The best kids' books of 2020, chosen by top authors and illustrators
Published on: 14 December 2020 Author: Emily Drabble
2020 has not been the most promising year, but thank goodness for children’s books that lit up the darkness!
BookTrust's Emily Drabble asked authors and illustrators including Waterstones Children's Laureate Cressida Cowell, BookTrust President Michael Morpurgo, Waterstones Children’s Book Award winner Dapo Adeola, Welsh Laureate Eloise Williams, former laureates Anne Fine and Chris Riddell and BookTrust’s Writer in Residence Smriti Halls the impossible question: pick just one favourite published in 2020…
Waterstones Children's Laureate 2019-21, Cressida Cowell
I'm going to choose Break the Mould by Sinead Burke, illustrated by Natalie Byrne. Sinead Burke is a teacher, activist and little person. This is a truly inspiring and empowering read for all children, and indeed adults, to help give them the confidence to believe in themselves, and their uniqueness. As Sinead Burke says at the end of her prologue: 'I was able to fulfil my dreams. Now I want you to fulfil yours.' A wonderful and uplifting message to be sending children in a difficult year.
BookTrust's Writer in Residence Smriti Halls
I loved Mrs Noah’s Garden by Jackie Morris and James Mayhew. If this year has felt bleak or unrelenting, then within these pages you will find an oasis. A lyrical reminder that new life can and will blossom.
I was mesmerised by the evocative dream-like scene on midsummer’s night. For this reason alone, it’s a treasure - but it’s more than that. It’s a picture book that tells of hopeful possibility, of gentle care and graciousness, of toil, rest and rewardf. Mrs Noah’s Garden is a beauty. Long may it bloom.
BookTrust President Michael Morpurgo
Book of Hopes, by Katherine Rundell. The book of the times for me, to sustain us through, and for the times thereafter, whatever they may bring.
I’m usually doubtful about picture books on very serious subjects, but Fearless by Gattaldo is a superb piece of work for any reader of 8 or older. It tells the true story of the uncompromising journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who courageously drew attention to all manner of corruption in her home country of Malta, thereby exposing herself to almost continual intimidation.
The book is a celebration of truth and honesty. It makes complex ideas fully accessible, and, with honest journalism under as much pressure as we have seen it in these last years, is of huge and lasti;ng importance.
My choice is A.F.Harrold and Mini Grey's The Book Of Not Entirely Useful Advice - 'I have loved A.F.Harrold's poetry and Mini Grey's illustrations for as long as I can remember so it was a joy to see them come together in this gloriously inventive and sumptuously produced poetry collection- a delight!'
I just LOVED A Fox Called Herbert by Margaret Sturton about a rabbit who was determined to be a fox no matter what everyone says. Herbert was definitely me, as a kid! No, Candy, stop acting like a boy! No, Candy you're too young to read that! No, you'll never be an author! The final twist of kindness and acceptance brought tears to my eyes.And the expressive illustrations are so tactile and expressive. I loved it!
This year I’ve been loving the work of Christian Robertson. You Matter is a beautifully made picture book - contemplative, daydreamy and joyful. His sense of colour and design is delicious.
I’m going to recommend Pirate Stew by Nei Gaiman and Chris Riddell. A wacky story about some children and their babysitter who turns out to be a pirate, with a greedy crew in tow.
I don't normally recommend other people's rhyming books (maybe I'm scared of the competition!) but as one would expect Neil Gaiman's language is very read-aloudable, and the story races along with a satisfying twist at the end.
Onjali Q. Rauf
Reading it straight through in one night, Benjamin Zephaniah's Windrush Child put a lump in my throat before I had even hit the first line of chapter one: for even in his very brief author's note, the master of words lays bare the truth of the endless pains caused by hurtful names born of deep-set racisms: pains those of us on the receiving end, have to lie with for a lifetime.
Always honest, and never underestimating his audience, Zephaniah's new literary gift to us all really is a must-read not just for the children for whom it was intended, but pretty much everyone on the planet both living and yet to come.
I loved Roopa Farooki’s The Cure for Crime the first in the Double Detectives Medical Mystery series. It's as fast-paced as they come! Twins Ali and Tulip investigate the apparent ill-health of their mum, a doctor.
Any concerns that a story featuring a medical South Asian character may conform to a popular trope are off-set by the inclusion of the twins’ double-amputee Grandmother, a spy with hi-tec equipment and an impressive array of skills. Perhaps unusually for contemporary children’s fiction, Farooki manages to keep the children centre-stage without diminishing the importance of the multi-generational family.
