The most effective youngsters’s books of 2020 for all ages | Books
As Covid-19 tightened its grip in March, forcing schools, bookshops and libraries to close, so the children’s book world responded in characteristically generous style, producing an explosion of free online content to educate, entertain and support children and families. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler created a series of Covid-related cartoons featuring beloved characters (“The Gruffalos stayed in the Gruffalo cave’”) and children’s laureate Cressida Cowell read daily chapters of How to Train Your Dragon. Picture book creator Rob Biddulph became a viral phenomenon thanks to his Draw With Rob videos, culminating in no less than a Guinness world record for the largest online art class when 45,611 people joined him in drawing a whale. A whole new Covid category of children’s books was born, both instructional and inspirational. There was Coronavirus: A Book for Children about Covid-19 (Nosy Crow), While We Can’t Hug by Eoin McLaughlin and Polly Dunbar (Faber), and a slew of rainbow-hued picture books. Health workers were celebrated in The Hospital Dog by Julia Donaldson and Sara Ogilvie (Macmillan) while Captain Tom Moore’s record-breaking fundraiser for the NHS became the One Hundred Steps picture book (Puffin), illustrated by Adam Larkum. And although not written in response to the pandemic, Maggie O’Farrell weaves resilience and bravery into her elegant debut picture book, Where Snow Angels Go (Walker), an unforgettable winter adventure with illustratrions by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini.
While We Can’t Hug by Eoin McLaughlin and Polly Dunbar. Illustration: Polly Dunbar
Katherine Rundell galvanised over 100 children’s writers, poets and illustrators to create The Book of Hopes (Bloomsbury), initially a free download from the National Literacy Trust and now a handsome Christmas hardback. Former children’s laureate Michael Rosen was hospitalised with Covid for many weeks, and we waited with bated breath until good news, thankfully, came. When bookshops finally reopened in June, sales boomed, most of all in children’s books – which accounted for one in every three titles sold.
In the summer, the Black Lives Matter movement brought issues of diversity in publishing into urgent focus. When research confirmed the overwhelmingly white focus of GCSE reading lists, Penguin Random House and the Runnymede Trust formed the Lit in Colour partnership to boost diversity in the British curriculum. The #Inclusive Indies initiative, driven by Jacaranda Press and Knights Of, raised over £164,000 to support independent, diverse publishing threatened by the impact of the pandemic. CLPE’s (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) Reflecting Realities survey revealed a modest increase in the number of children’s books protagonists from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds; however, progress is slow. Green shoots of hope are visible though, not least in the year’s award winners. Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan (Chicken House) was named Costa children’s book of the year, the Waterstones children’s book prize gave two out of three awards to black British creators: High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson (Knights Of) and picture book Look Up! (Puffin) by Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola (which they followed up this year with the impressive Clean Up!) – while Serena Patel’s Anisha, Accidental Detective, illustrated by Emma McCann, (Usborne) won Sainsbury’s children’s fiction book of the year. In October, David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Short, Essential History (Macmillan) was an instant bestseller, a thought-provoking children’s edition of his adult history book of the same name.
Coronavirus: A Book for Children About Covid-19. Illustration: Axel Scheffler
Children’s and young adult books continued to be potent source material for TV and film. An adaptation of Noughts + Crosses was screened on the BBC in March, Malorie Blackman’s award-winning series feeling more resonant than ever. The second series of His Dark Materials, focusing on Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, returned to rapturous reviews. For cosy festive viewing, much-loved picture books promise to come up trumps, with animations of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s Zog and the Flying Doctors and Quentin Blake’s Clown due to broadcast in Christmas week.
Finally, the bestselling author of Guess How Much I Love You, Sam McBratney, died in September. The story of the Little Nutbrown Hare has sold over 50m copies worldwide, and the phrase “I love you to the moon and back” is believed to have originated in the book. Just weeks later, Walker Books published Will You Be My Friend?, a sequel of sorts, also illustrated by Anita Jeram.
‘Vibrant, inky pictures’: Tanya Landman’s The Song of the Nightingale. Illustration: Laura Carlin
In a topsy-turvy year when many of us, young and old, sought solace in woods and parks, when children took even greater pleasure than usual in climbing trees, creature-spotting or plunging into the sea, brilliant picture books about the natural world abounded.
The Song of the Nightingale (Walker) snuck in at the tail end of the year but shone immediately with its beautiful account of the Earth’s animals receiving their colours from an artist at the beginning of time. Just like the brush used by the painter in this tale, Tanya Landman’s text hops from insect to bird, kangaroo to crocodile, delighting in language: “She started with the fiddly, wriggly animals, dabbing dots on ladybirds and spots on butterflies.” Reminiscent of John Burningham’s textured, painterly early work, Laura Carlin’s illustrations evolve from scratchy pencil sketches to vibrant, inky pictures of animals strutting and strolling, sent on their way by the painter, looking almost still wet.
