This morning I typed ‘best of 2018’ into Google and, on a whim, headed straight to page 10 of the results. It was there that I found a list of 2018’s Best Scooters in India and making my way through the list confirmed a long-held suspicion of mine: scooters are all pretty much the same. No, they’re not exactly the same, but let’s just say you would not be surprised by any of the manufacturers’ placement of handlebars.
By way of contrast, it was in the assemblage of my own ‘best of 2018’ that one thing became abundantly clear: the diversity of things we call children’s books is nothing short of astonishing.
These are the ones that delighted me the most this year, presented alphabetically by author.
THE COLOUR OF THE SUN
(David Almond, Hodder)
Like Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway, the action of The Colour of the Sun takes place on a single day. It is about a boy, Davie, who goes for a walk, and on that walk, the whole world comes out to meet him. Not just the real world, either. Memory, history, mythology and fantasy bleed together to tell a very different sort of coming-of-age story.
The atmosphere is cosy one moment, menacing the next. In the opening chapter, we watch Davie fill a haversack with childhood remembrances. Soon he is staring at the lifeless body of Jimmy Killen, a local boy apparently murdered by family rival Zorro Craig. The murder of Jimmy and the manhunt for Zorro form the backdrop of Davie’s journey. The novel unfolds as a series of encounters with various townsfolk, each of whom has something to say about the state of things both great and small.
David Almond’s prose alternates between the every day and the hallucinatory. There is an astonishing passage on the yellowness of gorse that includes the line, “There is a yellow smell of coconut.” I don’t know how Almond pulled off this feat of pinpoint synaesthesia, but he did- I know the yellow smell of coconut. The question is, how did he know that I knew that?
But that’s the level of skill on display here. It feels like Almond is reaching into our shared consciousness and pulling out things to terrify and delight us.
IF ALL THE WORLD WERE…
(Written by Joseph Coelho & illustrated by Allison Colpoys, Lincoln Children’s Books)
If All The World Were… depicts the relationship between a girl and her grandpa, told in a vibrant, poetic series of snapshots from their time together.
Joseph Coelho is a poet, and while a lot of the text from picture books often remind us of poetry, If All The World Were… is a potent example of what can be conjured up when the right words are arranged in the right order. There are very few words on each page, but very many ideas.
Allison Colpoys’s illustrations are bold and exuberant. There is a lot of white space. Nothing on the page is simply there to fill up space. This economy mirrors Coelho’s writing, creating a work that asks you to slow down and pay attention, to read and reread, to look and relook.
As the story pivots towards the inevitable death of grandpa, I worried the story might become too emotionally manipulative but while grandpa’s passing does indeed happen towards the end, it does not happen at the end. This allows Coelho and Colpoys enough space to re-establish the story not as one about grief, but about memory and the lasting impact we have on those around us.
(Helena Covell, Nobrow/ Flying Eye Books)
Sometimes you come across a book that feels as though it was made just for you. Sort of like meeting your soulmate, except in hardback. This is called your soulbook. Not everyone is lucky enough to find their soulbook, but I think I may have found mine.
JUMBLE WOOD tells the story of Pod, a mouselike creature living in a forest made of scribbles. It is the sort of place where fried eggs ride scooters, if you know what I mean.
Pod is not like the other creatures living in this jumble wood, for all the wild creatures that lived there each had a thing that made them happy. Except Pod. So, Pod sets off on an adventure to find that certain special thing that will make her truly happy. BUT, the book asks, WHAT COULD BE MORE SPECIAL THAN THE FRIENDS YOU MEET ALONG THE WAY?!
The book is messy and funny and sweet and colourful and scribbly and garish and cute and cheesy and I found it very, very beautiful in a very scrappy way.
JULIAN IS A MERMAID
(Jessica Love, Walker Books)
Julian Is A Mermaid tells the story of a boy who sees three young women dressed as mermaids on the subway, and in seeing them, he sees himself.
While his Nana is in the shower, Julian borrows her makeup, repurposes a curtain, and transforms into a mermaid. But when Nana catches him all dressed up, she turns and walks away from him.
In this moment, we see Julian’s shame and disappointment. We ready ourselves for the inevitable lessons in resilience and self-reliance author Jessica Love has prepared for us. But that is when Love reveals her sleight-of-hand: Nana has not turned away from Julian. She has simply gone to fetch something:
The final act is one of celebration and affirmation. Love’s watercolours are not just thematically fitting- they give life to her characters. Her bodies feel real and lived in.
There are echoes and inversions of The Little Mermaid throughout, but I haven’t managed to unpack them all yet. One small observation: while the sea witch forces Ariel to give up her voice in order to take on her desired form, Nana understands that Julian’s voice and form are inextricably entangled, and she helps him to realise both.
MAX CHAMPION AND THE GREAT RACE CAR ROBBERY
(Written by Alexander McCall Smith & illustrated by Kate Hindley, Bloomsbury)
When Max finds an old car with his family name on the license plate, he learns something new about his family history: Grandpa Gus used to make race cars. They were the best in town, too, but things changed when the nefarious Mr Grabber (a character who seems to have stepped out of an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon) put him out of business and stole his Book of Inventions. Now, decades later, Max and Grandpa Gus are determined to put things right.
It is a simple story, but it is exceptionally well told. McCall Smith’s prose is warm and witty, his protagonists brave and daring, and his villains are deliciously weasely. Kate Hindley’s black and white illustrations feature throughout and their detail and cheerfulness are a perfect accompaniment to the story. Max and his family look keep’em-in-your-pocket adorable.
