Sarah Forster from The Sapling names the best 10 (okay, it’s 11) kids’ books published this year

It was a tough ask choosing just 10 of Aotearoa’s children’s books for this year, so I had to choose 11. I’ve chosen a selection of books that everybody from new babies to new adults will be able to engage with at some level.

Picture books were hit and miss this year, but the best were blazingly good. The strongest category published in Aotearoa in 2021 was middle fiction—books for 8-12 year olds. I could hand on heart have given you a top 10 of books for junior and middle fiction readers alone, and I don’t envy the book awards judges picking a top five from those published this year (let alone a top book!) Most of the young adult fiction books I read this year were similarly excellent, and there were a couple that missed out narrowly on this list.

Check out the winners and finalists of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults too, for further recommendations. And The Sapling will be live with expanded lists on Wednesday.


Bumblebee Grumblebee by David Elliot (Gecko Press)

For kids who wriggle. Bumblebee Grumblebee reminds me delightfully of the writing of Eric Velle, but of course illustrated in a uniquely Elliotish style. It’s a nonsense rhyme book perfect for reading to a squirmy toddler when they need a book to help them dream wonderful nonsense dreams (see picture above).  

What colour is the sky?  by Laura Shallcrass (Beatnik publishing)

For kids who ask why. This picture book is a simple yet clever take on the question of what we all see when we look to the sky. Pīhoihoi asks the seminal question during sunrise, and as the hedgehog goes to sleep he says, “the sky is brown”. Ruru, frog, mouse, hare, snail—all have a different answer. With her characteristically beautiful illustrations, Shallcrass makes the point that everybody can see the same thing in a different way.

What Colour is the Sky, by Laura Shalcrass

Atua by Gavin Bishop (Penguin Random House NZ)

For every whānau and whare. Like Peter Gossage’s retellings of the exploits of Māui, or Stacey Morrison’s My First Words in Māori, Atua is an essential book that happens to be targeted at tamariki – But should actually be grabbed and cherished and learned from by everyone who lives in Aotearoa. Gavin’s really the torchbearer for New Zealand’s entries into the ever-growing field of big beautiful illustrated books for kids, and Atua’s magical combination of words and watercolours bring all the big names from pūrākau Māori to life.

Atua, by Gavin Bishop

The Greatest Kapa Haka Festival on earth / Mokopuna Matatini, by Pania Tahau-Hodges and Story Hemi-Morehouse (Huia Publishers)

For kids who like festivals. This book made me grin all the way through. Kapa haka tragic Nan takes her whanau to Te Matatini, the biennial kapa haka festival, where they see the biggest stars in the kapa haka world strut their stuff. The illustrations are exuberant and the story is simple and affirming. A total win, and an essential book for every school in Aotearoa.

The Greatest Haka Festival on Earth, written by Pania Tahau-Hodges, illustration by Story Hemi-Morehouse

KIDS 8-12

Draw some awesome by Donovan Bixley (Hachette NZ)
For kids who love to draw. Donovan Bixley takes budding young artists through tricks of the illustration trade, from taking inspiration from unlikely sources (a lively toaster), simple ways to draw animals, how to draw expressions, and the essential—how to draw a unicorn. PS: Keep an eye out next year for Donovan’s book on Leonardo Da Vinci, it’s going to be incredible.

Spread from Draw some awesome by Donovan Bixley

Kia Kaha  by Stacey Morrison and Jeremy Sherlock, illustrated by a variety of Māori illustrators  (Penguin Random House)        
For kids who are people people. The key to an excellent biographical anthology is choosing the right people, and Stacey and Jeremy have got this absolutely spot on. The choices range from Māui (demigod) to the Upper Hutt Posse, chief justice Sir Joe Williams to fashion designer Kiri Nathan, and suffragist Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia to the Māori All Blacks. Illustrations from Josh Morgan, Xoë Hall and a variety of other fabulous Māori artists bring it to life. 

Sir Joe Williams, from Kia Kaha, by Stacey Morrison and Jeremy Sherlock, illustration by Josh Morgan 

The Uprising: The Mapmakers in Cruxcia by Eirlys Hunter and illustrated by Kirsten Slade (Gecko Press)

For kids who like to go on an adventure. This fabulous book reintroduces us to the Santanders, united with their mum after winning the mapmaker’s race in the first adventure. We join them as they go to the last place their dad was seen—Cruxcia, a community being wrecked by the interests of the Granian Trading Company. The author gives kids plenty to consider while bringing in a range of new characters, including wheelchair-using and whip-smart Vivi, who needs the kids’ skills to help her townspeople prove they own their land.

The Last Fallen Star by Graci Kim (Disney Hyperion)

For kids who wish upon a star. This book brings the magic in spades, as Korean-American Riley works with her sister Hattie to become part of the Gom healer witch clan. Graci is an incredibly skilful writer, bringing you straight into the drama, in a way that reminded me of the fabulous Nevermoor. Family secrets! Fabulous powers! And a magical library accessed via a washing-machine!


Skinny Dip: Poetry by Susan Paris and Kate De Goldi (Annual Ink)

For kids who like poetry, and for those who just haven’t realised that they might be able to see themselves in it. This is poetry written with the kids of Aotearoa in mind—without ever coming across cloying as children’s poetry can sometimes be. It’s a love letter to New Zealand childhood, with the most incredible poetic glossary.

Falling into Rarohenga by Steph Matuku (Huia Publishers)

For kids who want to journey. Tui and Kae are twins. And they do not get along. But when they fall into Rarohenga and realise their mum is trapped there, they have to reluctantly work together—or at least mostly together—to free her from the clutches of their evil, selfish father. Steph spins a tale of magic and mayhem, and Hinekōruru gets the last word. I think I have a new favourite genre: modern teens meet Māori magic. (Also: Steph has two other books which are just as amazing—Whetū Toa and the hunt for Ramses, and The Eight Gifts of Wheke).

Displaced by Cristina Sanders (Walker Books)       

Let’s be honest—teens do enjoy a spot of grim. Displaced is the story of a family who came to New Zealand not in pursuit of their own happily ever after, but by being pushed into it by circumstances out of their control. At times traumatic, at other times hopeful, it’s wonderful story telling.

We celebrate the best books of 2021 throughout this week. Yesterday: The top best illustrated books of the year. Tomorrow:Steve Braunias selects the 10 best non-fiction books, which includes the very best book of any kind published this year

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