Favourite Children’s Books 2021

I’ve read nearly fifty children’s books this year (that’s just MG, not picture books or YA) so it was incredibly difficult to narrow this list down – particularly as there were so many brilliant books published. Here are my top twelve, in the order I read them (most recent first).

October, October by Katya Balen, illustrated by Angela Harding

This was published at the end of last year, but it is SO beautiful – I have to include it. October has always lived off-grid in the forest with her Dad. She doesn’t need anything or anyone else. But on the day that she turns eleven her Dad has a terrible accident and October is sent to live with the ‘woman who is her mother’ while he is in hospital. October is bewildered and frightened by the noise and chaos of the city and her new school, and she is furious that she has been taken away from her home. But even though her new home is strange and unsettling there are still stories to be found and beauty to discover. 

A beautifully written and powerfully emotive book. (And it could be a handbook for the Forest School movement.) Loved it.

When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle

While most other children are being evacuated, 12-year-old Joseph is sent to London to stay with the cold and pragmatic Mrs F because his grandmother can’t cope with his behaviour. But when he arrives Joseph discovers that Mrs F runs a zoo. While most of the animals have been put down or sent away, a fierce silverback gorilla named Adonis remains under her care. Joseph is an angry boy, who has been abandoned too many times, but Adonis finds a way through his defences. But whenever the bombs are falling, Mrs F must guard the gorilla enclosure with a rifle and be prepared to shoot Adonis if the bombing sets him free. 

This is an incredibly gripping and engaging story about two people (and a gorilla) who are broken and devastated by the war – but eventually manage to find comfort and solace in each other. A deftly written, heartbreaking read. I cried buckets! 

Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds

Ten stories, ten blocks, ten journeys home from school. It’s a brilliant concept – that liminal space of the walk home, a moment of independence away from teachers and parents, when so many dramas are played out. Amongst the usual obstacles (terrifying neighbourhood dogs, bullies) lurk other threats: cancer, prison, rumours of a school bus that fell from the sky… 

I struggled a little with the first story (due to gratuitous bogeys) but from the second story onwards I was hooked: ‘The Low Cuts Strike Again’ is about a gang of four friends on a mission. They are all ‘free-lunchers’, known for pinching pennies (literally) but it’s actually a different circumstance that unites them in their quest. My other favourites were ‘Call of Duty’ in which a boy stands up for his friend who is a victim of homophobic bullying, ‘Ookabooka Land’ about a girl who wants to be a stand-up comic, and ‘The Broom Dog’ about a boy who experiences panic attacks after a traumatic experience. 

The kids mostly attend the same school and so the stories overlap and intertwine, the significance of a moment in one story is explained in another, and of course the origin of the school bus rumour is eventually revealed. Jason Reynolds perfectly captures the preoccupations, the awkwardness and the wonder of the early adolescent years. I absolutely LOVED these funny and incredibly moving stories.

Zombierella by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Freya Hartas

When Cinderella falls down the stairs and dies, the Fairy of Death transforms her to a zombie so she can attend the Prince’s ball. But there’s something uncanny about the Prince as well.

Warning: this hilarious retelling of Cinderella is not for the faint of heart or the queasy of stomach…it is disgusting, illustrated in gruesome detail, full of bodily functions and death. And yet it still has a delightful fairytale ending.

There’s a long waiting list for this one in the school library!

Fledgling by Lucy Hope

In the year 1900, Cassie Engel lives in an unusual house perched precariously on top of a tall rock on the edge of the Bratvian Forest overlooking to town of Edenburg. She lives with her cold and aloof opera-singing mother, her enthusiastic but not particularly skilful taxidermist father, and her grandma who is gravely ill.

One night, during a violent storm, a cherub flies into Cassie’s room. But this is only the beginning of a series of mysterious happenings that will transform her life irrevocably. The cherub has arrived for a reason: the sturmfalken are gathering in the forest, Cassie’s parents are acting strangely, and something is happening to her best friend, Raphael. As the storm clouds gather, Cassie, Raphael and the cherub must solve the mystery of Raphael’s birth and protect themselves from the threat that is looming from the sky.

I loved Cassie’s weird house, full of innovative inventions like the ‘zip’—a steam-powered platform that acts a lift, and a mechanical roof that opens like the petals of a flower. The Bavarian setting gives the book a dark, Grimm’s Fairy Tale feel, while the sinister characters, dreamlike prose and uncanny owls imbue it with hint of Twin Peaks-style surrealism. 

