Christmas shopping guide: the 20 best kids books of 2018

All week this week The Spinoff Review of Books presents the best books of the year. Today: the best 20 books for kids.

Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love (Walker, $28)

Picture book 3+. On the train one day, Julian is mesmerised by three mermaids in beautiful colors, long hair, and flowing gowns. Julian imagines himself as a mermaid. When he gets home, he begins to transform into a mermaid with the help of curtains, plants, and lipstick….A message that will resonate with any kid who has ever felt compelled to express themselves in an unexpected fashion. And his Nana’s approach to gender non-conformity is something that a lot of grown-ups could do with imitating.

Inside the Villains by Clotilde Perrin (Gecko, $35)

Picture book 4+. An extraordinary pop-up book that reveals the secrets of the most famous fairy-tale villains – the giant, the wolf and the witch – with interactive flaps, a twist on well-known tales, and personality cards for each villain. You can also lift the flaps to see the diabolical thoughts inside the villains’ heads. Cool!

The Boy: His Stories And How They Came To Be by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins, $50)

Picture book 3+. A spectacular collection of four much-loved modern classics – How to Catch a Star, Lost and Found, The Way Back Home, Up and Down – from the multi award-winning, internationally best-selling picture book creator Oliver Jeffers, along with a captivating behind-the-scenes look at the making of each in four fascinating sketchbook sections.

Vehicles by Xavier Deneux (Chronicle, $30)

Board book – good from day dot! Each spread features raised shaped objects that fit into scooped cut-outs on their opposite page, offering young learners an irresistible opportunity to explore their universe in a hands-on, multi-sensory way.

Jillion (Toitoi, $45)

Illustrated anthology 6+. Hardback highlights from the first 12 issues of the awesome journal that is Toitoi. Each issue presents writing and art from hugely talented Kiwi kids aged 5 to 13.

The Bomb (Te Pohū) by Sacha Cotter and Josh Morgan (Huia, $23)

Picture book 3+. A boy searches for the secret to doing the perfect bomb into the water. With training from Nan, an expert and former champion, and by listening to his own voice, he finds his unique style and pulls off a wonderful, acrobatic, truly awe-inspiring bomb… Sacha Cotter’s words and Josh Morgan’s illustrations have been a proven combo in the past – and in The Bomb (or Te Pohū in the te reo Māori translation), they capture quintessential moments of Kiwi summer.

The Book of Trees by Piotr Socha (Thames & Hudson, $40)

Illustrated non-fiction 8+. Socha knocked it out of the park with 2016’s The Book of Bees – and The Book of Trees is a more than worthy follow-up. Lusciously illustrated and full of information, Socha tracks the history of trees from the time of the dinosaurs to the current day.

Ocean by Hélène Druvert (Thames & Hudson, $45)

Illustrated non-fiction 8+. Clever cut-outs exploring the ocean, from the shoreline to the murkiest depths. Durvert is the master of the laser-cut illustration.

A Winter’s Promise by Christelle Dabos (Text, $26)

YA fiction 13+. Ophelia has the ability to read the past of objects and is able to travel through mirrors. When she’s promised in marriage to Thorn, she leaves all she knows behind and follows her fiancé to Citaceleste, the capital of a cold, icy ark known as the Pole, where danger lurks around every corner and nobody can be trusted…A smash hit in the French-speaking world – and now we’re lucky enough to have the first book available in English.

Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty by Rhys Darby (Scholastic, $18)

Junior fiction 7+. Comedian and Flight of the Conchords star Rhys Darby has turned his hand to writing for kids and it’s a winner. All laid out in handwritten notes and scribbles, it’s for any fan of Wimpy Kids et al.

Mapmaker’s Race by Eirlys Hunter (Gecko, $25)

Middle fiction 9+. A rollicking adventure through the wilderness as the Santander children take on the race that their temporarily MIA mapmaking mother was meant to be tackling. It’s a great read peppered with awesome illustrations.

Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer (Phaidon, $35)

Picture book 3+. Three robbers prowl the country and store their loot in a mountain cave. One night they stop a carriage and find an orphan, Tiffany, on her way to live with her wicked aunt. Tiffany is delighted to meet the robbers, but appalled at their ill-gotten wealth.…First published in 1961, this classic  tale of mystery and suspense for 4-8 year olds will always enthral.

Little People, Big Lives: Frida Kahlo by Isabel Sanchez Vegara (Frances Lincolm, $23)

Picture book 5+. Famed Mexicana artist Frida Kahlo is one of many amazing women of history celebrated in the Little People, Big Lives series which also features the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst and Harriet Tubman. The boys titles will be coming soon – starting with Muhammed Ali and David Bowie.

Rivers by Peter Goes (Gecko, $40)

Illustrated non-fiction 8+. A wonderful meandering journey through some of the world’s most famous rivers, in exquisite illustrated form. Even includes an amazing spread on the mighty Waikato.

Maui & Other Legends by Peter Gossage (Penguin, $40)

Picture book anthology 4+. Beautifully reissued masterpiece from one of our greatest storytellers. You’ll be hard pressed to meet someone who went through New Zealand primary schooling since the 80s who doesn’t recognise Gossage’s iconic artwork.

Aotearoa by Gavin Bishop (Penguin, $40)

Illustrated non-fiction 8+. The biggest-selling kids book of 2018 at the new Unity store for children. Bishop’s brief, magnificently illustrated history of everything Aotearoa is already being regarded as a modern classic, and it’s won everything (the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year and the Elsie Locke Award for Non-fiction at the children’s book awards, and Best Children’s Book at the PANZ book design awards). Simply: get.

Flight of the Fantail by Steph Matuku (Huia, $33)

YA fiction 13+. A busload of high school students crashes in bush in a remote part of New Zealand. Only a few of the teenagers survive; they find their phones don’t work, there’s no food, and they’ve only got their wits to keep them alive. There’s also something strange happening here. Why are the teenagers having nosebleeds and behaving erratically, and why is the rescue effort slow to arrive…? A mingling of mystery and fantasy infused with tikanga and te ao Māori make this debut YA novel sing.

And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness and Rovina Cai (Walker, $28)

YA fiction 12+. The story of Moby Dick – told by the great white whale itself. “With their haunting, melancholy sense of the undersea world, Rovina Cai’s full-page and double-page illustrations are beautiful in their own right, but they’re a real enhancement to the story and perfectly integrated into the design. This is a book for all ages, although some scenes contain graphic violence, so it might be a little too strong for children under 10”: Guardian.

Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee (Allen & Unwin, $23)

Middle reader 10+. Lenny, small and sharp, has a younger brother Davey who won’t stop growing – and at seven is as tall as a man. Raised by their mother, they have food and a roof over their heads, but not much else. The bright spot every week is the arrival of the latest issue of an encyclopedia about the natural world. Lenny and Davey experience the wonders of life, and dream about freedom and adventure. But Davey’s health begins to deteriorate…Heartbreaking and beautiful.

Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Alan Jeffrey (Walker, $37)

Illustrated anthology 8+. Viking gods, giants, dwarfs, and goddesses, drawn in dark colours and intimidating shadows, told with drama and passion. A luscious big hardback endorsed by the great Neil Gaiman.


As selected by Briar Lawry at little Unity, the bookstore for kids in High St, Auckland. All titles are available from the Auckland or Wellington branches of Unity Books.


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