Here’s a selection of children’s favourites to be cherished across the generations, a compendium of winged words and enchanted images by endlessly inventive authors and illustrators. Mostly published (or reissued) over the past year, new characters rub shoulders with old and voices combine in captivating harmony, jostling for space on bookshelves, coffee or breakfast tables and dreamy bedsides.
For the young
What Do You Do with an Idea? by Kobi Yamada, illustrated by Mae Besom
Hardcover, 36 pages. Published 1 February 2014 by Compendium Books
This is a delicately poetic book about some very simple great things: ideas big or small. Also about children, shy or brave. It is the story of a great idea and a very small child who transforms the idea into reality. The child’s confidence grows as the idea grows – or is it the other way round? This is a story about dreams and visions and the courage to make them happen. Also about tiny voices yearning to be heard. A book about everything and nothing in particular, just like all great ideas and incredible children.
The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak
Hardcover, 48 pages. Published 4 December 2014 by Puffin (earlier US edition by Dial)
For a book with no pictures, this is a book full of verbal images and sparkling delight. A book to mesmerise you into reading out loud – and laughing out even louder. You must read everything that’s on the page, in a feast of silliness and irresistible wit, of swooning wordplay and inventiveness. Parents beware, the mirth is contagious and continuous, the ingeniously creative incantations almost endless!
My Teacher is a Monster! (No I am Not) by Peter Brown
Hardcover, 40 pages. Published 3 July 2014 by Macmillan Children’s Books
How many times have children uttered this phrase to long-suffering mothers? On rare occasions the statement is tragically true, but here, as in most cases, the scary green ogre, sharp fangs and all, is a perfectly normal, gentle, somewhat extravagantly coquettish, and even dastardly mischievous middlish-aged lady. What is scary and monstrous is the stereotype of hostile otherness – and this is what this book explores with humour, humanity and hugely entertaining and sprightly illustrations. There is a little bit, the very best bit, of Nanny McPhee and a great deal of laughter and delight at the discovery of the irresistible attraction of human relationships. The book is also a vindication of the roguish launching of paper aeroplanes – which will no doubt please any charming young imp in sight.
Pockety by Florence Seyvos, illustrated by Claude Ponti
Paperback, 64 pages. Published 24 April 2014 by Pushkin Children’s Books
This is a storyteller’s yarn, a parable that teaches, guides, laughs and sometimes even lets you weep. It is the story of a small tortoise called Pockety who is often quite a handful. As she sets off to meet with life and with destiny, she feels invincible. She is both persevering and intrepid; charmingly endearing and full of odd corners and sharp edges. She shows great independence, a certain youthful arrogance and great faith in her own immortality. And then Pockety loses all she has ever loved: her little nook in this vast world is flooded, her paintings are gone, above all her companion has been drowned. She learns how to be kind to herself when life seems unkind; how to come out of a hole she has dug herself in all by herself; how to un-pout, get un-cross, how to give and also take. She learns, finally, how to grow old with elegance, truly strong at last, a storytelling grandmother watching pensively, tenderly, reminiscently… as another little determined Pockety embarks upon the first of life’s many stages.
Read an extract:
For intrepidly brave and less plucky adventurers
Hansel and Gretel retold by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti
Hardcover, 56 pages. Published 11 December 2014 by Bloomsbury Children’s
For many this is the time of light, so a book about the darkness of things, which makes light vital, certainly belongs to this list. The story of Hansel and Gretel is one of the most celebrated and frequently adapted children’s tales, and we often look away from its menace and disturbing side. Neil Gaiman, whose Coraline established him as a master storyteller, guides children beautifully, bewitchingly, wisely through the story, straight into the heart of the Grimms’ fairy tale. All the old cherished elements are there, retold beguilingly, grippingly, unforgettably. Mattotti’s illustrations are breathtaking, whether they lead us into the nightmare and the labyrinth or back into the light. A book to cherish, a book to make children brave against the darkness, resist it – defeat it in fiction and in life.
Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill
Hardcover, 80 pages. Published 3 February 2014 by Flying Eye Books
This is a book about limits and the unlimited power of the imagination, the unboundedness of the human spirit. A self-confessed lover of books, the British explorer Ernest Shackleton wanted to lead a life beyond words – and so he did. This is a grippingly told, elegiacally illustrated story chronicling the last of the Great Explorations in every thrilling detail, from the funding and the manning of the expedition, to the engineering feat that was the Endurance, to the individual characters of men and dogs alike, their fears, unflinching courage and formidable resilience and camaraderie. Grill’s illustrations are an imagistic epic in themselves, whether they are avalanche-like lists of equipment, or proud images of ALL the dogs in heart-melting parade. This is a book about the true meaning of success in life: as Shackleton said, “I chose life over death for myself and my friends… I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.”