Also, I just love intergenerational stories. They show how children can help their elders reset their lives and get back to the person they set out to be, while their elders support the children in turn, helping them grow in independence and begin to confront the Big Bad World.
WHERE THE WORLD ENDS
(Geraldine McCaughrean, Usborne)
Every summer, a group of men and boys go out to a remote sea stack to hunt birds. They must gather enough meat, feathers and oil to last the winter. At the end of the month, a boat should come to pick them up, but in the summer of 1727, it never shows up.
The group is left completely stranded. There is no explanation and dwindling hopes of rescue. When one of the children gets it into their heads that the Rapture has occurred, religious paranoia soon sets in. Why have they been left behind? What follows is just as gripping as it is bleak.
McCaugheran’s prose is utterly remarkable:
Winter cold arrived. Invisible, it stood at the mouth of the cave: there was no door to keep it out. Cold came in and sat down among them, like one of the blue-green men who lived in the sea, whose very bodies were the sea. Cold laid clammy hands on their necks and kidneys, their hands and feet. It twanged on their muscles like a harpist. Their blood slowed, mushy with ice.
Useful to know- there is an illustrated glossary all the birds featured in the novel at the back of the book, courtesy of wildlife illustrator Jane Milloy. Wish I’d known about that beforehand!
THE SKYLARK’S WAR
(Hilary McKay, Macmillan)
Of all the books on this list, I find The Skylark’s War hardest to describe, at least to do it in a way that does it any justice.
It is about three children growing up together in the early twentieth century, and what happens to them when the eldest volunteers to fight in a war that is supposed to be over by Christmas.
Okay, but that’s just the what. The magic of this novel is that when you read about these children, you will feel like you’re right there with them. McKay’s world is so complete, her characters so convincing, you’ll find your affection for them growing just as they grow in affection for each other.
Clarry, our protagonist, begins the novel narrowly avoiding being sent to an orphanage. From then on, she must fight for everything good in her life. This makes for exhilarating reading, for Clarry is a fighter, and McKay’s writing is so transporting you’ll feel every win and loss just as acutely as though they were your own. The final few chapters will leave you breathless.
Here is what I wrote about it in my notebook at the time:
It warmed me up, and I’ve needed that. It’s a grounding antidote to everything frivolous + wounding in modern life.
(Andrew Norriss, David Fickling Books)
I didn’t even mean to read Mike. I am famously not a sports person- I only meant to dip in for a page or two to get a feel for the voice. But I ended up taking a review copy home with me and read in pretty much one sitting.
Floyd is tipped to become the next tennis superstar. His entire life revolves around the gruelling training regimen required to compete at the very top level. One day, Floyd is playing a match when a man, Mike, walks out onto the court and stops play. Floyd waits for the umpire to do something about this would-be saboteur, but it soon becomes clear that Floyd is the only one who can see him.
Now, from this initial premise, my brain started sketching out some expectations for the rest of the novel. Floyd will spend at least a quarter of the book insisting Mike is real. Floyd would need to learn THIS ONE WEIRD TRICK to overcome some final psychological hurdle in order to become the tennis sensation he is destined to. And it would all culminate in a very clever twist that SHOCK! Mike and Floyd are the same person!
And all of those things did happen- in Chapter 2. It was at this point that I decided to take the book home with me. I had to see where all this was going.
What follows is a truly unpredictable exploration of the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves, about where those come from, how we become complicit in them, and how we can challenge them.
(Written by Andy Stanton & illustrated by David Tazzyman, Egmont)
Last year, the universe gave me a gift I previously thought impossible. Twin Peaks came back after a 25 year hiatus, and it was a chance to return to something familiar but also a chance to see the creators take the show in wild, unexpected directions. Not to be outdone, this year the universe gave me NATBOFF!
I was so excited to return to the world of Mr Gum, and I would have considered anything moderately decent a gift. But NATBOFF! is an actual comedy tour-de-force aka tour-de-farce aka turdy farce. Andy Stanton takes us on a whistle-stop tour through the ages, chronicling the history of Lamonic Bibber, beginning with the Caveman Days and taking us all the way into a very bizarre and very fruity future. Each chapter differs stylistically from the last, offering parodies of gothic horror, Shakespearean theatre, and the scriptural stylings King James Bible.
My favourite chapter was the ‘The Life and Times Of Saint Follican’, which documents the miracles of a very dodgy Saint/conman whose mother wast but a poor woman with a face like a chip shop and when her baby son did poppeth out she was heardeth to exclaim, “Oh, look! I accidentally done a Saint, that’s nice.”
It’s a thing of genius, masquerading as something stupid. A bit like Andy Stanton, then.
(Written by Iris Volant & illustrated by Joe Lillington, Flying Eye Books)
Finally, some non-fiction!
Ancient Warriors is another absolutely stunning production from Flying Eye. The text begins, “In the beginning, we were all warriors,” and the book makes good on that we, providing an inclusive history of warriors and warfare from all corners of the world.
The book presents us with a series of profiles, varying in their scope and focus. We are given the low-down on a variety of individual warriors (Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, for example), but also whole features on battle tactics, weaponry and ‘Legendary Battles’ such as the Greco-Persian war:
While the scope and detail of the text are impressive, it is Joe Lillington’s illustrations that elevate Ancient Warriors into book-of-the-year territory for me. The level of detail in his illustrations, coupled with his unconventionally soft colour palette, make for truly compelling viewing. You will want to study these scenes. As a child I would have scoured every inch. Flying Eye really pushed the boat out with this production.