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The best children’s and YA books of 2023

The top picture books of the year, selected by Imogen Carter.

After spending many years confined to their homes, it was finally time to celebrate. There were significant birthdays to commemorate: Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler marked 30 years of collaboration with a successful exhibition at the Lowry in Salford (running until January 1st), and Benji Davies celebrated the 10th anniversary of his bestselling book, The Storm Whale, with a lively party and the release of the fantastic sequel, The Great Storm Whale (published by Simon and Schuster). In other parts of the world, pioneers were honored: a show at the British Library paid tribute to Malorie Blackman’s career and welcomed visitors free of charge, hoping to inspire the next generation (running until February 25th). Additionally, Michael Rosen was awarded the 2023 PEN Pinter prize, with judges commending his unique and invaluable ability to tackle serious topics with a spirit of joy, humor, and hope.

‘Soaked in folklore and magic’: Iron Robin by Rose Tremain

In the midst of difficult times and somber situations in the real world, some of the most cheerful and clever authors of children’s books emerged with uplifting titles that encouraged laughter, resilience, and facing fears. One such book was The Big Dreaming (Bloomsbury) by Rosen, illustrated by Daniel Egnéus, which follows a cute little bear preparing for hibernation by collecting extra dreams. Another delightful read was Geoffrey Gets the Jitters (Puffin) by Nadia Shireen, which humorously portrays the fears of its main character as squiggly worms that he learns to overcome with deep breaths and open conversations. The final page includes a “Very Useful Guide” that explores various kinds of worries, from the Frazzle to the Fret, and would be helpful for people of all ages during the holiday season.

Sophie Dahl’s Madame Badobedah and the Old Bones

The newest book by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, titled How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney?, is sure to add some holiday joy. In this book, the authors use deadpan humor to explore a common childhood question: how does Santa actually get down the chimney? Through a series of innocent questions, readers are taken on a journey to uncover this mystery. Does Santa contort his body like taffy to fit? Or does one of his reindeer give him a push? Klassen’s clever and smudgy illustrations, coupled with a touch of mischief, make this book a refreshing and charming read.

Sophie Dahl and Rose Tremain both released new books that feature imaginative and detailed illustrations. Dahl’s Madame Badobedah and the Old Bones, illustrated by Lauren O’Hara, tells a longer story about home life and follows a crimson-haired adventurer who visits a seaside B&B. In the sequel, the adventurer and her friend Mabel embark on a mission to return a precious gem. Tremain’s first picture book, Iron Robin, tells the story of a friendship between a boy named Oliver and a rusty metal bird. The book is steeped in folklore and magic, with beautifully layered illustrations by Richard Jones that add to its depth and beauty.

This year’s events and showcases honored well-known authors, but there was also space for emerging talent to shine. One of my top picks was Sarthak Sinha’s Farah Loves Mangos (Flying Eye), a joyous story about a girl and the special fruit on her grandfather’s tree that she helps grow with music and affection. Filled with exuberant energy and a message of resilience, this book radiates even during tough times.

The best chapter books of the year chosen by Kitty Empire.

One of this year’s great sequels: Finding Bear by Hannah Gold

I caught up with some old friends during this festive season and we talked about the many amazing sequels released in 2023. In The Last Bear from 2022, Hannah Gold’s beloved character returned to the Arctic, but it proved to be a dangerous environment, as shown in Finding Bear from HarperCollins.

There were several new releases that caught readers’ attention. One of them was Richard Lambert’s exceptional book, The Republic of Dreams, published by Everything With Words. This book takes readers back to the parallel worlds of Toby and Tamurlaine, which were first introduced in Lambert’s previous work, Shadow Town. Another gripping read was Nicola Davies’s 2021 eco-thriller, The Song That Sings Us, which inspired a prequel titled Skrimsli, published by Firefly Press. This prequel delves into the background story of a fearless ship’s captain who also happens to be a tiger. Lastly, Nigerian-German author Efua Traoré released her third standalone novel, One Chance Dance, published by Chicken House. This book follows the story of a high-stakes dance competition in Lagos.

‘Open-hearted’: The Stickleback Catchers by Lisette Auton

The announcement of The Incredible Adventures of Gaston Le Dog (Walker), a book that Michael Rosen had planned to write if he recovered from Covid, brought joy to many. Another highly awaited book, Impossible Creatures (Bloomsbury) by fellow children’s literature expert Katherine Rundell, did not disappoint. It received the Waterstones overall book of the year award and Foyles children’s book of the year.

Angie Thomas, the author of the bestselling novel The Hate U Give, also displayed her ability to engage young readers with modern issues. In her book Nic Blake and the Remarkables: The Manifestor Prophecy (published by Walker), she weaves together folklore characters and a group of talented individuals on a mission to redeem a family member’s reputation. The horror genre continues to be popular among teenagers, as seen in SJ Wills’ novel Bite Risk (released by Simon & Schuster), which blurs the lines between middle grade and YA with its suspenseful werewolf plot.