The Adventures of Hermes, God of Thieves by Murielle Szac
Hardcover, 380 pages. Published 23 October 2014 by Pushkin Children’s Books
These are thrillingly original retellings of the ancient myths, beautifully simple tales beguiling children towards the mesmerising origin of smaller and greater truths and tantalising fictions. They are told with enormous relish by a storyteller worthy of the name, with great mischief and profound wisdom. And, perhaps – who knows? –perhaps these are the stories that Homer’s wife told her own children at bedtime, or the stories Homer’s mother told him by a winter fire. They are stories for scholars and dreamers alike; for children growing up with wonder, enchantment and sometimes bewilderment; with great plans and many questions. They are stories for adults seeking a way back to the purer delights of childhood and for truly simple words to explain very complex things.
29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Lisa Brown
Hardcover, 32 pages. Published 11 February 2014 by McSweeney’s Books
Some adventures are closer to home and to the everyday reality of things. The little girl and boy in this story are convinced that there is something seriously worth exploring in the irresistibly mysterious Swinster Pharmacy. There is exploration aplenty, and a mesmerising feeling of the power of children’s imagination and sense of wonder at everything – and anything. Scientific methods are religiously observed, mischief is certainly afoot. Are rumours facts or are facts just rumours? Suspicion and thrill will lead you to the answer, but only if you can see clearly as well as deduce intuitively. A wise, charming tale.
The Pilot and the Little Prince by Peter Sís
Hardcover, 50 pages. Published 3 July 2014 by Pushkin Children’s Books
I was living in Africa when my uncle sent me a copy of The Little Prince in a brown paper parcel for my birthday. It became a book through which I saw the world, a book that taught me, as it did so many others, the need for both kindness and wisdom, for both quiet and bravery. And it made the baobab trees, which I alone of all my friends had actually seen, the most mystical trees on the planet. The Pilot and the Little Prince is a story as mystical and as real as the baobab trees. It is a magically and poignantly illustrated biography of Saint-Exupéry the writer, the aviator, the extraordinary human being who enchanted so many generations with his understanding of pain, his love for childhood, his relish for words, and his insatiable spirit of adventure – and especially with his yearning for a world more innocent than the one he lived in, the one we still call our own. The book also resonates with Saint-Exupéry’s tragic exit from this life in 1944: almost right after meeting his little prince and introducing us to him, he disappeared mysteriously, and even in an eerie sense alluringly, during a flying mission to photograph enemy positions. A beautiful and noble gem of a book.
The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt
Paperback, 560 pages. Published 5 June 2014 by Pushkin Children’s Books
A young boy, the son of a knight, is preparing for knighthood himself and must spend a night in a chapel praying. When a stranger knocks persistently at the chapel door and asks for help, the boy decides to follow him on what transpires to be a veritable quest, beginning with a knight mortally wounded in the forest who bears a letter for a King. A breathtaking adventure that feels irresistibly like a medieval legend or long-lost ballad, told with vibrantly realistic detail. A hymn to friendship, determination and perseverance, a warning that we must all be prepared to tell true gold from fool’s gold with an unfailing eye. Tonke Dragt has a distinctive voice and an even more unique life experience. She has a spellbinding talent for stories and a heart-warming gift for humanity. This is a book children will want to keep for their children and grandchildren.
Violet and the Pearl of the Orient by Harriet Whitehorn, illustrated by Becka Moor
Hardcover, 192 pages. Published 28 August 2014 by Simon and Schuster Children’s Books
This is an unashamedly girly adventure, invented with brio and told with panache. There is a touch of Eva Ibbotson, a dollop of Emil and the Detectives, and a dash of Enid Blyton, above all there is strong, good writing and a proper yarn. This is a perfect adventure book to take on a plane, train or boat, relish it, relax with it, linger long on its enchantingly indulging words. If you are good, your daughter might even let you (or her brother) read it.
For bookworms with a fondness for old smells and dusty covers cradling sparkling stories
Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson
Hardcover, 104 pages. Published 14 January 2014 by Chronicle Books
This is a rolling poem of a book, about life when it’s dazzling and jazzy, but also about life when it weeps and cries. Roaring Rag Time and Paris in the ‘20s, life behind the scenes as well as on the stage, ragged times of segregation and poverty in the slums of African-American New York, through it all Josephine Baker tells her story movingly, passionately, beautifully thanks to Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson, and all young readers will find great delight and rich food for thought in these pages.
The Glassblower’s Children by Maria Gripe, illustrated by Harald Gripe
Hardcover, 176 pages. Published (reprint edition) 24 April 2014 by the New York Review Children’s Collection
Maria Gripe is an unjustly forgotten, uniquely gifted storyteller, a true spinner of stories for children, full of wisdom, wit, the weight of both the present and eternity. The Glassblower’s Children shows her perhaps at her best: enthralling in the evocation of a period in time in its every fascinating detail, terrifying in the ramifications of too much ‘unbearable lightness of being’. This is the story of Albert the Glassblower and Sofia, the parents of little Klas and Klara. Albert is a master-craftsman creating miraculously beautiful and impossibly delicate glass objects – which nobody dares buy. Sofia is a farmer. They meet Flutter Mildweather, who is also a master-weaver of magical fortune-telling carpets. A Cornelia Funke story avant la lettre, there is here, too, a splendid Lord and Lady, rulers of All Wishes Town, who have all they wish for except what Albert and Klas have – children. There are more mysterious characters and enticing mythmakers, a one-eyed raven called Wise Wit, who only sees the positive side of things, and a proverbially screaming governess Nana, whose screeching song can shatter glass. Through darkness and light, heavy toil and ethereal insouciance, The Glassblower’s Children is a book that asks what life is all about – what gives it meaning, weight, necessary hope and great delight. This is not a book to read once. It is a book to read many times, and each time discover something new, equally sparkling, equally gripping and captivating.
