our greatest writers for children. Fliss, a complex and convincing heroine, must undertake a rescue mission inside the land separated from her own by an invisible wall.

Landscape with Invisible Hand by MT Anderson (Candlewick Press)

Satirical sci-fi told through the eyes of teenage artist Adam, living in a near future under an alien takeover. The new overlords automate jobs out of existence, and offer a cure for every illness – if you can afford it.

​Moonrise by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury Children’s Books)

Award-winning author continues to pack a mighty punch with her shock subjects and sparse verse. New Yorker Joe travels across the US to visit his brother Ed, who is on Death Row in Texas for a cop killing. Heartbreaking, breathtaking.

Sparrow by Scot Gardner (Allen & Unwin)

Street kid Sparrow has to survive in the wilds of Far North Australia after a boating accident during a juvenile detention camp. A searing story of neglect and abuse, amazingly infused with hope.

Wilder Country by Mark Smith (Text Publishing)

Satisfying sequel to last year’s acclaimed Road to Winter about Finn, Kas and Willow, survivors in a plague-ravaged Australia where gangs of Wilders stalk the land.

Because Of You by Pip Harry (University of Queensland Press)

When student Nola reluctantly starts working at a Sydney homeless shelter, she meets Tiny, whose life is an ongoing “misery wrapped in loneliness”, and finds they have more in common than either could imagine. 

Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy (Bloomsbury)

When an asteroid threatens California, Nasa recruits Russian physicist Dr Yuri Strelnikov to help. Problem is, he’s just 17. Funny, despite the apocalyptic scenario.

Finding Nevo by Nevo Zisin (Walker Books)

Twenty-one-year-old Australian writer chronicles “their” metamorphosis from born-female to lesbian to “trans, queer, polyamorous” with honest insight.

Junior fiction

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend (Hachette)

Sparkling new Australian talent introduces readers to a magical world where a sassy girl, once considered cursed, can be redeemed by her own smarts. A grab-bag of quirky, whimsical and snarky. 

The Traitor and the Thief by Gareth Ward (Walker Books)

Spies and steampunk combined to win this first-time novelist (and magician) the 2016 Storylines Tessa Duder Award for his tale of Sin, a 14-year-old offered the chance to train as a secret agent rather than remain a petty crook. Fun.

 The Ice Sea Pirates by Frida Nilsson (Gecko Press)

Nilsson stakes a claim to being the new Astrid Lindgren in a book that reminds us Europeans are used to darker children’s tales. Siri, a tough 10-year-old girl, runs away to sea in search of younger sister Miki, kidnapped by an infamous pirate.

The Thunderbolt Pony by Stacy Gregg (HarperCollins)

Another gripping not-just-for-horsey-readers adventure from Gregg, this time inspired by the Kaikoura earthquake. Struggling with anxiety disorder OCD, Evie sets off from the family farm through a landscape fractured by fault lines. A celebration of resilience and resourcefulness.

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Text Publishing)

A fitting sequel to the acclaimed The War that Saved My Life continues the story of 11-year-old London Blitz evacuee Ada, now happily riding horses in the country away from her abusive mother.

Bastion Point: 507 Days on Takaparawha by Tania Roxborogh (Scholastic)

Another from the My New Zealand Story series offering a kids’ perspective on historic events, this is told by young Erica Tito as her family join the 1977-78 occupation of Bastion Point. A deserved winner of the 2017 Esther Glen Junior Fiction Award.

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury)

An old-fashioned adventure story about four kids who are left to fend for themselves after the pilot of their small plane dies and they crash-land in the Amazonian rainforest. A great one to read aloud.

Jehan and the Quest of the Lost Dog by Rosanne Hawke (University of Queensland Press)

Nine-year-old Jehan, separated from his family when monsoon floodwaters overwhelm their home, fetches up in a tree, befriends a stranded dog and caged chook, and evades human predators before finally finding refuge. Inspired by the eight million children who survived the worst floods in Pakistan’s history in 2010.

The Elephant by Peter Carnavas (University of Queensland Press)

Olive lives with her dad, her grandad and a big grey elephant – her father’s depression. This simple story from the author better known for his picture books lasts long after you’ve wiped away the tears. Tender, funny, forgiving, redemptive.

