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.

17 Best Books of 2017

I’m not going to be able to follow this pattern forever, but I’m going to run with it for a few more years at least. I read 173 books this year, it’s always tough to make a decision but these were my favourites:

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A Conjuring of Light (Shades of Magic #3)
by V.E. Schwab

The third and final instalment in V.E. Schwab’s fantasy adventure is set in not just one London—but four different parallel dimensions of London. Expect fantastic world-building, action, suspense and vivid characters: Kell, a realm-travelling magician from Red London and Lila, a resilient and resourceful pickpocket from Grey London whose sole ambition in life is to be a pirate. Victoria Schwab is one of my favourite fantasy authors and A Conjuring of Light is a perfect ending to a brilliant series.

 

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Strange the Dreamer (Strange the Dreamer #1)
by Laini Taylor

Definitely worth the wait, Laini’s Taylor new epic fantasy adventure is everything I’d hoped it would be. Lazlo Strange is an abandoned orphan refugee, rescued by monks, who becomes a librarian obsessed with the mystery of the lost city of Weep on the other side of an impassable desert. Until one day an emissary party arrives from the lost city and ‘Strange the Dreamer’ decides that he will do anything he can to join them on their return journey and see the Unseen City for himself. Lazlo is a wonderful character, the story is definitely a tribute to the ‘fools who dream’ and it’s lovely to have a protagonist/saviour who’s not an amazing warrior, but instead is a researcher and storyteller. And of course, there is romance, magic and mystery and everything else you would expect from Laini Taylor. A wonderful escapist adventure.

 

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The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas

Starr is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives two, deliberately separate lives. At her exclusive school in a wealthy area she is one of the only three black kids in the school and has assigned herself strict rules of behaviour in an attempt to fit in, if not blend in. After school, she goes home to her other life in Garden Heights—a life of poverty, crime, drugs and gangs, but also warmth, family and community support. When her unarmed friend is shot by a white police officer while she is in the car, her worlds collide and she has to decide how to reconcile the two different parts of herself. Read this book. It is not only timely, topical and important but also gripping and engaging and should be required reading in secondary schools.

 

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The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead

The story of Cora, a slave on a Georgia plantation, and her escape via the Underground Railroad, in this case imagined as a literal Underground Railroad, is interspersed with real notices about runaway slaves. Somehow this blending of fact and fiction, the historical reality of slavery with a slightly surreal version of the railroad only makes the horrors more vivid and shocking. A heart-breaking read.

 

 

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People of the Book
by Geraldine Brooks

I loved this, historical fiction with a real literary mystery at its heart, the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah—an illustrated 15th century Jewish prayer book. In Geraldine Brooks’s version the book is rescued from destruction by a Muslim librarian during the Bosnian War and then restored by Hannah Heath, an Australian book conservator, who makes several discoveries in the binding that gives clues to the provenance of the manuscript. While Hannah investigates these traces in the present, we follow the path the Haggadah has taken, geographically and historically. A fascinating insight into the world of book conservation as well as the role books and illustrations have played through history. Brilliantly researched and imagined.

 

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman

Everything in Eleanor Oliphant’s life is scheduled and predictable, she’s entirely self-sufficient and she’s completely fine, until an accident forces her to allow some other people into her tightly-controlled life and everything begins to unravel. Eleanor is a strangely detached and pedantic narrator, so much so that I had to go back and check how old she is because she sounds 50 years older than she actually is. But when you get beyond this facade, this is wonderfully poignant and devastating story.

 

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The One Memory of Flora Banks
by Emily Barr

Flora Banks has anterograde amnesia and has been unable to make new memories since she had a brain tumour removed when she was ten. Her life is limited to the few familiar people and places she knew before her operation and the notes she writes to remind of herself of what has happened each day. Until one day, when she is seventeen, she kisses a boy on a Cornish beach and the memory sticks. Convinced that this boy is the key to her recovery Flora tracks him down to Svalbard and embarks on an adventure that will uncover more than Flora’s lost memories. The narrative throws us right into Flora’s disorientating reality in a way that is thoroughly immersive and utterly compelling. Brilliantly written.

 

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The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy #1)
by Katherine Arden

Winter is coming… Vasya lives in a small village in the woods in northern Russia. She has grown up hearing stories of the ‘Winter King’, a Russian equivalent of Jack Frost: ‘Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, they only come for the wild maiden.’ In addition to her wild wandering in the woods, Vasya has special gifts—she alone can see the household spirits that protect their home and she can talk to horses. When a young, fervent Christian priest arrives in their village and turns people against the old gods and superstitions, he upsets the balance of nature and unwittingly prepares the way for one much more dangerous than the Winter King. Vasya must remain free of societal constraints in order to protect her family and her village from this threat. This story reads like a beautifully woven Russian folk tale—thrillingly atmospheric, lyrical and otherworldly. (I have just started reading the second book in the series, The Girl in the Tower.)