Fledgling is a startlingly original and eerily atmospheric tale, perfect for fans of Frances Hardinge. I was thoroughly captivated, and utterly blindsided by the ending. Highly recommended.

Between Sea and Sky by Nicola Penfold

In Blackwater Bay, Nat and his Mum live strictly controlled lives in a compound on stilts close to the Edible Uplands farming complex. The threat of the prison ship hangs over them—home of those who commit even minor infractions against edicts issued by the Central District. Sisters, Pearl and Clover live a very different life on a floating oyster farm with their Dad—a small oasis from the one-child laws that condemn Clover’s very existence. When Nat’s Mum is sent to the Oyster farm to carry out some research, Nat brings with him a dangerous secret that could have far-reaching consequences for all of them. 

The exact details of the environmental crisis that led to the current state of this dystopian world are not explained, and the politics remain in soft focus in the background (though the peacekeepers and the prison ship are a very real and immediate threat). Instead, this is a story of friendship and discovery. Pearl is suspicious of Nat at first and antagonistic towards all ‘landlubbers’, but the children realise that, through cooperation, they may perhaps have a way to improve their lives and those around them. But the thrumming heart of this story is the environmental theme—and in particular the importance of pollinators. Perhaps through cooperation, we can still save them.

Between Sea and Sky is a lyrical, stirring adventure story with a compelling environmental message. Highly recommended.

Amari and the Night Brothers by BB Alston

Amari’s brilliant older brother, Quinton, is missing under strange circumstances. But when Amari receives an invitation to a Summer Programme at the mysterious Bureau where he worked, she takes the opportunity in order to find out what really happened to him. But when she arrives she discovers a world of magical creatures, concealed from humans, and finds out that she herself has a gift that could help her find her brother, but also alienates her from everyone else at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs.

I loved this. A thrilling, immersive new magical world, for fans of Nevermoor and Harry Potter, with a diverse cast of characters. Can’t wait for book 2!

The Weather Weaver by Tamsin Mori

Stella is looking forward to going home to the Shetland Islands for the summer, but she is not excited about being left alone there with her grieving grandfather while her parents work. But when she meets the mysterious Tamar and manages to summon her own personal cloud, Stella discovers that she’s a Weather Weaver.

This is a captivating adventure, grounded in folklore and the storm-swept landscape of the Shetland Islands, and illuminated by a fascinatingly inventive magic system.

Llama Out Loud! by Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Allen Fatimaharan

It’s Yasmin’s tenth birthday but no one is her family ever listens to her or asks her what she wants, and she’s given up trying to make herself heard. When her birthday dinner ends in disaster and Yasmin gets blamed for her brothers’ prank, she begs the universe: ‘I wish I could stand up for myself.’ Little does she realise that her wish is about to be granted in the form of a cockney llama plush toy called Levi.

Levi, the small annoying llama, is not what Yasmin was hoping for. Only Yasmin can see and hear Levi, but his ‘helpful’ interventions have real consequences and Yasmin keeps getting blamed. It seems like Levi is only making things worse. When Levi sabotages the one good thing in Yasmin’s life, the checkers tournament at the Octogenarians’ London Daycentre (O.L.D.), Yasmin has had enough. But will she speak up at last? 

Llama Out Loud is a hilarious story, full of wonderfully vivid characters, about finding your voice and learning to stand up for yourself. I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten

Clara lives in the small village of Sycamore in Jamaica where nothing ever happens. But that’s not entirely true – something happened last summer but Clara doesn’t remember it. All she knows is that her best friend Gaynah doesn’t believe her amnesia is real. But then a new girl arrives on the island from England and, as Clara shows her around, they delve into old family secrets and grudges and Clara’s memories start to come back. 

This book sucked me right in. You’re immediately immersed in the tension between Clara and Gaynah and compelled to read on to find out out what catastrophe was that led to Clara’s memory loss. When Life Gives You Mangoes is a wonderfully atmospheric, voice-driven narrative, with a stunning conclusion. 

The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell

A lyrical and deceptively simple story set in Papua New Guinea. Blue Wing’s adoptive father is the Shark Caller of their village and all Blue Wing wants is to learn to call the sharks as well so she can avenge her parents’ deaths – but he refuses to teach her. When an American father and daughter move to the village, Blue Wing is forced to spend time with the daughter, Maple, and although they can’t stand each other at first, they bond over their love of swimming and their shared grief. But the real reason Maple’s Dad has come to island is a mystery the girls are determined to solve. 

Now I know why everyone is talking about this book. Wow! An incredibly poignant and beautiful story of friendship and grief. I was utterly blindsided by the ending. Absolutely brilliant!