These are memorable stories, rambunctious, tender, wise, wholeheartedly for children from an adult who never forgot that he himself was a child once, whose hope is that we ourselves will always remember what it felt like to be children. A story about school life, school fights, school plays and school masters, but also about success and failure, and implicitly about Germany on the verge of the horrors of Nazism, The Flying Classroom is a treasure, a legacy and a thing of rare beauty – and rowdy fun. The Parent Trap is a story about making up what is broken, about finding the other half of oneself, whether metaphorically or literally. It is a story about plaits and curls, about cuddling awfully busy mothers and eating stuffed pancakes with silly but stern fathers, plotting with cloud-brained artists and playing tricks on serious doctors. It is about Munich and Vienna, about children and adults, music and laughter. And about a lot of suspense! The password for both these books is: “Forget-Me-Not!”.
On cats, some dogs, Moomins, a certain bear and even a whale
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot, illustrated by Rebecca Ashdown
Paperback, 128 pages. Published 6 February 2014 by Faber Children’s Classics
Every generation has its edition of this thrilling, suave, wonderfully feline and wisely human book. This latest edition illustrated by Rebecca Ashdown will delight cat-lovers and non-cat-lovers alike.
On Cats by Doris Lessing
Paperback, 256 pages. Published 20 October 2008 by Harper Perennial
This is a beautiful, truly perennial book, a unique introduction to fully mature, great writing. Children will be enchanted by the vibrancy of the stories, the fond details about animal life, the depth of the relationship between the human world and the world of nature. Adults will be seduced by the poetry, the sensibility and sensitivity of the writing. And they will all want to read more. First published in 1967 it’s beauty is timeless, its soft echoes will always remain undated.
The Cat Who Came In off the Roof by Anna M.G. Schmidt, illustrated by Nathan Burton
Paperback, 160 pages. Published 3 July 2014 by Pushkin Children’s Books
A purring book about the virtues and the lives of cats, this is pure delight, a true feline story revealing the true essence of humanity down to its most imperceptible whisker. Truly the ‘cat’s pyjamas’, this is a story about a young woman who used to be a cat – a story about courage, resilience, standing up for a friend, and especially knowing which is the best place for a nap and a moment of peace. Some dogs do make a timid appearance, as do some humans… I dare you not to fall under its spell.
Moomin Deluxe Anniversary Edition by Tove Jansson
Hardcover, 448 pages. Published 23 October 2014 by Drawn and Quarterly
If you are already an imaginary member of the Moomin tribe, this is the book for you. Seductively voluptuous, exhaustively all-inclusive, this will thrill and mesmerise you. And if, for some pernickety, inexplicable reason you have NEVER ever heard of Moominland, then this will show you all that you have missed, all that you might have lost. Fact and fiction, allegory and reality coexist in the most lucid, ingenious and brilliant harmony in Tove Jansson’s Moomin world, a world that will make you think, dream, wish and want to believe in the possible goodness of things.
Love from Paddington by Michael Bond, illustrated by Peggy Fortnum & R.W. Alley
Hardcover, 176 pages. Published 6 November 2014 by Harper Collins Children’s Books
A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond, illustrated by Peggy Fortnum
Paperback, 160 pages. Published (reprint edition) 22 July 2014 by Harper Collins Children’s Books
“One night, many moons ago, the ocean liner S.S. Karenia left the Peruvian port of Lima in South America and set sail for Europe” – and it brought to us one of the most magnificent, endearing and enduring of children’s characters, a sort of Jeeves & Wooster for the young and for the old who wish to be young again. Never let a child grow up without Paddington Bear – the real Paddington, as conjured up by Michael Bond and brought to eternal life on the page by Peggy Fortnum.
The Storm Whale by Benji Davies
Paperback/eBook, 32 pages. Published 15 August 2013 by Simon and Schuster Children’s Books
This is a book about a little boy… fed up with cats. Noi spends his whole life in the company of six cats – his father is a fisherman, and away most of the time battling the waves. One day Noi discovers a baby whale stranded on the beach. A non-cat friend, at last! He takes it home and hides it in the bathtub so he can take proper care of it. As you may expect, Noi’s father cleverly finds out all about the baby whale. Noi learns the true meaning of unconditional love as he comes to terms with the fact that the whale needs to be released back to the sea if it is to survive. He learns above all, in beautifully balanced minimalist verses, “the shape of things”, the joy of life. A tender, wise book.
Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.