‘Smiles aplenty right from the off’: Clare Foges and Al Murphy’s Veg Patch Party. Illustration: Al Murphy
A celebration not just of the Earth’s creatures but creativity itself, this is an origin story to savour. But what of the nightingale who turns up so late that all the colours have run out? A tiny drop of gold paint saves the day, bestowing the bird with an unforgettable song.
Another ode to nature came in clothbound form from Coralie Bickford-Smith with The Song of the Tree (Particular), about a bird not ready to leave its beloved tree. Bickford-Smith married intricate patterns with a rich palette of greens, blues and red to create a magical book. And my unofficial prize for the year’s best book title goes to I Ate Sunshine for Breakfast (Flying Eye), a kaleidoscopic compendium of plants, full of fun facts and activities, written by the former head of education at Chelsea Physic Garden, Michael Holland, with illustrations by Philip Giordano.
Jack Tite gave a masterclass in bringing history to life with his Viking Voyagers (Big Picture), and Britannica’s All New Children’s Encyclopedia (edited by Christopher Lloyd) showed us the world in a book. And what a feast for the eyes as well as the mind it was, with bold, colourful illustrations and well-chosen, inclusive photography. Experts from diverse backgrounds around the world were consulted, and crucial topics such as slavery, AI and the climate crisis covered.
Back… then gone again: Dogger’s Christmas by Shirley Hughes. Illustration: Shirley Hughes
But, oh, we also needed laughs this year and Veg Patch Party (Faber) delivered with its rocking root veg and “Techno King” DJ Brussel Sprout staging a festival down on the farm. It was the perfect follow-up to Clare Foges and Al Murphy’s much-loved Kitchen Disco; the cross-eyed, sax-blowing broccoli on the cover signalling smiles aplenty right from the off. Meanwhile, with its joyful, light-touch take on body positivity, Rosie Haine’s debut It Isn’t Rude to be Nude (Tate) was a cheeky look at the wobbly, hairy, nakedness of humans featuring lines like: “Everyone has a bum”, alongside a sort of Guess Who? line-up of bottoms.
Perhaps what 2020 needed most, though, was the comfort of loved ones, and there were some dear old friends to welcome back, from Jill Murphy’s Bear family in Just One of Those Days (Macmillan) to Julian, Jessica Love’s star of 2018, bringing cheer in a jazzy purple suit in Julian at the Wedding (Walker). Finally, 40 years after first getting lost, Dogger returned (only to momentarily disappear again) in Dogger’s Christmas (Puffin). Whatever the months ahead may bring, there’s always the promise of a happy ending with Shirley Hughes.
Middle years books
‘Beautifully written’: The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny. Illustration: Edward Bettison
Even though there was no how-to manual for 2020, some strategies held firm in extremis. Many people read more. Children read more than most. Middle years nonfiction and activity books boomed the longer schools were shut.
Nothing beats a good yarn, though. Fiction should never be written to a formula, but it was the balance of a riveting plot, the resourcefulness of a book’s characters and a command of escapist world-building that made storybooks shine this year.
Shortlisted for an Awesome Books award, Nizrana Farook’s rip-roaring debut, The Girl Who Stole an Elephant (Nosy Crow), did nothing predictable. Set in rural Sri Lanka, it combined an unlikely heist (the Queen’s jewels), a novel getaway vehicle (elephant) and a motley trio of children who braved leopards, leeches and revolutionaries to right a series of wrongs.
Meanwhile, two other children’s comfortable lives were turned upside down when their single father failed to return home. Full of grit and compassion, Lost (Pushkin Press) by Ele Fountain threw tween Lola and her little brother, Amit, into a nameless city to live by their wits. Even in disarray, they were never totally abandoned by love and kismet.
“Long ago” and “far away” were comprehensively nailed by Robin Scott-Elliot in The Acrobats of Agra (Everything With Words). Circus performers are a reliably unruly device in children’s fiction, and here apprentice acrobat Bea, her teacher, his tiger and their new friend Ping performed myriad leaps of faith to outfox a siege as the empire began to slip.
Sharna Jackson, author of Mic Drop, the second book in her prize-winning series. Photograph: Waterstones/PA
But what about belly laughs? Simon Farnaby (TV’s Horrible Histories and Paddington 2) arrived as a first-time author with The Wizard in My Shed (Hodder), a time-travelling comedy of errors full of mischief. Just as hilarious were Claire Powell’s guinea pig illustrations.