I’m choosing Carson Ellis & Susan Cooper - The Shortest Day. Pure painterly pleasure all the way through. Weaving around Susan Cooper’s poetic homage to the winter solstice, Carson Ellis’s beautiful pictures conjure the muffled crisp still of winter light turning to winter night. Visual poetry with a nod to one of my favourite paintings; ‘Hunters in the Snow’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
There’s not much doubt that the children’s book of the year was The Book of Hopes - a moment of togetherness that unfolded at the very moment we were supposed to isolate
It was a risk that it would be hurried and cursory but it’s beautiful and many writers contributed amazing work. I’d like to give a shout out to Pushkin Press’s True Adventures series. At a time when we are discovering how limited official history narratives have been, it uses adventure to open a new chapter in how we see ourselves. They’ve managed to get some cracking writers to work on the project including the indispensable Catherine Johnson
Orphans of the Tide by Struan Murray has one of the most original and unexpected openings I've ever read. The world-building is superb and like many wonderful books tackles bigger issues such as loss, guilt and belonging.
I’m recommending Last, written and illustrated by Nicola Davies.
This poignant and beautifully illustrated book about the threats facing rhinos will leave the reader with a profound sense of loss, and yet uplifting hope for the future.
I’d like to recommend Benjamin Zephaniah’s Windrush Child. Such an important time for this heartfelt story. I was with Leonard’s journey every step of the way.
I’m going for Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu. I spend a lot of time talking to teachers and they are in awe of this book. We follow Sami’s journey and, as the reader, we go on a journey too. The fact that A. M. Dassu has not only written this deeply powerful story but also used her publishing deal advances to support Syrian refugees gives us so much to reflect on and learn from.
I loved A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicol. I read it with my daughter and we had so many fascinating conversations about witches, empathy and courage - it is a fantastic read, I can't wait to see what Elle does next.
A book I loved this year is October, October, by Katya Balen. Breathtakingly beautiful, it takes us into the wild woods where our unforgettable heroine is learning how to be and how to live with change. Lyrical, uplifting, life-affirming, and one of the best books I've read. I will treasure this story forever.
This year I have loved Kerren Getten's debut, When Life Gives You Mangoes. A big adventure on a small island, this a brilliant powerful book about friendship, family and fear.
It was a very hard choice, but my book of the year would have to be Mini Rabbit Must Help by John Bond. For me, it’s a familiar reminder of when my young son’s want to help with a task. The characters are delightfully quirky, and Mini Rabbit’s determination and sincere desire to help is adorable.
I’d like to recommend the graphic novel Twins, written by Varian Johnson and illustrated by Shannon Wright. I loved the depth of emotion conveyed in the storytelling. The brilliant, detailed artwork brings extra value to the characters and the narrative. I wish there were more books like this when I was growing up!
There were so many wonderful books that thrilled and delighted me this year, from the nail biting fantasy of Struan Murray's Orphans of the Tide, the life enriching wisdom of Keren Getten's debut When Life Gives You Mangoes, and the eerie chills of Lucy Strange's The Ghost of Gosswater Hall.
But if I must choose one, The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny, illustrated by Edward Bettinson, has really stayed with me. It subverts and plays with our expectations in a daringly original way, and is a terrifying, hilarious and deeply compassionate read. You won't forget it in a hurry.
It has to be Dogger's Christmas by Shirley Hughes. Tender, touching - a perfect festive sequel to the beloved original, by a true living legend: the great, benevolent, Fairy Godmother of the illustration world.
Monsieur Roscoe on Holiday, by Jim Field, Hodder Children's Books. So pleased to see Jim Field come out with his first solo book! I can't look without smiling at this friendly gentleman dog, Jim's warm colour palette, and his gentle rounded shapes that make me feel snug. I love his evocative views of sunlit streets in Paris and his funny animals sitting in cafes and lying on the beach, all the while giving simple lessons in French language.
With Brexit, and not being able to travel due to lockdown, it could be easy to neglect language study. Lots of people talk about empathy, but one of the best ways to demonstrate it is to learn to speak someone else's language, and this is a wonderfully approachable place to start.
Agent Zaiba Investigates The Missing Diamonds is first in a new detective series by Annabelle Sami. A diamond dog collar is stolen from the royal star hotel and Zaiba along with her friends decide to investigate. Packed full of suspense, comedy, and some touching moments of tenderness. Featuring beautifully designed illustrations by Daniela Sosa. A perfect gift for fans of Harriet the Spy, Emil and the Detectives, and the Otterbury Incident.
