The Amazing Mr Blunden by Antonia Barber is the perfect book to curl up at home with during these bleak days of midwinter. Rich in atmosphere and old-fashioned charm, it’s the story of siblings Lucy and Jamie, newly resident caretakers of a seemingly unoccupied country mansion. Far from being empty, however, the house is inhabited by ghosts and secrets stretching back a century. In this (literally) haunting time slip story of courage, faith and redemption, the children are tasked with righting a terrible past wrong.
In the canny world of kids’ publishing, the mood of 2021 is exemplified by a verdant sweep of environmentally conscious books. Amongst the very best is The Girl Who Talked to Trees by Natasha Farrant, the tale of 11-year-old Olive, whose best friend in the world just happens to be a four-hundred year old oak tree. When her beloved tree comes under threat, Olive is swept into a world of arboreal magic, on a mission of salvation and conservation. This little girl who talks to trees is about to discover that they’re a voluble bunch.
Hear the sound of cash registers pinging away merrily throughout the land as Gangsta Granny Strikes Again by David Walliams hits bookshop shelves in time for Christmas. A sequel to the much-loved Gangsta Granny, it picks up Ben’s story a year after the death of his beloved gran, who fans will recall had been leading an extraordinary double life as The Black Cat international jewel thief. For Ben, life without her is decidedly sedate, until some world-famous treasures go missing and the modus operandi seems startlingly familiar. Has The Black Cat used up her nine lives after all?
Imagine this: You’re enjoying your breakfast as usual, tea and toast with delectable honey, some cheese, a pear, perhaps an egg. While musing on the day ahead, you notice that a tiny scrap of paper has been pushed under your door. It reads ‘you had poison for breakfast.’ A potential murder is under way and it’s your own! In Poison for Breakfast by Lemony Snicket, the legendary narrator reveals how he employed both investigative expertise and philosophy when landed with this very dilemma.
It’s been an indisputably sombre year, but the youngest among us have been particularly discombobulated by global events, gloom and grim predictions emanating from every news source, including via osmosis from their worried adults. Good News by Rashmi Sirdeshpande is here to redress the balance, a book stuffed full of happy real-life stories, including good people in power, businesses making a difference and the collective determination of everyday people. It will change the way the kids in your life think about both the media and the world.
Stan’s philosophy has always been to firmly decline anything resembling an adventure. There are just too many things that could go wrong. To date, he’s managed to avoid such horrors as bungee jumping and dancing in public, but now, at the age of twelve, the worst has happened. He’s going on a totally unwanted holiday to Italy with his friend, Felix, and family. In Worst. Holiday. Ever. by Charlie Higson, we join Stan as he grapples with a lengthy personal list of holiday fears, including octopuses, weird toilets, and being beach body ready.
Blessed with gorgeous paintings to be admired by all ages, but words more suited to middle-grade readers, The Snail with the Right Heart by Maria Popova is a curious tale. Based on a real event, it tells the story of a very uncommon garden snail named Jeremy, whose shell spirals left instead of the usual right. The unassuming mollusc is set to garner worldwide attention in an ambitious exploration of genetics, the beauty of existence and the startling realities of snail sex.
We love unearthing books for reluctant readers, and I Hate Reading by Beth Bacon is unlike anything we’ve come across before. It’s aimed at an outrageous subsection of young readers, those wishing to hoodwink gullible adults into believing they’ve become devoted bookworms overnight. If the bookish bore in your child’s life (surely not you?) is nagging them to open a book, try this one. Filled with hints and tips on how to fool people into thinking you’re reading, it’s a must for anti-book bamboozlers everywhere.
In what feels like a new golden age for kids’ literature, the scope and ambition on display is often dazzling, none more so than in The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell, a truly exceptional read. Set in Papua New Guinea, it tells the story of a young orphan named Blue Wing. Privy to the magical secrets of the ocean, Blue Wing is intent on learning to call the sharks to her side, and in particular, Xok, the notorious shark that haunts her days. Vengeance is her goal and we accompany Blue Wing on her dramatic journey to wish fulfilment.
2021 marks the 60th anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, but also sadly, the ingenious author’s death. Juster had a long life and bequeathed us this uniquely marvellous and clever book, the revisiting of which has confirmed my long held belief that it’s nothing short of a masterpiece. It tells the story of perennially bored Milo, who is gifted a coin-operated tollbooth by a mysterious benefactor. It is purple, the colour of mystery, and on the other side of its turnpike lies adventure, magic, and the road to some much-needed enlightenment.