Freya Daly Sadgrove, a bookseller at The Children’s Bookshop in Wellington, chooses the very best picture books, chapter books and YA novels of 2017.
THE BEST: I Just Ate My Friend by Heidi McKinnon (Allen & Unwin, $27.99)
I’ve seen a bunch of picture books featuring monsters this year, and the trend seems to be for monsters that are smooth and cute and round and kind of impotent and not really very monsterly at all. The monster in I Just Ate My Friend, while also round and at least in the realm of cute (though nicely odd-looking), is living a real monster life – they just friggin ate their friend. This is a beautifully simple, weird, hilarious story – we watch the monster experiencing the natural regret that comes when you eat your friend, and trying to find a new friend – with beautifully simple, weird, hilarious illustrations. Also has lots of different monsters to do the voices for.
Nearly the best
The Longest Breakfast by Jenny Bornholdt, illustrated by Sarah Wilkins (Gecko Press, $29.99)
It is filled with twists and turns! It has a cast of characters that would be very difficult to count! It has a baby that articulates itself very charmingly! Malcolm (the lone adult) is doing his best! If you have ever been surrounded by a herd of children you will relate to Malcolm strongly. There is a lot going on. This extremely lovely picture book lends itself to tonnes of re-readings, and there is more to think about each time.
Explore! Aotearoa by Bronwen Wall, illustrated by Kimberly Andrews (Kennett Brothers Limited, $29.90)
I keep coming back to this book – it contains some hella compelling stories about some really amazing New Zealanders (and visitors to New Zealand). There are five sections, each devoted to a different kind of exploration in, around or under Aotearoa. They include Kupe, Thomas Brunner, and Freda du Faur (the first woman to climb Aoraki / Mount Cook). It’s wonderfully researched, the tales are engaging and super readable and the illustrations are atmospheric and dramatic. There are also lots of fascinating historical photos and watercolours – my favourite is of Freda du Faur, who was clearly a massive badass. I reckon it’s got really broad-ranging appeal – I want to pore over it with my dad as much as with my cousins in primary school. You probably wouldn’t want to go much younger than eight with this one though.
Bruno: Some of the More Interesting Days in My Life So Far by Catharina Valckx, illustrated by Nicholas Hubesch (Gecko Press, $24.99)
It’s sort of reminiscent of the Moomins, but much more city-minded. It’s such a Gecko book: gorgeous, surprising, filled with kindness. Bruno is a little cat guy with a blue hat, and his friends are an old pony, a fish, a turtledove and a canary. There are several stories, each describing a different day in Bruno’s life, and in this way it’s the kind of picture book that you could start off reading together and that could be grown into – for a new reader it could function almost as an early chapter book. It’s just so much fun.
There’s a Bug on My Arm That Won’t Let Go by David Mackintosh (HarperCollins, $29.99)
I am so into everything about this book. The title; the big, bright, weirdly proportioned illustrations; the story – a bug lands on a child’s arm and refuses to leave, which is distressing and annoying at first but which gradually becomes endearing and important. Also the message: show kindness even to small things. Read it to age three and up and treasure the crap out of it.
THE BEST: The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty, illustrated by Kelly Canby (Allen & Unwin, $24.99)
You might, like me, have made it through adolescence thanks in large part to Jaclyn Moriarty’s epistolary YA books set in the Sydney suburbs (Feeling Sorry for Celia, Finding Cassie Crazy, The Betrayal of Bindi Mackenzie, Dreaming of Amelia) and you might, like me, have punched the air when she finally moved into fantasy with The Colours of Madeleine trilogy – in which she demonstrates a lightness of touch and a freshness of approach to writing magic that is totally unique – and if so, it will come as no surprise to you that The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone, her first book for nine- to 12-year-olds, is an ABSOLUTE KNOCKOUT JOY FOR THE AGES. If you didn’t know about those earlier books, I’m sorry your life has not been as nice as mine, but you now have the knowledge to rectify that.
Bronte Mettlestone is hilarious. Sometimes the humour is dark, but it’s carried off with a kind of twinkle in its eye; you are always in safe hands. The story has a huge cast of predominantly female characters who are all richly and complexly brought to life. Bronte herself is a highly excellent heroine. She is a noticer, and she has a lot of very astute observations to make about the people she meets. She is wonderfully frank and brave and I love her. You will too.
If you happen to know children who love Trenton Lee Stewart (The Mysterious Benedict Society), Diana Wynne Jones (Howl’s Moving Castle), Zizou Corder (Lion Boy), or who enjoy aunts, dragons, adventure, making friends, questioning norms, being a person… please put this book in their hands immediately. I also think it would be an excellent one to read aloud together, in which case you could extend the age range a bit younger – say to a curious seven.