The Queen’s Fool by Ally Sherrick

When 11-year-old Cat Sparrow’s older sister Meg is snatched away from their convent home by a sinister man on a black horse, Cat decides to follow them to London and get her sister back. Cat meets a young French actor, Jacques, who helps her to get to Greenwich Palace—where Queen Katherine takes Cat under her wing and employs her as her ‘Fool’. But their adventure is just beginning. Cat and Jacques travel to France for the historic meeting of Henry VIII and François I on the Field of Cloth of Gold. Cat is still desperate to find Meg, and Jacques has vowed to avenge his father’s murder, but there is more at stake than either of them realise and they uncover a plot that could have far-reaching consequences for both of their countries. What is the man on the black horse planning, and can they stop him before it is too late? 

Ally Sherrick has meticulously researched the Tudor era in order to create her characters and their historical context. The story is inspired by two paintings on display at Hampton Court Palace: one portraying the ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’ and another featuring a historical character called ‘Jane the Fool’ who inspired the character of Cat Sparrow. While people with learning disabilities were often reviled and feared in Tudor times, some saw them as ‘innocents’—lacking worldly wisdom but valued for their capacity to see the world differently and to speak the truth to those in power when others would be afraid to. 

For anyone who aspires to write children’s fiction, The Queen’s Fool is masterclass in that elusive quality—voice. Cat Sparrow’s language is powerfully unique and immersive, from her emotive descriptions, “Holy Mother Sharp-Tongue’s eyes go black and pointy and her mouth pulls pinchy-tight,” to her charming malapropisms: The Duke of Buckingham is “Lord Bucket”, Mistress Bristol is “Mistress Bristles”, and my favourite—she calls Cardinal Wolsey “Candle Woolly”.

The Queen’s Fool is a gripping adventure, a beautifully crafted historical mystery, as well as a wonderfully empathetic character study of a girl who sees and experiences the world a little differently to those around her. Highly recommended.

Favourite Books 2021

I seem to have read mostly children’s books this year, but I’ve still read a few fantastic adult books that I would highly recommend. Here are twelve of my favourites:

The Lighthouse Witches by CJ Cooke

1998: When Liv is commissioned to paint a mural inside an old lighthouse, she packs up her three daughters and drives to the remote Scottish Island to start work. But when they arrive, they discover that the lighthouse has a sinister history and that the locals believe the island was cursed by witches. At first Liv doesn’t pay attention to the superstitions, but when strange things begin to happen she realises that they are all in terrible danger. 

In the present day, Luna has been searching for her mother and sisters for two decades when she gets a phone call that her sister has been found. But her sister is still the same age as when she went missing twenty-two years earlier. 

It was the gorgeous cover design that drew me to this story but once I’d started, I couldn’t put down this dark and twisted magical thriller. The Scottish-island setting is wonderfully atmospheric and sinister, the plot is clever and satisfying, and the relationships between mother, daughters and sisters is wonderfully warm and moving. Definitely one of my books of the year!

The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont

In 1926, after the death of her mother and shock of her husband asking for a divorce, Agatha Christie crashed her car and vanished for 11 days without ever giving an account of those missing days. The author begins with the facts surrounding the mystery writer’s unexplained disappearance and creates an alternative history to explain the circumstances.

The story is told from the perspective of a fictional version of the ‘other woman’, Nan O’Dea, and the plot itself is a wonderfully Christie-esque puzzle with elements of Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express amongst others. 

I absolutely loved The Christie Affair – a brilliantly crafted combination of historical fiction, romance and mystery as well as a wonderful homage to Agatha Christie. 

A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

Perfect for fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Sorcerer to the Crown, A Marvellous Light is a historical fantasy and queer romance set in Edwardian England.

Robin Blythe starts his new job as a civil servant to discover he has been appointed as a parliamentary liaison to a magical world he didn’t know existed. But before he can find his feet in this dazzling new reality, he is cursed by rogue magicians searching for a magical artefact hidden by his predecessor. His magical counterpart, Edwin Courcey, is his only hope to remove the curse before it kills him – unfortunately Robin and Edwin are very different people and don’t exactly hit it off.

I was thoroughly charmed by this story – an intriguing magical mystery with a Bridgerton level of romance.