The Tale of Angelino Brown by David Almond (Walker Books)

Bored bus driver Bert’s life changes the day he finds a wee angel in his uniform pocket. Wife Betty welcomes the tiny creature – a frequent farter – into their childless home. Hilarious.

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour by Anne Michaels (Bloomsbury)

A sheer delight to read aloud with an eight-year-old, this whimsical first children’s book from UK poet Michaels will be equally relished by older readers who appreciate Mary Poppins, high teas, cats (16 of them) and elegant language. Five longish stories make it just right for one-a-night bedtime sharing.

Annual 2 by Kate De Goldi & Susan Paris (Annual Ink)

Can they repeat their debut success of last year? Yes, they can! Annual 2 is a fascinating, entertaining and quirky potpourri from Kiwi writers, photographers and illustrators new and old – many better known for their work for adults. A collection to savour throughout the holidays.

Picture books

The Worm and the Bird by Coralie Bickford-Smith (Particular Books)

A worm’s-eye view of the subterranean world alternates with the watchful eye of a silent black bird, silhouetted on a spade handle, waiting. This classy picture book for all ages, the second from an impeccably credentialled UK designer, seamlessly unites text and image in an unexpectedly joyful fable.

One Christmas Wish by Katherine Rundell & Emily Sutton (Bloomsbury Children’s Books)

The magic of Christmas is brought to life in this delicately illustrated, timeless tale of a boy, home alone, who finds a box of damaged tree ornaments. When they come to life, Theo helps each deal with its broken bits – a voice tutor for the robin, feathers for the angel’s wings and so on. Utterly enchanting.

My Dog Mouse by Eva Lindstrom (Gecko Press)

A wistful tale about a girl walking a neighbour’s dog that turns the tables on your usual dog story. All about kindness, patience, sharing and the importance of looking at clouds.

Perfectly Norman by Tom Percival (Bloomsbury Children’s Books)

Growing wings has been a recurring theme in recent years: JL Pawley’s Air Born was this year’s YA take on it. When Norman sprouts appendages, initially he tries to hide them by wearing an anorak day and night – until birds flying by remind him of the joy of that first flight.

Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins)

This love letter to his newborn son from acclaimed author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers offers a breathtaking overview of our place in space, in the richest range of blue hues ever to grace a picture book. A heartfelt, glorious response to the fragility of our planet from an outstanding artist.

Henry and the Yeti by Russell Ayto (Bloomsbury Children’s Books)

Henry’s love of yetis sends him into the mountains in search of the elusive creatures to prove they exist. But can he return home with evidence? A reminder to believe in yourself, this does for yetis what Leo Timmers’ Franky did for robots.

My Pictures After the Storm by Éric Veillé (Gecko Press)

Before and after pics encourage thinking about consequences – not just after the storm, but after lunch, swimming, a cold, the superhero battle. The mix of board cover and light card pages will withstand frequent rereading.

There Is No Dragon in this Story by Lou Carter & Deborah Allwright (Bloomsbury Children’s Books)

A hilarious mélange of the best-loved fairy tales, sparked off by a dragon in search of a story where he’s the hero. Rejected by the gingerbread man, the three little pigs, Goldilocks and more, the dragon encounters Jack’s giant – and discovers he still has some puff left.

The Longest Breakfast by Jenny Bornholdt & Sarah Wilkins (Gecko Press)

Laidback dad Malcolm co-ordinates the chaos of family breakfast in the latest collaboration from this Wellington duo.

Scarface Claw, Hold Tight! by Lynley Dodd (Puffin)

Adults who’ve driven off with their wallet or coffee atop the car will recognise this scenario. But could they cope with moggy arch-villain Scarface Claw facing off through the windscreen? Vintage Dodd.


Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story by Gavin Bishop (Picture Puffin)

A monumental achievement, this, to sum up our history in 65 pages. Bishop has laid this out in a kid-friendly format that effortlessly integrates te reo, and his attention to detail is mind-boggling. The wide-ranging scope includes cyber-bullying, the homeless … and baristas. My pick for NZ book of the year – make that the decade.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli & Francesca Cavallo (Particular Books)

This is an illustrated anthology of female achievement, showcasing 100 women who have made history – or are still making it. Names such as Frida and Malala are well known; others, such as transgender child Coy, will speak to a new generation.