Nearly the best
Snake and Lizard #3: Helper and Helper by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Gavin Bishop (Gecko Press, $22.99)
The third book of the Snake and Lizard stories returns us to the beautifully wrought desert landscape created by Cowley’s words and Bishop’s illustrations. The difficulty of friendship looms large, and it won’t just be children who relate to Lizard’s frustrations or Snake’s self-justifying manipulations. There are some real ethical dilemmas in this book, for which reason I think it would be really rewarding to read aloud and discuss with children. It would also be great for junior readers starting out with chapter books.
Lockwood & Co #5: The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud (Corgi, $23)
This is the final book in a mind-bogglingly good and also bloody terrifying fantasy series. London is beset by something known as the Problem – a massive influx, over the past 50-odd years, of highly dangerous supernatural activity. As soon as darkness begins to fall, the public retreats behind iron barriers – silver if they can afford them – because the night belongs to the unrestful dead. Some children (but not all, and no adults) have strong psychic sensibilities, making them the only members of society capable of fighting the Problem.
Most of these children are recruited by strict, respectable, adult-run agencies, but a small number – a very small number – work for the eponymous Lockwood & Co: the only psychic agency run by agents themselves, with no adults standing around getting in the way. The company has spent the four previous books engaged in various high- and low-profile cases – each uniquely frightening – all the while edging closer to the root of the Problem. Could it be that there are people who stand to gain from a thing that has a profoundly negative impact on the whole of society?? Surely not; there’s no precedent for that among real-life humans.
This is smart storytelling – ghost stories like you have never ever ever read them before – with one of my favourite heroines of all time, the wonderfully human Lucy Carlyle (who I think would be of massive benefit for young people of any gender to read). Stroud gained my eternal respect and admiration with his Bartimaeus trilogy, and fortunately he continues to roll out the serious goods. I reckon hit your very brave 10-year-olds (if they need something more challenging to read) and up with this sweet five-part series. I didn’t start reading them till I was 20 and there was definitely some hyperventilating involved.
Annual 2 edited by Kate de Goldi and Susan Paris (Annual Ink, $39.99)
If someone had given me this book when I was eight to 12 years old I would have been in freaking heaven. Give it to your weird cool children immediately! They’ll be amazed! It’s a miscellany, which means it has the expected stuff like short stories and poems and beautiful pictures, but it also has comics, awesome multimedia-type stuff, activities, crafts, recipes, a playscript, and a board game. Children and adults alike will open it and their mouths will drop and then they’ll keep it forever and love it to pieces.
Worldquake #1: Dragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas (Canongate, $18.99)
This is gonna be big. The first in a new fantasy series by previously strictly-no-children’s-fiction writer Scarlett Thomas, we’ve got ourselves a hella rich magical world to dive into and boy am I glad she changed her tune and let us see what she can do for small people.
Some years ago in the world of Dragon’s Green, something called the Worldquake happened, shaking the internet and most of technology as we know it back to the dark ages of the early 90s, and letting a fair bit of magic seep in. There’s an otherworld, an underworld, portals through bun shops, books you can go inside of in a much more satisfying way than I’ve ever read before, awesome magical items called Boons, and maybe the best spell I’ve ever read, which comes in the form of a letter to the Luminiferous Ether.
One kid came in to the shop recently, having finished Dragon’s Green and experiencing a terrible book hangover, wanting to know when the next book would be out. When I said “April next year” I think I saw his heart breaking in front of me. Then we talked about growing up with the excruciating wait for the next Harry Potter book, and, look, just get onto this awesome series now. Get right in there with your eight- to 12-year-olds asap.
YOUNG ADULT FICTION
THE BEST: The Book of Dust Volume I: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (David Fickling Books, $35)
It’s incredible how Philip Pullman’s managed to extend Lyra’s particular world so believably into the past and outwards. It’s seamless and immensely satisfying. The protagonist, Malcolm, is about the same age as Lyra is at the start of Northern Lights, and he is wonderful in quite a different way to how Lyra is wonderful (Lyra features as an infant in La Belle Sauvage). Malcolm is quiet and curious and well mannered and practical; he watches and learns.
But even watching doesn’t always lead to understanding for a child, and Malcolm witnesses some increasingly disturbing things. The villain in this book is such an extremely frightening character that I still feel nasty thinking about him, and his daemon – a hyena that I was never quite sure whether to feel disgusted by or sorry for. That’s one of the remarkable things about this book: it goes to some really dark depths – I would say darker than His Dark Materials – but they are described from a resolutely innocent perspective. Malcolm’s bewilderment at his own plight is moving as hell.
There is one particular chapter near the end of the book that made me gasp and scream and cry quite a bit, and it’s that one and a few other scenes that make me feel really unsure about what age readers should be. On the one hand, Malcolm himself is only about 11, and the uncertainty of his own perspective protects the reader a bit. On the other hand, witnessing horrible things through a child’s struggle to understand them – at least when you are an older reader – maybe actually makes the story more disturbing. It’s quite a wrench for the old heart machine to notice how different Malcolm is at the end of the book to how he started out.