Meet Me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey

When Thora and Santi meet for the first time a ruined clock tower in Cologne, they recognise in each other a restless yearning for something bigger. Their relationship is cut short by a tragic accident, but this is not the end. Thora and Santi meet over and over again in various lives as lovers, enemies, siblings, parent and child, teacher and student—always living in the same town and cursed to remember all of their past lives while attempting to live the current one. Santi is philosophical and hopeful—he looks for meaning and trusts in a higher power. Thora is cynical and struggles with a sense of futility. But neither of them have any idea why they are trapped, living different versions of their lives over and over again.

For most of the book I wasn’t entirely sure where this magical-realist time loop/parallel worlds story was going. The sense of doom and inevitability reminded me of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and the Netflix series, Russian Doll. But the reason for their multiple lives, when it is finally revealed, is brilliant and devastating—I was entirely blindsided. A wonderfully complex, ambitious story, that is also full of heart and humour. Loved it.

The City We Became by NK Jemisin

I loved the Broken Earth trilogy, set in a futuristic world completely removed from our reality, but this book might be even stranger and more alien, despite the familiar geography, and it took me a while to find my feet. 

NK Jemisin takes that quintessential book review trope, that New York city is a character in the book, and turns it into a weird and wonderful piece of fantasy in which New York City is a literal character, alongside the five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island—with personalities corresponding to the collective disposition of that neighbourhood. (If I lived in Staten Island I might be slightly offended at this point.)

In this world, when a city reaches a certain stage, it goes through a process of birth and the city is embodied in one living person. But if that process is interrupted then the city will die, and millions of lives will be lost in the process. When the five boroughs of New York realise that they have become living embodiments of the city, they must find each other and work together to locate the city Avatar and defend themselves against an evil force trying to destroy the city before it is born.

I particularly love the way that NK Jemisin uses Lovecraftian references and imagery in a book that joyfully celebrates and embraces the cultural diversity of New York—a authorial middle finger to Lovecraft’s white supremacism. I’ve never been to New York, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot more about it from this book than anything else I’ve read. 

The City We Became is a thrilling, wildly inventive urban fantasy, and the start of another epic series from a hugely talented author. Highly recommended.

Girl in the Walls by AJ Gnuse

The title and the cover encapsulate this sinister, Southern Gothic tale perfectly. Eleven-year-old Elise has been living in the walls of her old house for nearly a year. She knows exactly which floorboards creak and she can move around in the crawl spaces, the attic and inside the walls while the new family are home, and when they are out she has the house to herself once again. But the younger son Eddie senses that someone else is there…

The story is told mainly from Elise’s perspective as she is haunted by the new family who have moved into her house. You would think this would make the story less creepy, as we know exactly who it is who sneaks through the walls. And yet this is a nail-bitingly tense read, as Elise ekes out her existence just out of view. Brilliantly done – a thrilling, atmospheric and heartbreaking read.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

An unnamed peasant girl is already close to starvation when her family is attacked by bandits, but she alone has the will to survive. She claims not only her brother’s identity but also his foretold fate. 

China is occupied by the Mongol armies. A small rebel force called the Red Turbans have gathered together to attempt to oust the invaders. But little do they imagine that they will be led down their road to victory by a small, effeminate monk.

Inspired by the life of Zhu Yuanzhang, founding Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, this story is meticulously researched and vividly brought to life. I wasn’t sure what to expect. This is not an era I am at all familiar with and I’m not a particular fan of war strategy stories, but the events of Zhu’s rise to power are incredibly compelling and exciting. Zhu is a wonderful character with a fierce, ruthless determination, not only to survive but to claim the Mandate of Heaven and achieve the glorious destiny once promised to her brother. She will do whatever it takes, no matter the cost.

An epic, breathtaking and dazzling tale – I thoroughly enjoyed it and can’t wait to find out what happens to Zhu, Ma and Ouyang in the next book. 

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

I loved Sorcerer to the Crown and its sequel, so I was very keen to read Zen Cho’s new book, though it has a very different setting.

Jessamyn has graduated from Harvard, but after her father has a cancer-scare, her parents move home to Malaysia and Jess moves with them, unsure what she wants to do next. Jess’s girlfriend wants her to look for a job in Singapore where she will be living, but Jess is not out to her parents and feels an obligation to stay with them. To make matters even more complicated, Jess has started hearing a voice in her head and realises she is being haunted by the ghost of her estranged dead grandmother. Ostensibly, Ah Ma wants to prevent the destruction of a small local temple but there is more to the story than Jess realises, and soon she is enmeshed in the machinations of a vengeful goddess called Black Water Sister. 

