Our annual list of 50 top reads for children and young adults, as chosen by Ann Packer.
Young Adult Fiction
Legacy by Whiti Hereaka (Huia)
A riveting read to round off this year’s World War I commemorations is the story of Riki, who’s been reading his great-great-granddad’s oral history transcripts and diary. Hit by a bus, Riki is transported back in time to Egypt and a notorious 1915 incident involving Anzac troops.
The Goose Road by Rowena House (Walker)
This epic journey through 1916 France to the notorious Étaples British Army base by a farm girl determined to sell her prized geese at a premium reveals a countryside ravaged by war – and worse, when dying wildfowl raise disease alarms. A monumental debut novel.
A Different Boy by Paul Jennings (Allen & Unwin)
Set immediately post-war and based on Jennings’ experiences as a migrant, this novella follows Anton, who absconds from an orphanage and stows away on a ship bound for Australia. He’s sheltered by a woman with an intellectually handicapped son – and secrets of her own.
Ash Arising by Mandy Hager (Puffin)
More a slow burn than the incandescence of award-winning The Nature of Ash, this sequel sees reluctant activist Ash McCarthy and his friends forced to determine who their allies are and who they dare not trust – right up to the highest levels of government. Ash’s brother Mikey remains the most endearing Down syndrome character in YA fiction.
The Surival Game by Nicky Singer (Hachette)
In a world beset by climate change and overrun by refugees, Mhairi is on her way home to Scotland with only an unloaded gun, identity papers and a mute child in tow. She’s survived disease, detention, assassins, heat and cold. But what’s to come is even more testing. Bleakly beautiful prose with a chilling twist.
After the Lights Go Out by Lili Wilkinson (Allen & Unwin)
“Survival is everything and family comes first,” says Pru Palmer’s dad, a doomsday prepper. She and her sisters live with him on the edge of an Australian outback town, their bunker equipped to withstand the worst disaster. But Dad’s away at the nearby mine when the lights go out – and nobody’s car will start. Terrifying, believable and ultimately redemptive.
The Art of Taxidermy by Sharon Kernot (Text)
The line between life and death wobbles in this exquisitely crafted verse novel exploring loss. Following her mother’s death, Lottie collects and preserves specimens of Australian birds, reptiles and small animals, much to the consternation of her German aunt – though her father and grandmother are understanding and supportive.
The Anger of Angels by Sherryl Jordan (Walker)
In a spectacular return to YA fiction after a long hiatus, award-winning Kiwi writer Jordan excels herself. Romance, intrigue and brutality jostle for attention in the story of Giovanna, daughter of a court jester, who falls in love with Raffaele, brother of a muralist (think poisonous powders) in a fictional Renaissance Italy. The period detail is breathtaking.
A Winter's Promise: The Mirror Visitor, Book 1 by Christelle Dabos (Text)
Where to start with this phenomenal fantasy, which topped bestseller lists in France? Debut author Dabos creates the first in a quartet about Ophelia, a young archivist who reads the personal histories of objects through her fingers and can move through mirrors. Sumptuous.
My Brigadista Year by Katherine Paterson (Walker)
Fidel Castro’s ambitious 1961 employment of an army of volunteer teachers so captivated the Bridge to Terabithia author she wanted to tell the story of the revolutionary teens who turned an illiterate country into one that remains almost totally literate today. Some died; all were changed. An inspiring coming-of-age story.
Changing Gear by Scot Gardner (Allen & Unwin)
Aussie school leaver Merrick takes off following finals on a head-clearing, soul-cleansing, road trip on a vintage motorbike. Poorly prepared for life in the outdoors, it looks like he might not last the distance, until an encounter with a real-life swagman teaches him some survival skills.
Someday by David Levithan (Text)
It’s six years since Levithan’s novel Every Day introduced A, who wakes up every morning in a different body. Falling in love, setting up a complicated plan to revisit Rhiannon, he must grapple not only with changing time zones and genders but the shocking discovery that there are others like him out there.
