Children! Who are they? What do they want from us? How can we entertain and stimulate their impressionable young minds over this, most seasonal period of the year? This year in the children’s publishing arms race, picture books have been increasing exponentially in size, until they’re roughly the size of small toboggans. Every publishing company now has at least seven books on the icecaps melting. There are board books on activism and quantum physics for the MENSA baby demographic. The “fearless and empowering women of history” market has reached a critical mass, and the publishing catalogues are full of quirky illustrated biographies of some of the most “badass feminist icons” of the twentieth century like…. Margaret Thatcher?
Luckily there’s still some fun to be had. Here are some of the best books of 2019.
NEW ZEALAND BOOKS
The Adventures of Tupaia by Courtney Sina Meredith and Mat Tait (Allen & Unwin, $30)
This astonishing, large format graphic novel is a collaboration between local poetry icon Courtney Sina Meredith and Mat Tait. It follows the life of Tupaia, the navigator, and his life and journey across the Pacific. The illustrations in this book are just stunning and the story is so gripping and beautifully told – one of the best local non-fiction books for kids in years. If this doesn’t sweep the book awards this year consider me stunned.
Mophead by Selina Tusitala Marsh (Auckland University Press, $25)
Yes! Poet laureate and all-round legend Selina Tusitala Marsh has written AND illustrated this incredible memoir for kids that follows her journey from a misfit kid to literary icon. The book is about learning to embrace your difference, and using that difference to make a change in the world. This book is funny and empowering with magnificent illustrations.
Wildlife of Aotearoa by Gavin Bishop (Puffin, $40)
Do you like native animals? Do you like them… BIG? This enormous book about Aotearoa’s wildlife is either an invaluable resource for children or a perfect makeshift murder weapon. Gavin Bishop is good at drawing pictures. Native animals are important. What else do you want from me?
YOUNG ADULTS (13+)
The Secret Commonwealth by Phillip Pullman (Penguin, $35)
Last month saw the second book in Pullman’s Book Of Dust trilogy, which is both a prequel and sequel to his beloved Northern Lights Series. La Belle Sauvage (the first in the trilogy) followed Lyra as a baby, in a daring riverboat escape. The Secret Commonwealth follows Lyra in her twenties, having an existential crisis. There’s no point recounting the plot because if you’ve already read Pullman you don’t need the sales pitch, and if you haven’t it will ruin the previous four books, but who knew a children’s blockbuster about original sin, the nature of the soul and religious atrocities could be such good fun? There’s a reason that Phillip Pullman is one of the most beloved children’s authors of all time, and the reason is: he’s just better than everyone else. Sorry. His characters have all of the warmth and depth and complexity of real people. And although his plots are morally and politically complex, they’re also exceptionally fun to read. Warning: sexual assault and disturbing content in places. Suitable for older readers.
The Missing of Clairdeline by Christelle Dabos (Text, $26)
Just when we were starting to get worried about Pullman sliding off TMC with no successor, Christelle Dabos has come along with The Mirror Visitor Quartet. A Winter Promise was published in English last year, and in 2019 we’ve had the sequel The Missing of Clairedelune. Dabos’s award winning fantasy series is for older teenagers, about a girl called Ophelia, who has the ability to read the souls of objects, and to travel through mirrors. This series has all the good stuff: secret identities, grand political intrigue, but unlike every other YA fantasy with a gifted protagonist living in a corrupt magical society – the writing in this book is astonishing and makes these books feel fresh & groundbreaking. Perfect for advanced readers who want an intelligent, immersive new series to get lost in.
MIDDLE GRADE (9-12)
The Good Thieves by Katharine Rundell (Bloomsbury, $17)
Everything Katherine Rundell writes is perfect, and it’s important that we all recognize that. The Good Thieves is an incredible standalone novel for middle grade readers, about a young girl in New York who bands together with a bunch of local pickpockets to try and recover her grandfather’s life savings from a Mafia conman. All Rundell’s books are so funny, so well written and so narratively satisfying. For fans of Louis Sachar or Rebecca Stead or Eva Ibbotson.