The Iliad & The Odyssey retold by Gillian Cross & Neil Packer (Candlewick Press)

Three thousand years after the event, this splendidly packaged introduction to the Greek classics combines the Iliad – telling the story of the 10-year war between the Trojans and the Greeks, and considered the greatest literary achievement of Greek civilisation – and the Odyssey, the epic journey home from that war, told by Odysseus. Stunning.

Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover by Markus Motum (Walker Books)

An elegantly designed depiction of our quest to discover life on Mars. Stunning spreads carry a simple text telling the story through the eyes of a car-sized robot.

Sky High: Jean Batten's Incredible Flying Adventures by David Hill & Phoebe Morris (Picture Puffin)

Another excellent biography from the duo who introduced kids to Ed Hillary and Burt Munro. This story of the life of our pioneer female aviator is a reminder that not all great achievers find happiness.

Into the White by Joanna Grochowicz (Allen & Unwin)

We all know how the ill-fated journey of Robert Falcon Scott ended – but this step-by-frozen-step description, along with Herbert Ponting’s stark photographs, breathes life into the familiar tale.

Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic (Bloomsbury Children’s Books)

A hardback companion to the exhibition the British Library mounted, featuring weird and wonderful artefacts from its Potter archive, plus unpublished treasures from the author’s collection.

Illumanatomy by Kate Davies & Carnovsky (Wide Eyed Editions)

A second three-colour lens book from the Italian design studio that produced Illuminature, this exploration of the human body uses a red lens to reveal the skeleton, green to see how muscles work and blue to display the organs. Entertaining and educational.

My Amazing Body Machine by Robert Winston (DK Children’s)

TV presenter Lord Winston’s The Skeleton Book featured computer-generated images; this sequel uses Owen Gildersleeve’s simple sculptural paper artworks to depict the workings of what Winston calls Earth’s “most complex and precious machine”. A superb family reference.

Do Not Lick This Book by Idan Ben-Barak & Julian Frost (Allen & Unwin)

Making microbes fascinating and fun is beyond this reviewer’s comprehension – but this creative author and illustrator/designer have pulled it off – with a little anthropomorphism and actual electron microscope photography. The message about what we once called germs comes across loud and clear. The shiny “lick me” spot on the back cover is especially delectable.

Bright Ideas for Young Minds by BestStart (Mary Egan Publishing)

A valuable resource for families of preschoolers, especially those who can’t access community play groups. It offers tips on science experiments, outdoor play, pointers on how to communicate with kids to help them become confident learners – and best of all, free things you can do with your child.

How to Mend a Kea by Janet Hunt (Massey University Press)

The story of Massey’s Wildbase Hospital, a veterinary clinic for rare and endangered species, makes for a valuable addition to our wildlife literature.

Gecko by Raymond Huber & Brian Lovelock (Walker Books)

Lushly coloured study of the creature well known for the trick of dropping its tail when attacked.

Toroa's Journey by Maria Gill & Gavin Mouldey (Potton & Burton)

This is the life story of the 500th chick hatched at the Taiaroa Head albatross colony, near Dunedin, in 2007. A splendid tribute to the world’s largest seabirds.

It's My Egg (And You Can't Have It) by Heather Hunt & Kennedy Warne (Potton & Burton)

Mother kiwi lays her egg. Father kiwi takes over the nest. Predators begin arriving … Heather Hunt’s dark, dramatic double-page spreads flash with just enough colour to hold the attention until the chick hatches.

Ngā Āhua/Shapes; Ngā tae/Colours; Te Kaute/Counting) by Kitty Brown & Kirsten Parkinson (Reo Pēpi)

A second trio of bilingual board books for readers from the youngest through to school age, these introduce whānau to colours, numbers and shapes.

ABC Pop-up by Courtney Watson McCarthy (Candlewick Press)

For those adults who collect alphabets, as much as preschoolers learning their letters, this stylish slip-cased volume pops open to reveal 3D capitals, while tiny embossed versions await closer inspection. Exquisite.

Kuwi's Kitchen by Kat Merewether (Illustrated Publishing)

We can’t resist a Kiwi cookbook that even preschoolers can follow. Adding Critter Eyes (from egg white or chickpea brine) to almost everything makes food fun for kids, including those with allergies; there are Sometimes Treat Foods, too. Mokopuna Amelie, 4, just loves Morris the Morepork Muffins.

This article was first published in the December 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.