Inheritance by Carole Wilkinson (Black Dog)
Nic has a lot of catching up to do when she comes to live with her granddad in the country. Be warned: there’s a violent act at the heart of this book – but also a passionate plea for human dignity, wrapped up in a darned good time-travel yarn. The detail, as you’d expect from an award-winning historical novelist, is spot on. For ages 10-plus.
Lenny's Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee (Allen & Unwin)
In mid-70s America, Lenny is big sister to a boy who just won’t stop growing. Their mother, “made almost entirely out of worries and magic”, struggles to raise them alone. The highlight of their week is the next instalment of Burrell’s Build-It-at-Home Encyclopedia, an ingenious literary device that holds the unravelling plot together. We know it will end in tears – but it’s a richly rewarding read.
The Mapmakers' Race by Eirlys Hunter, illustrated by Kirsten Slade (Gecko)
This rip-roaring adventure about four kids and a parrot called Carrot is classic read-aloud fare. Sans parents, the resourceful Santanders persist in their quest to map a route through hostile terrain, against dastardly adult competition, using only the most basic equipment and sister Francie’s gift of envisioning the landscape from above. A winner.
Everything I've Never Said by Samantha Wheeler (UQP)
Locked inside the prison that is Rett syndrome, reliant on others for her every need, Ava can communicate only by screaming her frustration. As a family tragedy breaks down barriers, a young therapist offers new ways of opening her world. A moving family story.
The Fire Stallion by Stacy Gregg (HarperCollins)
From Wellington to Iceland, filmmaking connects people and horses a world apart in this powerful time-shift romance. Twelve-year-old Hilly, accompanying her costume-designer mum on an Icelandic film shoot involving legendary warrior woman Brunhilda, feels a magnetic pull to the island … and to the young lead, Anders. Breathtaking.
Swallow's Dance by Wendy Orr (Allen & Unwin)
In 1625 BCE – the Bronze Age – the Greek island now known as Santorini was obliterated by a great volcanic eruption. Orr (Nim’s Island) was so taken with a local fresco showing girls in ceremonial dress that she constructed this dramatic yet charming story around them.
Finding by David Hill (Puffin)
The story of seven generations living by a New Zealand river will resonate with many Kiwis, regardless of whether their forebears came from Scotland, Europe or elsewhere in the world.
Wundersmith by Jessica Townsend (Hachette)
Poor Morrigan Crow. She thought she’d be safe inside the city of Nevermoor. But her woes are just beginning. The sequel sees our heroine banned from classes, missing her mentor, Jupiter, and hardly ever seeing best friend Hawthorne. The first book in the Nevermoor series won a slew of awards; this will no doubt do the same.
Brindabella by Ursula Dubosarsky, illustrated by Andrew Joyner (Allen & Unwin)
Pender and his artist dad live in a simple old stone house on the edge of the bush with their dog, Billy-Bob. When a hunter kills a kangaroo, the boy finds a joey in her pouch. A satisfying tale for younger readers about the enduring bond between wild animals and humans.
Bob by Wendy Mass & Rebecca Stead, illustrated by Nicholas Gannon (Text)
Two top US writers create a magical story about an American girl visiting her Australian gran – and a short, green creature in a chicken suit, called Bob. A story of remembering and forgetting across vast distances and generations.
The Family Tree by Mal Peet, illustrated by Emma Shoard (Barrington Stoke)
Sad, beautiful, haunting, this memoir of a father’s falling apart will have you tearing up before the treehouse is even built. Shoard’s pictures add the right moodiness to the refuge that’s the perfect place for reading The Wind in the Willows and Tom’s Midnight Garden.
Lemonade Jones: The First Day Back & the Zoo that Comes to You by Davina Bell & Karen Blair (Allen & Unwin)
Lemonade Jones is a sassy, nearly-six-year-old who asks the kind of questions that drive teachers to distraction. She loves loud noises and tells the truth even when it’s not polite. You can’t help but laugh along with this new heroine – even when her temper gets the better of her.