 

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Longbourn
by Jo Baker

‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.’ A Downton-style P&P spinoff, Longbourn supplements the original story with a masterfully-woven web of under-stairs action. The story of Mrs Hill the housekeeper, Mr Hill the butler, Sarah and Polly the maids and a mysterious footman (only referred to once in the original) is beautifully imagined with several love stories as unlikely as Elizabeth and Darcy’s and the addition of some horrifically visceral scenes from the British army’s battles in Portugal and Spain. Brilliantly done!

 

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The Empty Grave (Lockwood & Co. #5)
by Jonathan Stroud

I discovered the Lockwood & Co. ghost-hunting series through a Twitter recommendation and flew though all five books. The Empty Grave is the final book and is brilliant ending to a pitch-perfect series, it is just as funny, terrifying and exciting as the other books with a heart-stopping climax that winds the series up beautifully. These books are equally entertaining for children and adults—I loved them, a hugely talented author.

 

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Days Without End
by Sebastian Barry

I was put off reading this book by the title—’Days Without End’ implies interminable boredom, but fortunately this was not the case and I was so glad I finally read it. The story is narrated by Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant who signs up for the US army with his friend John Cole in the 1850s. They fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War and somehow in the midst of hardship and trauma, find a way to create a family with each other and find peace. It’s an incredibly moving story.

 

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Turtles All the Way Down
by John Green

This is a more serious book than John Green’s other novels and darker than I expected. It’s written from the perspective of Aza, a teenager who suffers from a severe anxiety disorder. When a corrupt billionaire goes missing Asa’s best friend convinces her, for the sake of the hundred-thousand-dollar reward money, to reconnect with the millionaire’s son, Davis, whom Asa used to know. But the mystery disappearance, a potential romantic relationship with Davis, and her friendship with Daisy are all subordinate to the ever-tightening spiral of Aza’s thoughts and fears. It’s a claustrophobic perspective but very convincingly and authentically done. There seem to be a lot of contemporary YA books these days that use mental illness as a quirky plot device, Turtles All the Way Down delves into the reality of living with mental illness without romanticising it or offering glib solutions. Of course, all this is incorporated into an entertaining story with John Green’s usual warmth and humour.

 

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The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson

The quintessential haunted house story: four people, with an interest in the supernatural, undertake to stay in a supposedly haunted house, to observe and document the phenomena. Dr. Montague is in charge of the investigation, Theodora is an artist with supposed psychic powers, Luke Sanderson is heir to the haunted house, but the character who becomes the centre of the story is Eleanor Vance, a repressed young woman who has spent all her life caring for an invalid mother. The four characters all begin to experience strange noises and visions, but the phenomena become increasingly focused on Eleanor herself as she becomes in thrall to the house. Shirley Jackson is brilliant at atmosphere—it is an addictively terrifying read and the house itself is the most sinister and ambiguous character of all of them.

 

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This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor
by Adam Kay

This book made me laugh until I cried—a hilarious and terrifying account of a Junior Doctor that I have recommended to everyone I know, and has cemented my conviction that I could never EVER have been a doctor.

 

 

 

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Alias Grace
by Margaret Atwood

For the box set binge-watcher, if you were captivated by The Handmaid’s Tale, another of Margaret Atwood’s novels, Alias Grace, has been adapted for TV and is now available on Netflix. But of course, you should read the book first. A masterclass in the unreliable narrator, Margaret Atwood recreates the story of ‘Murderess’ Grace Marks through the testimony of others, both real and imagined, and through the story she tells Dr Jordan—a young psychiatrist with a professional interest in her case. Is she a calculating killer, or an innocent victim trapped by unfortunate circumstances, or a madwoman who had no control over her own actions? A wonderfully subtle and sly dissection of a sensational true crime story.

 

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Gnomon
by Nick Harkaway

A hugely ambitious, mind-bending and bewildering novel, Gnomon is set in the near-future under a surveillance society controlled by ‘The System’. Under some circumstances, the surveillance goes even beyond the barrier of skin to extract thoughts and memories from inside the minds of its citizens. Mielikki Neith is investigating the death of a woman called Diana Hunter under one such thought-extraction interrogation. When she replays the extracted information though, she finds the memories of several people within Diana Hunter’s mind—a banker, an alchemist, an artist, and a mysterious character called Gnomon. Neith must unravel the meaning behind all these stories to find the truth of Diana Hunter’s life. At the beginning the story felt a little like Cloud Atlas with its nested narratives, but then it turned into a much wilder, more complex ride—every time I thought I’d figured out what was going on I hit another u-turn. It’s not an easy read (my book club may never forgive me) but it’s worthwhile persevering for the brilliantly devastating conclusion. The issues the author raises about privacy, surveillance and democracy lingered a long time in my mind after the book was finished.

 

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Home Fire
by Kamila Shamsie

A timely and topical retelling of the Greek myth of Antigone, updated to include ISIS recruitment, airport interrogations, and social media in place of the Greek Chorus. Fortunately, I didn’t remember the details of the story so it didn’t ruin the ending for me, though I should have realised, knowing Greek mythology, that it wasn’t going to end well. If you want to read up on the original myth I would also recommend Ali Smith’s The Story of Antigone published as part of the Pushkin Children’s Books Save the Story Series—beautifully illustrated by Laura Paoletti.