I absolutely loved this Neil-Gaimanesque mashup of ancient gods and contemporary Malaysian settings. Zen Cho superimposes a supernatural realm onto a concrete setting in such a way that this bizarre juxtaposition of worlds seems perfectly natural. Similarly, she overlays some horrific trauma with mischievous humour in a way that does justice to both. I’m not sure if I can call this a coming-of-age story as the protagonist is in her early twenties, but it definitely has that feel as Jess attempts to assert herself as an independent adult to her overbearing relatives—both alive and dead—and the ending is incredibly moving. A vivid, enthralling and funny fantasy world with an endearing, beleaguered protagonist.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara is an AF, an Artificial Friend, designed to be a companion to a teenager. Until she is purchased, her perception of the world is limited to the view out of the store window but Klara is incredibly observant and learns everything she can based on the human interactions she sees, and the trajectory of the sun. When Klara is purchased as a companion for Josie, a girl with a chronic illness, she gets to observe the vast complexity of human relationships up close.

This book reminded me a lot of Never Let Me Go, in narrative style, concept and vaguely dystopian undertones, but it is a more mature and subtle story. As an AI, Klara’s character is rendered in precise and painstaking detail and her developing understanding is beautifully controlled. All of the obvious ethical questions about AI are in there, but so seamlessly integrated that you feel them rather than think about them and the ending left me in pieces. A brilliant, heartbreaking, profound story.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

If, like me, you were worried that this was going to be an aimless story of a guy rambling philosophically through a surreal world, fear not. There is in fact a plot, a mystery, and even a villain. 

This is a whimsical, hypnotic book, and the first few chapters do include a lot of philosophical rambling. The house where is Piranesi lives is comprised of a seemingly endless procession of vast classical halls full of statues. There are three levels but the basement level is flooded and the top level is in the clouds, so Piranesi is mainly confined to the middle level. There is one other person there with Piranesi, who he calls the Other, but for as long as he can remember it has just been the two of them. Until Piranesi finds a strange message in chalk and the Other begins to warn him about someone new, coming to disrupt the harmony of their world. I can’t say much more than that without spoilers, but the gradual reveal of the mystery of Piranesi’s life is incredibly compelling and poignant. 

Piranesi is a completely different book to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but the mundane and the magical are similarly blended. The inside of Susanna Clarke’s head must be an equally magical and dreamlike place…

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

Based on a true story, A Net for Small Fishes is a meticulously researched and thoughtfully imagined account of the friendship between Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, and Anne Turner, and the circumstances that led to a shocking murder in the Jacobean Court.

In their connection to the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, history paints these two women as scheming, murderous criminals, but Lucy Jago creates two colourful and nuanced characters—real women forced to navigate their world within the confines of their sex.

When we meet them, the narrator Anne Turner is a doctor’s wife of no rank, but she has patented a type of yellow starch for collars and cuffs and is in demand as a fashion consultant in Court. Anne advises Frances Howard how to dress in order to gain the attention of her husband, and in doing so empowers the younger woman, and despite the difference in rank and age, they become friends. 

At the time English women in general were perceived as becoming too masculine and self-sufficient. Frances Howard’s desire to be liberated from her abusive and impotent husband marks her out as an unnaturally independent woman, while Anne’s aspirations to rise above her station lead to her being vilified as: ‘a whore, a bawd, a sorcerer, a witch, a papist, a felon and a murderer’. The title, A Net for Small Fishes, refers to fact that those of lower rank, like Anne Turner, often took the fall for those of higher rank like her friend, Frances. But while society pits them against each other, their friendship is the heart of this book. They are definitely not paragons—Anne Turner’s ambition makes her proud and mercenary, while Frances Howard’s privilege makes her selfish and thoughtless—but the strength of their attachment is genuine.

A Net for Small Fishes is fascinating account of a Jacobean scandal as well as a poignant portrayal of female friendship. Brilliantly done.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

My first read of 2021, this was the oddest and most intriguing book I’d read in a while. It feels like historical fiction but it’s not…it’s more like a historical parallel world. The main action concerns a voyage on a ship from Batavia (Jakarta) to Amsterdam in 1634. But the story creates a fictional world that encompasses decades and continents. The world’s greatest detective and his bodyguard (Homes & Watson-style characters) are on board but the detective has been arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of a crime. When mysterious symbols begin to appear and the ship is rumoured to be cursed by a devil, the sidekick, Arent, must investigate in partnership with the governor’s wife, Sara.

This inventive, brilliantly-constructed story kept me guessing till the last chapter, but thankfully had a suitable satisfying conclusion.

