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.