Best Children’s Books of the Year

If you are looking for Christmas gift ideas for the 8 to 12 year-old in your life, here are some of the best middle-grade books I have read this year:

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

11-year-old Addie is autistic but her new class teacher thinks she’s just being difficult, her best friend has dropped her for someone else, and even her older sister Keedie, who understands her better than anyone else, is now away at university all day. When Addie learns about her town’s history of witch trials she is determined to find a way of commemorating these women who were tortured and executed, just for being a little bit different. But no one wants to listen to Addie. Can she find a way to speak up for these women and for herself in the process? This is a brilliant book that raises awareness and understanding about autistic people, in particular those who are not as obvious due to masking. But it is also a wonderfully moving and inspiring story about kindness and tolerance in general. Highly recommended.

The Beast and the Bethany by Jack Meggitt-Phillips, illustrated by Isabelle Follath

The Beast and the Bethany is a hilariously macabre story about a nasty, self-centred man, called Ebenezer Tweezer, who adopts a badly-behaved orphan in order to feed her to the Beast that lives in his attic. But neither the Beast, nor Ebenezer is fully prepared for The Bethany! It sounds like a pretty horrifying concept, but this is also a charming, beautifully illustrated story, full of heart and humour, that children will love. 

The Girl Who Stole An Elephant by Nizrana Farook

When Chaya breaks into the palace and steals the Queen’s jewels she has no idea that her actions will lead to a prison break, political unrest and a madcap escape with her friends through the jungle on the back of the King’s elephant, Ananda. The book is set in the kingdom of Serendib, inspired by the author’s home country of Sri Lanka, and the lush vegetation and dense jungle are beautifully evoked. This is a fun, fast-paced adventure with a feisty protagonist.  

The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L.D. Lapinski

Twelve-year-old Flick Hudson has always longed to travel the world, but she’s never been anywhere, until she stumbles across the Strangeworlds Travel Agency and discovers a whole shop-full of suitcases leading to other worlds. This is a wonderfully imagined, delightfully magical book and hopefully, the start of a brilliant new series.

The Castle of Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson, illustrated by Saara Soderlund

Sophie Anderson is such a deft and accomplished storyteller—her books all seem to spring forth as fully formed modern-classics. I loved The House with Chicken Legs and The Girl Who Speaks Bear, so I was anticipating great things from The Castle of Tangled Magic and it didn’t disappoint. Olia lives in an old castle full of secret ways and fantastical domes. She’s sure there is magic in the castle and can’t wait to share it with her baby sister. But one day there is a terrible storm and the castle is damaged. Olia follows a magical guide through the castle’s domes to a land beyond, where a host of magical creatures have been trapped by a cruel wizard. Olia must defeat the wizard to save her castle and free the magic, but she must also make some difficult decisions and some sacrifices along the way. A spellbinding, heart-warming story about growing up and taking responsibility. (There’s also a lovely link to one of the other books that I particularly enjoyed.)

The Vanishing Trick by Jenni Spangler, illustrated by Chris Mould

When destitute orphan Leander meets the mysterious Madame Pinchbeck, she seems kind and trustworthy but by the time he meets the other children under her ‘care’, Charlotte and Felix, it is too late and he is as trapped as they are. The resourceful children must work together to foil her nefarious plans and find a way to escape. This book has a definite Series of Unfortunate Events feel, and Madame Pinchbeck is a dastardly villain worthy of comparison with Count Olaf. A dark and sinister tale set in Victorian England.

My Name is River by Emma Rea

Dylan is devastated to learn that his family farm in Wales has been sold off to a multinational corporation called BlueBird. His friend Floyd’s Dad works for BlueBird, but he’s currently in Brazil with Floyd’s little brother, and Floyd and his Mum are worried that something is wrong as they have lost touch with him. Dylan and Floyd hatch a crazy plan to fly to Brazil, bring Floyd’s brother home and save Dylan’s family farm. En route, they meet the charming Lucia, a resilient street child with a peculiar range of vocabulary (because she learned English by reading a thesaurus), and her Great Dane, Pernickety. Their quest takes them to Manaus and on a boat up the river and deep into the Amazon Rainforest to confront a heartless villain with a horrifying agenda. My Name is River evokes the same sense of adventure as Eva Ibbotson’s ‘Journey to the River Sea’, through a more contemporary lens. It is a gripping story of friendship and courage, saturated in the sights, scents and sounds of the rainforest, with a vitally important message about environmental conservation. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Wild Way Home by Sophie Kirtley