For me one of the most beautiful and exciting books of 2020 is Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright another wonderful poetry collection edited by Fiona Waters with amazing pictures by Britta Teckentrup. All the poems are about animals! It's so rich and there is so much to discover and it's a great introduction to poetry
I’ve chosen Twins by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright, not only because I am a huge fan of Shannon’s Wright’s artwork, but I’ve also followed this book’s development for over a year. So to say it was my most anticipated book of 2020 would be an understatement. Varian and Shannon do a fantastic job of bringing the world of their twin protagonists to glorious and diverse life in the pages of this gorgeous graphic novel. It’s a brilliant coming of age story that I’d highly recommend for any preteen/teen reader.
My favourite this year amongst the ones I read is The Worst Class in the World written by Joanna Nadin, illustrated by Rikin Parekh. I loved the energy and the total absurdity of the schemes and the illustrations were gloriously funny bringing the class to life.
A book I adored this year is Katie and Kevin Tsang’s Dragon Mountain; it’s the perfect adventure for any child who’s ever longed to have a dragon friend. I gave a copy to a boy who avowedly hates books, and he fell utterly in love with the dragons and their world.
I'd like to recommend When Secrets Set Sail by Sita Brahmachari, a hugely moving and uplifting story from one of our greatest authors. It brings together past and present, history and community, magic and mystery in a book that everyone should read - young people and adults alike
I’m choosing The Lost Spells by Jackie Morris and Rob Macfarlane. Who would have thought a sequel to The Lost Words would be possible? But they have pulled off another piece of magic here that is once again inspiring children’s engagement with the natural world and in the sense of empowerment that comes with representing it.
So many children have already learned the 'Jackdaw Rap’ and performed it with delight that I know a whole generation will be influenced by this gem of the book.
I’m going for Fly Tiger Fly by Rikin Parekh. This is a gloriously colourful, warm and funny story about friendship - and one very ambitious tiger. Its exuberant inky artwork is packed with humorous details - the Triumphant Tiger Tree is a particular treat - and the book has a lovely message about how a whole community working together can help make dreams come true.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave
In this, the strangest of years, I've turned to fiction that is utterly transportative - that lifts me out of the here and now and into someplace completely different.
One of the happiest days of lockdown (part one) was spent in the garden with my cat, reading Dragon Mountain by Katie and Kevin Tsang. A rollicking adventure with a thumping heart - it magicked me away to another realm, and I know it'll do the same for any child.
I recommend Inch and Grub: A story about cavemen by Alistair Chisholm and David Roberts. I love this book because David Robert’s illustrations and characters make me chuckle so much. Not only is it hilarious but it has an important message about wanting ‘stuff’. As the two cavemen compete by getting more and more ‘stuff' in their lives, they realise that it’s not the ‘stuff’ that’s important.
My choice is Tamarind and The Star of Ishta by Jasbinder Bilan. A story that spoke to my heart. A story that speaks of family, belonging and home. A luscious beautiful adventure set in the Hilmalayan mountains, and a visit to an ancestral home that holds family secrets. A feast for the eyes and stomach with all the delicious food we dream of to welcome us to our hearths and homes.
Without question, my book of the year is Clean Up, the follow up to the Waterstones Prize-winning Look Up, illustrated by Dapo Adeola and written by Nathan Bryon. Firstly, it's beautiful. Dapo always manages to infuse his characters with such personality and warmth, and he does it so efficiently. A flick of his pen here, a swish of his brush there, and we know exactly how Rocket and Jamal are feeling. It's a rare gift.
When you couple that with a brilliant narrative that's firmly rooted in the real world, you have a truly brilliant story for the ages. It’s environmental theme makes it a very important book, not only for children, but for all of us. Maybe Rocket really will change the world…
If there’s one book I would recommend everyone to read, it’s the wonderful Book Of Hopes edited by the amazing Katherine Rundell. It’s jam-packed with little jewels of stories, poems and jokes, each one carefully considered to bring laughter and love to the reader. It’s also beautifully illustrated by some of our most talented artists.
It's the perfect book to tuck under your arm and when you’re in need of a smile, open it up at any page and I can guarantee it will become a favourite for bedtime stories, school story-time or story any time. There are contributions from a whole range of our most popular authors and the extra wonderful thing is that all profits go to NHS charities.
This year has been an excellent one for children's detective fiction in the UK, especially when it comes to the new cohort of smart brown girl detectives. It's hard to choose just one book from that group, but my heart was stolen by Serena Patel's Anisha, Accidental Detective. Anisha is clever, funny and a delight to read about, the kind of young detective hero the world needs
What is your favourite book of the year? Let us know in the comments below or by tweeting us @BookTrust!
A big thank you to everyone who donated to the BookTrust Christmas appeal, with your generous support, we have sent surprise book gifts to 14,250 children who are vulnerable or in care in the run-up to Christmas. Your gift helped the children feel special during the festive period.