Best Children’s Books 2019

We are truly in a golden age of children’s fiction and there are so many amazing new children’s books that I still want to read, but here are some of the best ones I have read this year:

Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day
(Starfell #1) by Dominique Valente

One of my favourites: the delightful and charming story of Willow Moss, the youngest and least impressive witch in her family. Willow’s gift is for finding lost things, which doesn’t seem very exciting, until the day that the most powerful witch in Starfell comes to Willow for help in locating last Tuesday – which has mysteriously gone missing. Willow sets off to find last Tuesday with the monster under her bed (who is definitely NOT a cat and will get very angry and explode if you call him that). I thoroughly enjoyed this book, it’s full of funny, inventive detail, great characters, and is beautifully illustrated throughout by Sarah Warburton. Absolutely enchanting!

Roller Girl
by Victoria Jamieson

With more and more kids reading ebooks these days, a graphic novel is a perfect Christmas book gift. (I’ve gifted one copy of this book already.) Astrid has always done everything with her best friend Nicole. So when Astrid falls in love with roller derby and signs up for a summer camp, she’s sure Nicole will come too, until Nicole signs up for ballet camp instead. Astrid sets off for roller derby camp alone and discovers that it’s a lot more difficult that she thought it would be. I loved this funny empowering story about friendship, bravery and resilience set in the crazy world of roller derby.

The Star Outside my Window
by Onjali Q. Rauf

From the author of The Boy at the Back of the Class, Onjali Rauf tackles another tricky and topical subject in her latest book, The Star Outside My Window: domestic violence and in particular the impact this has on children. If this sounds like a bit much for a young audience (I was slightly horrified when I realised I’d given this book as a prize for a nine-year-old), be reassured that the issue is treated with sensitivity and there are helpful warnings and advice at the beginning and the end of the book. Ten-year-old Aniyah has just arrived at a new foster home with her five-year-old brother. She is struggling to understand what has happened to her family but when she sees a news story about a competition to name a new star she realises that the star must be her Mum and she makes a daring plan to travel to Greenwich to tell the astronomers what the star should be called. In the process she finds out what really happened to her Mum and she finds a new family. It’s a devastating, heartbreaking story (even writing the review is making me cry) but somehow the author manages to finish on a hopeful note. The Star Outside my Window is a powerful story with the potential to help those who have experienced violence at home, but also to inspire kindness and empathy in those who haven’t. Highly recommended.

The Girl Who Speaks Bear
by Sophie Anderson

Yanka was found in a bear cave as a child and has always been a little different to everyone else in her village – taller and stronger than all the other children, who call her ‘Yanka the Bear’. After an accident leaves Yanka changed, she goes in search of the bear who raised her to find answers about who and what she is. As Yanka journeys through the forest she meets some other characters and they share stories with each other (including another house with chicken legs) and eventually Yanka must team up with all her new friends to defeat a dragon, break a curse and discover who her family really is. This is an enchanting, lyrical adventure, based on Russian folklore, full of wonderful characters, stories, and a heartfelt message about friendship and family. I particularly enjoyed Mousetrap the house weasel who has an inflated idea of himself but, as it turns out, does actually have some bizarre and useful skills.

Brightstorm: A Sky-Ship Adventure (Sky-Ship Adventure #1) by Vashti Hardy

Maudie and Arthur are twins left alone when their father doesn’t return from an airship expedition, but there are suspicious circumstances surrounding his disappearance and their father stands accused of breaking the explorer’s code. The twins must find a way to join another airship expedition to see if they can find their father and clear their family name. A thrilling steampunk-style adventure full of brilliant characters, magical creatures and exciting technology. I thoroughly enjoyed this – highly recommended.

Can You See Me?
by Libby Scott, Rebecca Westcott

11-year-old Tally is starting secondary school but she has a secret that only her close friends and family know – Tally is autistic and she spends a lot of time and energy trying to act like everyone else so she will fit in. Tally’s narrative is interspersed with diary excerpts written by 11-year-old Libby Scott inspired by her own experience of autism. Autism, at the milder end of the spectrum, does tend to be portrayed in books and films as a fun personality quirk but this story reveals the struggles and anxiety that many autistic people hide. Can You See Me resonates with warmth and authenticity – a thoughtful, informative and moving book.

Not My Fault
by Cath Howe

Maya and Rose are sisters, but that’s about all they have in common. Rose is neat, diligent, and a star gymnast, but is also secretly eaten up with guilt about Maya’s accident. Maya is charismatic, chaotic, and driven to self-destructive behaviour by physical pain and anger about her accident. Maya and Rose are not talking to each other, but a school residential trip to Wales will be the catalyst that makes or breaks their relationship. The story is told from both of their perspectives and beautifully illustrates the ways that siblings can know each other so well, but also completely misunderstand each other. Sometimes it’s harder to forgive your family than anyone else, but Not My Fault is a prescription for sibling empathy. Highly recommended.