The Dam by David Almond, illustrated by Levi Pinfold (Walker Studio)
In the softest tones, using minimal colour, Kate Greenaway Medal-winner Pinfold realises Almond’s lyrical commemoration of the creation of Kielder Water, an artificial Northumberland lake, in the 1970s. As father and daughter play, sing and dance “for all that are gone and for all that are still to come”, they fill the ghostly houses with music. Haunting, sublime.
Cook's Cook by Gavin Bishop (Gecko)
It’s not all pease pudding and salt beef: think albatross with prune sauce, ground ginger and boiled wild celery; dog with breadfruit and banana. The creator of last year’s blockbuster Aotearoa comes up with a tasty history lesson in his culinary take on Captain Cook, through the eyes of John Thompson, his one-handed cook.
Hero of the Sea: Sir Peter Blake's Mighty Ocean Quests by David Hill, illustrated by Phoebe Morris (Puffin)
The fourth in a bestselling series about famous New Zealanders outlines the life of the sailor, adventurer and environmentalist whose achievements included five Whitbread races and winning and defending the America’s Cup before his murder on the Amazon.
The Day War Came by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb (Walker)
An empty chair becomes a symbol of hope in this illustrated poem for older primary kids. A girl’s day begins normally enough: “Then, just after lunch, war came.” War follows her into the refugee camp, “… underneath my skin, behind my eyes, and in my dreams”. Heartbreaking yet still hopeful.
Puffin the Architect by Kimberly Andrews (Puffin)
Having watched their mum draw up plans for lots of other animals, Puffin’s kids really want her to design them a sustainable house. While she’d prefer to adapt some of her previous models, incorporating trademark pop-up, fold-away and pulley-operated space savers, the pufflings won’t settle for recycled ideas. Charming.
Dear Donald Trump by Sophie Siers, illustrated by Anne Villeneuve, (Millwood Press)
Sam, who shares a room with his brother, reckons President Trump’s proposed border wall might just solve his own problems. So he writes him the first of 14 letters. Anne Villeneuve’s pastel vignettes capture Trump’s essence while nailing Sam’s Kiwi settings. Very funny – and valuable in the classroom, too.
Once Upon a Wildwood by Chris Riddell (Macmillan)
This subversive illustrator’s zany mélange of classic fairy tales is hilarious and utterly charming. Little Green Raincape is a savvy negotiator of the time-honoured hazards en route to Rapunzel’s party – including wolves, witches and trolls – but is kindly towards those who need help, including three little pigs checking out the witch’s gingerbread house.
The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J K Rowling, illustrated by Chris Riddell (Bloomsbury)
“Magic causes as much trouble as it cures,” warns Rowling in her intro to this lavishly illustrated edition of five wizard tales from 2008. Three-time Kate Greenaway Medal-winner Riddell brings JKR’s stories of witches, wizards and the occasional Muggle to life, along with Albus Dumbledore’s musings on each.
Inside the Villains by Clotilde Perrin (Gecko)
Supreme in this supersized compendium, in which the Wolf, the Giant and the Witch introduce themselves, are the interactive bits: flaps, tabs, trophies tucked into concealed pockets and springs that allow the reader to peek into the villain’s tummy, brain and mouth. Yuck!
The Rabbit, the Dark and the Biscuit Tin by Nicola O’Byrne (Nosy Crow)
A hoppity rabbit who doesn’t want to go to bed thinks he can solve his problem by trapping The Dark in a tin with just one biscuit left. But he’s forgetting just how many animals need darkness to function – not to mention the delights of bedtime stories.
Gentle Giant: Wetapunga by Annemarie Florian & Terry Fitzgibbon (New Holland)
Everything you ever wanted to know about the weta. The world’s largest insect is given the up-close-and-personal treatment, with fact-rich paragraphs balanced by poetry to appeal to the youngest bug aficionados.
The Old Man by Sarah V and Claude K Dubois (Gecko)
On a chilly day, a homeless man wanders lonely through the streets, until a child’s kindness lights up his world. It’s not just the sharing of a sandwich or the smile that unlocks hope, though – her real gift turns out to be much more profound. A picture-book treasure.