All Charlie has ever wanted is a little brother or sister, and when his wish is finally granted on his twelfth birthday, he resolves to be the perfect big brother. But when Charlie’s little brother is diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition, Charlie runs away to the forest that has always been his refuge. But something in the forest has changed: Charlie finds himself caught up in a Stone-Age quest that will challenge him and ultimately give him the courage to be the big brother he wants to be. There are some major challenges about writing a story set in the Stone Age, the language barrier in particular, but Sophie Kirtley makes the imaginative leap with ease and flair to create a sincere friendship between Charlie and ‘Harby’, a Stone Age boy, despite the thousands of years that separate them. The Wild Way Home is a page-turning adventure, but also a wonderful tribute to the lingering magic to be found in all wild places.

Wonderscape by Jennifer Bell

While investigating some mysterious exploding garden gnomes on their way to school, Arthur, Ren and Cecily are sucked through a portal to another planet, 400 years in the future, and find themselves in the Wonderscape—an in-reality adventure game featuring famous historical characters. As they play their way through the various realms, they must learn to conquer their own fears as well as their prejudices about each other so they can work together to find a way to escape and get back to their own time. But behind the entertaining facade of the Wonderscape, there is something sinister going on—can Arthur, Ren and Cecily solve the mystery of the missing founder and help the others trapped in the game before their time runs out? Wonderscape is a fun, fast-paced and immersive story, perfect for fans of the new Jumanji films and Anna James’s Pages and Co. series. Jennifer Bell creates the sense of being in another dimension in a way that will appeal to gamers, but with real-life stakes. I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of the futuristic gaming-theme with the fascinating stories of real historical figures—some more obscure than others. And I love the beautiful cover design—it perfectly encapsulates this thrilling world of imagination and possibility. Highly recommended. 

The Ship of Shadows by Maria Kuzniar

Aleja dreams of adventure while working in her Grandmother’s kitchen in Seville, but as everyone always tells her – girls can’t be explorers. But one day a mysterious ship sails into the harbour, crewed by women, and Aleja becomes a temporary crew member on the Ship of Shadows – a pirate ship full of secrets and magic. But Aleja has to earn Captain Quint’s trust and respect before the true purpose of their voyage is revealed to her. Of course, the author had me at ‘pirate ship crewed by ruthless women’, but this is also a lovely story of friendship, courage and empowerment. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will look out for more of Aleja’s adventures.

Nothing Ever Happens Here by Sarah Hagger-Holt

Nothing ever happens in the small town of Littlehaven, where 12-year-old Izzy lives, until the day Izzy’s dad comes out as a transgender woman called Danielle. At first Izzy is confused, anxious and terrified about anyone from school finding out. But as her dad begins the process of transition, Izzy comes to terms with their new family dynamic and finds the courage to stand up to the bullies. I loved this book. Nothing Ever Happens Here is a warm-hearted, empathy-inducing family story, with the same deceptively simple style as the Judy Blume books that I read as a teenager and fulfils a vitally important function of providing fiction to represent the full spectrum of different types of families.

WildSpark by Vashti Hardy

Prue Haywood and her family are still mourning the death of her brother Francis when a stranger comes to the farm looking for apprentices to join the Ghost Guild in the city of Medlock, where they have managed to bring machines to life by harnessing ghosts. Prue runs away from home and pretends to be ‘Frances Haywood’ in order to claim her brother’s place in the guild. But she has an ulterior motive – perhaps she can find a way to restore the ghosts’ memories of their former lives and bring her brother back. But in a city already filled with tension between citizens and ‘personifates’ – the ghost-animated machine animals, Prue’s experiments could have catastrophic consequences. WildSpark is a thrilling sci-fi adventure that takes traditional elements of children’s fiction (ghosts, robots) and melds them into an innovative, sparkling new world. I loved this.

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:

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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Deeplight
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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.