Also, there were stories closer to home that were just as powerful. Natasha Farrant is skilled at creating realistic worlds in the present, and her book The Rescue of Ravenwood (Faber) reminded us that families can be formed from whatever resources are available – similar to the rundown household that brave children are trying to save from questionable adult activities. Lesley Parr’s novel Where the River Takes Us (Bloomsbury) was set in Wales during a difficult time, drawing parallels to our own current struggles with economic hardship, and featured children who tackle real-life issues. In nonfiction, Shelina Janmohamed’s Story of Now: Why We Need to Talk About the British Empire (Welbeck) was a finalist for the prestigious Carnegie Medal and provided a clear and compelling analysis of the long-lasting effects of colonialism.

Numerous authors of children’s literature disregarded traditional gender roles in a collection of heartwarming and clever books. Jamie (Hachette) by LD Lapinski delved into the experiences of a gender non-conforming child at the end of sixth grade in a town with only two secondary schools, one for boys and one for girls. In Lisette Auton’s The Stickleback Catchers (Puffin), a magical realist battle ensued to protect a cherished grandmother from dementia. However, the book also touched on dialect, disabilities, neurodivergence, and gender nonconformity in a natural and heartfelt manner.

Towering over allcomers, though, was this year’s sharpest offering: The Swifts (Penguin Random House) by newcomer Beth Lincoln. This “gleeful gothic” tale about language and identity took in well-worn tropes such as eccentric families and secret-filled old houses. But Lincoln romped through her thriller plot, scattering pronouns, undermining cliches and delighting in language as she went.

Fiona Noble’s YA books of the year

In Ravena Guron’s Catch Your Death, three girls are marooned by a snowstorm in a mansion of a ‘family of liars’

Books for young adults had a successful year, thanks to the growing popularity of the “romantasy” genre and the BookTok community. Karen M McManus, known for her YA crime novels, released One of Us Is Back (Penguin), while Christopher Paolini revamped his beloved Eragon series with Murtagh (Penguin). Additionally, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (Scholastic) experienced a revival due to the release of the prequel movie The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

Although American authors dominate the bestseller lists, some of the most exceptional books of 2023 were actually written by authors from the same country. Bookending the year were two captivatingly crafted thrillers from emerging writer Ravena Guron. In the first, This Book Kills (published by Usborne in January), British Indian student Jess Choudhary delves into a murder investigation at her prestigious boarding school. The second book, Catch Your Death (also published by Usborne), follows three girls stranded in a snowstorm at the home of a deceitful family. With its modern twist on the classic locked-room mystery and nods to Agatha Christie, this novel is a must-read for readers who enjoy Holly Jackson’s work.

Alice Oseman, author of Heartstopper Volume 5, ‘the perfect stocking filler for any teenager in your life’

Laura Bates, the creator of the Everyday Sexism Project, ventured into the genre of young adult fantasy with Sisters of Sword and Shadow (published by Simon & Schuster). Set in Arthurian England, the protagonist Cass escapes her fate of an arranged marriage and joins the Sisterhood of Silk Knights, a group of women who train together to protect their community and challenge the injustices caused by men. The book features intense battles and bitter conflicts, but at its core, it is a celebration of feminism as the girls discover their autonomy and the importance of female companionship. Another historical fiction novel, Wild Song (published by David Fickling Books), explores the early 20th century through the story of a Filipino tribe who attended the St. Louis World Fair in the United States. As a companion to the highly praised Bone Talk, this captivating adventure delves into issues of racism and inequality through the eyes of a memorable heroine.

Clara Kumagai’s debut novel, Catfish Rolling (Zephyr), made a lasting impression this year. The story follows Sora, who is struggling with grief after losing her mother in the Japanese earthquake of 2011. As she aimlessly wanders through the aftermath of the disaster, she finds herself in strange and fractured pockets of time. Against the backdrop of Japanese folklore and culture, this novel offers a unique and ambitious take on coming-of-age. Similarly, Blessing Musariri weaves magic realism into her novel All That It Ever Meant (Zephyr). The story centers on fourteen-year-old Mati, who travels to Zimbabwe with her father and siblings. Through her interactions with an enigmatic gender-neutral spirit, Mati learns to navigate the challenges of living between two cultures and comes to terms with her own grief. Musariri’s beautifully written story explores themes of family, grief, and identity in a deeply emotional and poignant way.

Heartstopper Volume 5 (Hachette) by creator Alice Oseman has been released just in time for Christmas. This installment marks the second to last of the graphic novel series and follows the love story of Nick and Charlie. As they consider taking their relationship to the next level, Nick’s plans for university loom over them. Oseman is known for her ability to realistically portray teenage characters and she handles sensitive topics such as relationships, sex, family dynamics, and mental health with compassion and sensitivity. With its combination of humor, romance, and heartwarming moments, this book is a perfect gift for any teenager in your life.

Source: theguardian.com