A Pinch of Magic
(A Pinch of Magic #1) by Michelle Harrison

A Pinch of Magic is the story of the three Widdershins sisters, three magical objects and a terrible curse that has been passed down through generations of Widdershins women. Betty has always longed to escape from Crowstone and find adventure out beyond the confines of the The Poacher’s Pocket, but when she discovers the truth about the curse Betty finds herself thrust into an situation that could break the curse forever but it could also be the death of her and her sisters. This story has all the elements you could possibly want from a magical middle-grade adventure – an atmospheric setting, a thrilling plot and a brilliant protagonist. Loved it.

Legacy (
Keeper of the Lost Cities #8) by Shannon Messenger

One of the girls at school turned me on to this series and I have to agree that it is thoroughly addictive. In book 1, Keeper of the Lost Cities, 12-year-old Sophie discovers she’s a telepathic elf and is whisked off to Elf-Hogwarts to start her education. It sounds slightly derivative but it is a page turner and by book 2 Sophie’s world is well established and her adventures are off to solid start. This is book 8 in the series and supposedly book 9 will be the final book. Keeper of the Lost Cities is a fantasy adventure with a very mild hint of romance (team Foster-Keefe forever) and highly recommended for series binge-readers in particular.

Magnus Chase and the Ship of the Dead
(Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard #3) by Rick Riordan

This is the third instalment in the Magnus Chase series based on Norse mythology, in which Magnus and his friends must defeat Loki in order to prevent Ragnarok. This series is longer and raises some more complex issues that Percy Jackson, and as such I think it is intended for a slightly older child or as the next level up for those die-hard Percy Jackson fans. I read this one aloud to the kids, it’s a very long book with some extremely hard-to-pronounce Norse vocabulary, but as always it is a hilarious, action-packed adventure. (Our favourite part is always the chapter headings.) The story of Percy Jackson began as a way for Rick Riordan to give his son a dyslexic, ADHD character role model, and Rick continues this tradition of inclusivity in the Magnus Chase series. What is particularly great in this series, is that the inclusive characters are not token figureheads – they are very deliberately and purposefully used. No one ever forgets to speak to Hearthstone in sign language, however awkward that is to the scene, Alex Fierro, Magnus’s crush is gender-fluid, and Magnus always has to be aware which pronouns to use, and of course Muslim Valkyrie Samira has to pray, wear her hijab and fast for Ramadan – in between saving the world.

Aru Shah and the End of Time
(Pandava Quintet #1) by Roshani Chokshi

I also love the fact that Rick Riordan uses his platform to support other writers through his Rick Riordan Presents series. Which brings us to Aru Shah. Aru Shah and the End of Time features two kickass protagonists, Aru and Mini, a disgruntled pigeon, and huge cast of gods and monsters who help and hinder Aru and Mini in their quest to stop the sinister Sleeper. This is a funny, fast-paced adventure story based on Hindu Mythology, perfect for fans of Rick Riordan as it follows the same kind of pattern. I read this one aloud to the kids too and we thoroughly enjoyed it. A second book in this series, Aru Shah and the Song of Death, was published this year and I’m looking forward to reading it.

Books for Teens:
It’s hard to draw a definitive boundary but the following books are more suited to a secondary-school audience…

Orphan, Monster, Spy
(Orphan Monster Spy #1) by Matt Killeen

This is my favourite teen book of the year. Sarah is a Jewish girl living in Nazi Germany, her mother sacrificed everything to get her out of the country – but instead of running away Sarah fights back against the regime by becoming a spy and going undercover in an elite Nazi boarding school. A thoroughly gripping WW2-based spy thriller, with a super-smart, fiercely brave protagonist – I couldn’t put it down. The sequel, Devil, Darling, Spy is due out in 2020.

by Frances Hardinge

Thirty years ago the gods of the Undersea destroyed each other and now the islanders of the Myriad live on stories of the gods and scavenge ‘godware’ – relics brought up from the seabed. When Hark and his friend Jelt find a relic that seems to have healing powers they are inadvertently sucked into an adventure that endangers their lives and the future of the Myriad. As always, Frances Hardinge’s fantasy world is brimming with life and her characters, delightfully and authentically flawed. Hark and Jelt’s dysfunctional relationship is particularly poignant, as is the inclusion of the ‘sea-kissed’ characters – divers who have lost their hearing due to accidents at sea. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of this story – brilliantly done.


Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus

A thoroughly engrossing teen murder mystery, perfect for fans of Veronica Mars and Pretty Little Liars. (In fact I imagined the whole story with a geographically-inaccurate grimy, sun-bleached style and a cynical, wisecracking teen-PI narrator.) Twins, Ellery and Ezra are sent to live with their grandmother in Echo Falls when their mother is checked into rehab, but it’s a town with a dark history. Five years earlier the homecoming queen was murdered and her body dumped in ‘Murderland’ – the local horror-based theme park. And there’s a dark event in Ellery and Ezra’s own family history too. The action starts up immediately – there’s a hit-and-run on the night they arrive in town, soon someone starts posting anonymous threats aimed at the next homecoming queen, and when a girl disappears it starts to look like history will repeat itself. True-crime obsessed Ellery must team up with Malcolm, brother of the prime suspect from the previous case, to unravel the mystery. I enjoyed One of Us if Lying but I found this book to be more atmospheric and more unpredictable – I loved it and couldn’t put it down.

The Vanishing Stair
(Truly Devious #2) by Maureen Johnson

Thoroughly enjoyed the first two books in this series. True-crime aficionado Stevie Bell is accepted into the prestigious Ellingham Academy, scene of a notorious unsolved case from the 1930s. Stevie is determined to solve the cold case but there’s a mystery afoot in the present as well. Book 1 ends with a murder and a fiendish cliffhanger so I downloaded book 2 immediately. Stevie has been pulled out of school, for her own safety, but she’ll do anything to get back there to be with her friends and continue her investigation. The final book in the trilogy is due out in January 2020.

Jemima Small Versus the Universe
by Tamsin Winter

From the award-winning author of Being Miss Nobody, Jemima Small Versus the Universe is a wonderfully life-affirming story about learning to love yourself. Jemima Small just wants to be like other girls. She hates being forced to join the school health group, AKA Fat Club, and that she can’t apply for her favourite TV show without worrying everyone will laugh at her. But perhaps Jemima can do more than just stand out, perhaps it’s her time to shine. A funny, moving story about bullying, body confidence and learning how to be happy with who you are. All hail the new Judy Blume!

The Gifted, the Talented and Me
by William Sutcliffe

When Sam’s family come into some money unexpectedly, they move from Stevenage to Hampstead in London, and Sam and his brother and sister are enrolled in a special arts school for the gifted and talented. This suits Sam’s siblings just fine but Sam doesn’t feel particularly gifted or talented, he just wants to be normal, play football and hang out with his mates. But football is taboo at his new school. Sam is a wonderfully relatable character and there are some great laugh-out-loud moments, I thoroughly enjoyed this story of trying to fit in when fitting in means standing out.

The Deathless Girls
by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

An evocative, gothic story of the Brides of Dracula. Lil and her twin sister Kizzy are travellers who are captured and enslaved by a local Boyar but this is just the beginning of their journey. Will Lil and Kizzy have the courage to do what it takes to survive. This is no Twilight, it is a lyrical,  beautifully imagined alternative version of a classic story, perfect for anyone who loved Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks. Highly recommended.


Heartstopper: Volume Two (Heartstopper #2) by Alice Oseman

Based on a popular webcomic series, Heartstopper is an LGBTQ+ graphic novel and this is the second volume in the series. Charlie has had a rough year, he came out and was bullied but he has good friends and he hopes that things might be looking up. When he meets Nick he starts falling for him, but he’s sure Nick is straight and that he won’t have a chance. But love works in surprising ways, and sometimes good things are waiting just around the corner. Heartstopper is about friendship, loyalty and mental illness. This is a very sweet, heartwarming story, perfect for fans of Love, Simon.

On the Come Up
by Angie Thomas

I’m sure you will have heard of Angie Thomas’ breakout hit The Hate U Give. On the Come Up is her second novel, it is not a sequel but is set in the same neighbourhood as her first book. Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be a rapper to fulfil her father’s legacy, but also to save her family from poverty. The Hate U Give was always going to be a tough act to follow but Angie Thomas has risen to the challenge – On the Come Up has many of the same elements that made THUG so successful but it surpasses it in depth and nuance. Bri is a grittier, more complex character than Starr and her compelling rap lyrics add an extra layer. It’s also a thoroughly gripping story. I loved it and was privileged to hear Angie Thomas perform Bri’s battle rap at the Southbank Centre earlier this year.