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by MT Anderson and Eugene Yelchin (Penguin, $28)
Who doesn’t want a satirical, epistolary middle grade novel about the conflict between the goblins and the elves? This slapstick, pictorial adventure story is kind of like Tolkein… meets the cold war… but hilarious? The book is written in letters from both sides of the political divide & is big-time illustrated throughout by Eugene Yelchin. Big-time. This book is so weird but so right.
The Runaways by Ulf Stark (Gecko Press, $20)
Why do the Swedes love writing books about idiosyncratic elderly people running away from retirement homes & hospitals so much? I have no idea, but I hope they never stop. Ulf Stark is one of my favourite kid’s writers, who has an incredible ear for the invisible power dynamics between kids and their odd, dark humour. The Runaways is published by NZ legends Gecko Press. This title for junior readers is about a little boy and his grandfather who escapes from the hospital is dark and funny and sweet and true and perfect.
The Adventures of Anders by George Mackay (Allen and Unwin, $23)
I love this stupid book so much. This book is three novels in one – full colour comics translated from the French about the friendship between three… lumpy animals? They navigate castle mazes! They explore volcanoes! They have really weird and sprawling conversations about nothing at all, that are inexplicably funny. This book is perfect for junior readers and also everyone else who has ever lived.
Big Ideas for Curious Minds by Scott Berkun (School of Life Press, $40)
Do children really need to know who Nietzche is? Are they interested in Plato? Sometimes these artsy non-fiction primers for kids are a bit of a drag, but this beautifully illustrated book from The School of Life which introduces kids to 25 key philosophical concepts through history, AND gives these concepts personal and contemporary relevance is actually brilliant. I learned more about the history of philosophy from this book than I did from any of my failed philosophy papers.
Walk this Underground World by Kate Barker (Kings Road Publishing, $35)
This book rules. It’s a lift the flap book about what’s underground. Pyramids, shopping malls, ancient cities, opal mines. Simple concept, beautiful illustration. This is the good stuff.
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? by Caitlin Doughty (Orion, $38)
This midde-grade non-fiction book about death and dying is possibly not the most festive choice, but Christmas only comes once a year, whereas death is forever. Caitlin Doughty is a bestselling nonfiction author /mortician with a Youtube channel, and in this book she answers weird, gruesome and philosophical questions from kids about death and dying with sensitivity and humour. Science, history and philosophy, all in one. Why would you buy your kids a book like this for Christmas? I don’t know, maybe you have morbid kids.
Castles Magnified by David Long and Harry Bloom (Allen and Unwin, $33)
Why will nobody buy this book from me? What’s wrong with you all? Every year as kids, well-meaning relatives gave us heartfelt classic literature about horses getting shot, when all we really wanted was a book where we could look at tiny knights through a magnifying glass, and little dudes in robes stirring cauldrons. It comes with tons of facts about medieval history and a tiny magnifying glass. If you don’t care about castles, there is also Egypt Magnified and Pirates Magnified. Give Black Beauty a miss this year, and give the children what they want.
Tough Guys Have Feelings Too by Keith Negley (Flying Eye Books, $19)
There’s been so many recent books for kids about gender stereoyping, mindfulness, anxiety and even though its fantastic there are so many new resources out there, sometimes I miss the dancing skeleton era of picture books. But this hilarious book by Keith Negley about tough guys… having feelings… is undeniably funny and cool. Cowboys with hurt feelings! Sad bikers! Am I laughing or crying?
The House of Madame M by Clotilde Perrin (Gecko Press, $38)
Another Gecko Press title! This amazing lift the flap book for young readers is set in a haunted house. There is so much to look at in this book – the illustrations are so lavish and detailed and immersive – I’m obsessed. This is the kind of book that kids actually want to read.