Alternative realities were good places to get away from our own. Struan Murray’s Orphans of the Tide (Puffin) plunged the reader into a sensational speculative world in which the hunt for a mythical enemy sweeps up an orphan and a mysterious boy coughed up by the sea. A Secret of Birds & Bone (Chicken House), Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s tale of a Sienese bone-worker’s children, found them skirmishing with all sorts of medieval evil in an effort to save their dextrous mother.
Many sterling books fell between the cracks of my roundups. A quick salute to Boy, Everywhere (Tu Books) by AM Dassu, a book on the cusp of YA for obvious reasons: it plunged a nice, entitled middle-class kid from Damascus – loves Man U, wears Air Jordans – into a boat pitching across the stormy sea between Turkey and Greece. Belated kudos, too, to Sharna Jackson’s Mic Drop (Knights Of), the second in her Waterstones prize-winning High Rise Mystery series, which updates the children’s detective genre for our times.
Children’s literature has a long relationship with the uncanny. My very favourite 2020 book was a little bit Addams Family, and a little bit metaphysical. The Monsters of Rookhaven (Macmillan) by Pádraig Kenny imagined a village where the resident monsters keep to themselves in exchange for what scarce meat the villagers can tithe to them in wartime.
When a human girl and her injured brother accidentally wander into the monsters’ garden, one misfit monster-girl – Mirabelle – makes friends and is soon forced into a series of choices. This beautifully written debut had everything: superb illustrations by Edward Bettison and villagers storming the manor with flaming torches to the horror of the monsters. Spoiler alert: the much-feared power of the most terrible creature of them all turns out to be the ability to understand another’s mind.
Books for young adults
David Olusoga, author of the ‘vital’ children’s version of Black and British: A Short, Essential History. Photograph: Stuart Cobley/Alamy
The escapism of a fiendishly good thriller proved irresistible to teenage readers this year. “Queen of teen crime” Karen M McManus bookended the year with two outstanding titles, kicking off with high school mystery One of Us Is Next (Penguin, £7.99). In the second book, published this month, her focus turns to the dark complexities of family secrets in The Cousins (Penguin), the story of three teenagers invited to an island resort owned by their mysterious grandmother, who many years previously had inexplicably cut off all ties with their parents. For crimes closer to home, rising star Holly Jackson won children’s book of the year at the British book awards with A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. The sequel, Good Girl, Bad Blood (Electric Monkey) proved to be just as addictive, cleverly tapping into the trend for true crime podcasts.
Horror, rather fittingly, made something of a comeback in 2020. Kat Ellis brought lashings of 80s style to psychological chiller Harrow Lake (Penguin). After her film director father is attacked, Lola Knox is sent to stay with her grandmother in the small town where he made his most famous film. Rory Power’s dystopian Wilder Girls (Macmillan) was one of the year’s most memorable debuts, set in a girls’ boarding school, which has been quarantined following the outbreak of a virus that kills adults and creates strange mutations in the girls’ bodies. Published before Covid, the pandemic gives the book added resonance. In Darren Charlton’s Wranglestone (Stripes) a community survives in a US national park, surrounded by water to keep the dead at bay. Zombie thrills combine with an achingly tender gay love story in this unusual debut, shortlisted for the Costa book award.
This exceptionally talented writer portrays the grief and aspirations of two very different girls with great empathy
Carnegie medal winner Elizabeth Acevedo gave us her second verse novel Clap When You Land (Hot Key). Two half-sisters, one in New York, the other in the Dominican Republic, discover the existence of the other only after their father has died in a plane crash. This exceptionally talented writer portrays the grief and aspirations of two very different girls with great empathy and insight.
Cane Warriors (Andersen Press) is Alex Wheatle’s first historical fiction for teenagers, a blistering novella set in 18th-century Jamaica, based on a real-life slave rebellion known as Tacky’s War. A vivid and unforgettable fight for freedom, seen through the eyes of 14-year-old Moa, Wheatle’s tale gives voice to those seldom heard. Black history is all but absent from the British curriculum, making David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Short, Essential History (Macmillan) all the more vital. With this new edition of his adult bestseller, aimed at readers of 12-plus, Olusoga chronicles 1,800 years of black people in Britain, from Roman times to the present day.
Finally, a Christmas treat in the form of Sally Nicholls’s historical drama The Silent Stars Go By (Andersen Press). The book is set over a few days in Christmas 1919, as Margot and her former fiance, Harry, are rekindling their romance from the ruins of the first world war. Gorgeously bittersweet, a festive classic in the making.
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