Oink by David Elliot (Gecko)
A little bit Mr Gumpy, some Mrs Large (Five Minutes’ Peace) and quite a bit of Elliot’s own Henry the pig, this bathroom interlude is the perfect story to share with a child just beginning to read. It has just enough text for the child to tell the story to an adult listener.
The Bomb/Te Pohu by Sacha Cotter illustrated by Josh Morgan (Huia)
From the pair who brought you Keys and The Marble Maker comes a timely summer story about a boy practising to perform the best bomb, with help from his nan.
Kate Sheppard: Leading the Way for Women (by Maria Gill & Marco Ivancic (Scholastic)
Just in time for Suffrage 125, this book covers the life of the woman who pushed the vote through, then campaigned internationally for women’s rights.
Stories for Kids Who Dare to Be Different: True Tales of Boys and Girls Who Stood Up and Stood Out by Ben Brooks, illustrated by Quinton Winter (Quercus)
A unisex version of the current publishers’ darling – inspiring biographies for kids. This is the most comprehensive, international and gender-inclusive selection we’ve seen, including our own Sophie Pascoe and Sir Peter Jackson.
I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree: A Nature Poem for Every Day of the Year selected by Fiona Waters, illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon (Nosy Crow)
Poetry squashes “big feelings, big thoughts, big things into tiny boxes of brilliance for the reader to unpack”, writes publisher Kate Wilson in her intro to this handsome volume of old favourites, new treasures and unexpected treats encompassing every aspect of nature.
Mozart: The Man Behind the Music by Donovan Bixley (Upstart)
Another extraordinary achievement from the Taupō artist and musician, this “peek through the keyhole” at Mozart makes the story of the man, whose music is as recognisable to us as a nursery rhyme, accessible to a younger audience.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan, illustrated by Neil Packer (Bloomsbury)
Oxford historian Frankopan adapts his best-selling Persian-centric world history from 2015 for an impressive illustrated edition for younger readers.
Animals of Aotearoa by Gillian Candler and Ned Barraud (Potton & Burton)
Together in an enlarged format, the contents of various handbooks from Candler and Barraud’s “Explore & Discover” series cover Aotearoa’s land and marine fauna in one volume. For every home and school bookshelf.
The Kitchen Science Cookbook by Dr Michelle Dickinson (Nanogirl Labs)
Science experiments packaged as recipes will wow kids, teachers and caregivers, even when not edible. Everything needed is commonly found in home kitchens, and modern technology is exploited for all it’s worth.
Earthquakes! Shaking New Zealand by Maria Gill (New Holland)
Kiwi kids know all too well the drill for earthquakes. From Ross Giblin’s iconic cover image of cattle stranded by the Kaikōura quake, this excellent little book, in only 48 pages, lays bare the facts about Rūaumoko’s earth-shattering impact on our vulnerable motu.
Saving Species by Jess French, illustrated by James Gilleard (Wren & Rook, Hachette)
The pick of this year’s endangered animal titles, this appealing compendium of 38 birds, animals and invertebrates includes our own takahē and kākāpō, as well as some threatened larger mammals such as the polar bear, orangutan and mountain gorilla. Vibrant stylised illustrations verge on the playful but retain the creatures’ distinctive features.
The Colours of History: How Colours Shaped the World by Clive Gifford, illustrated by Marc-Etienne Peintre (Quarto)
Who knew colour was so toxic? This fascinating exposé of hues since our cave-painting days shows how harmful many could be, from orange (arsenic) and vermilion (mercury), to lead white (used as make-up) and mummy brown, made from ground-up Egyptian mummies.
House of Dreams: The Life of LM Montgomery by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Julie Morstad (Candlewick)
Adults who treasure their Anne of Green Gables books will enjoy this splendid new biography, with its elegant line illustrations, which reveals much about the Canadian author not covered in previous works. A new generation of readers will find insights into a woman whose life trials translated into enduring literature.
Nganga by Aunty Fay Muir & Sue Lawson (Black Dog)
From across the Tasman, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dictionary that lays out succinctly the often confusing terminology around the indigenous traditions and rights of our nearest neighbours.
This article was first published in the December 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.