My feeling, though, is that if a child is mature enough to have enjoyed His Dark Materials (which you should definitely read first I think, for richness of experience) then they will probably be ready to move on to La Belle Sauvage – though be prepared to have some tricky conversations. Also just everyone should read these books. I haven’t even mentioned Alice (heart-meltingly badass) or Sister Fenella (lovely, old) or Hannah Relf (adult, trying her best). I haven’t even talked about the struggle for free speech against a freaky international totalitarian organisation! I’m sorry; it’s just all too absorbing.
Nearly the best
Dark Gifts #1: Gilded Cage by Vic James (Pan Books, $19.99)
In a parallel world, Britain is ruled by a magically gifted aristocracy – the “Equals” – who demand 10 years of “slavedays” from every commoner in return for keeping the country strong and safe. The premise is ripe for rigorous social commentary, and Vic James doesn’t beat around the bush. Magical ability is genetically inherited, so the same families have been in positions of power for generations, and they are really, really used to it.
The story is told from various points of view, both Equal and commoner, allowing for intersections of privilege to be unflinchingly examined: Equal women denounce commoner women to further their own status; paid working commoners are placed in charge of slaves and encouraged to abuse their authority in order to sever any fellow feeling; most Equals barely ever use their magical abilities, instead preferring to place the burden of effort upon commoner slaves, while a few experiment brutally with the power they can wield over those without magic.
Most of the central characters are young, and we witness the commoners coming to understand the massive injustice of a system they’ve been brought up to see as natural, while the Equals gorge themselves on their own power, numb themselves into drunken ignorance or blinker themselves inside their own ambition. It’s a flipping fascinating read actually, a really compelling story that is brilliantly characterised. Being quite violent and disturbing at times, I would recommend it for ages 14 and up – particularly for those who are into Game of Thrones and Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series. I am really excited by this debut, and its sequel Tarnished City, which also came out this year. The finale, Bright Ruin, is due early 2018.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (Walker Books, $19.99)
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, The Hate U Give is a powerful tool for growing empathy in its readers. Starr Carter is 16 and her life is already massively complicated by having to present two very different identities – one for the neighbourhood she’s grown up in and one for the fancy high school she attends, where she is one of the very few black students. She’s got the flip switch between the two as smooth as she can get it, but people from her neighbourhood still think she’s up herself and people from her school still think the only other black student in her year must be her boyfriend (but at least she hasn’t given them any reason to think she’s ghetto, right?). But then a white police officer shoots her unarmed best friend, and she is the only witness. Cue some of the most intense and distressing decisions you can imagine a person, let alone a 16-year-old person, having to make.
This is a distressing read in many ways, because it’s so real, but it is also a moving account of a young woman’s (unfairly accelerated) struggle to accept and respect herself. She has to work her way through layers and layers of social conditioning to figure out what she’s really made of, and when she finds it, it’s really strong and really good. Angie Thomas is an amazing new voice, and this is necessary reading for all teenagers and probably everyone else too.
Zeustian Logic by Sabrina Malcolm (Gecko Press, $24.99)
Yes, I know Gecko Press is experiencing very strong representation in this list, but in my defence: 1) hot damn do they know what they are doing, and 2) this is my list and I can do what I want. Zeustian Logic is set in Wellington and totally nails funny-sad, which is the best kind of sad. The narrator, Tuttle, is a nerdy, blunt 14-year-old boy with such an authentic voice that I feel like I knew him in high school. He thinks a lot about the stars, Greek mythology, his seven-year-old brother’s wellbeing, Phoebe next door who is extremely nice to look at, her half-brother Boyd who I feel like I also knew in high school (ugh), and the recent loss of his mountain-climber father. It’s so flipping tender, so sensitively written. It’s a real gift to New Zealand fiction, though I feel like it would appeal to young teenagers wherever they are in the world. I would highly recommend it for ages 12 and up.
Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson (HarperCollins, $19.99)
This one has a disturbing and fascinating premise – a white baby died while in the care of a black woman and her nine-year-old daughter Mary; Mary was convicted of manslaughter and sent to “baby jail”. Now she is 15, in a group home and pregnant. She never bothered to try clearing her name before, but now she’ll have to if she wants to keep her baby. She considers abortion but can’t face it, given she has dealt with fierce public hatred since childhood for being a “baby killer”.
Mary’s character is deeply complex and sympathetic, sometimes cynical, sometimes hopeful with the innocence of the child she never really got to be, and the reader’s journey to finding out what really happened the night of the baby’s death is riveting.
The guts of this novel lie in the depiction of a justice system that serves a privileged few, while compounding horrific situations for those who are disadvantaged in the first place. Mary’s childhood before jail is darkened by grief, abuse, and her mother’s mental illness; the time of her trial a terrifying picture of white rage, a witch hunt for a black 9-year-old; her experience in baby jail tantamount to torture; her life in the group home riddled with bullying, neglect an injustice. Jackson thanks her sources for these vividly painted settings in the acknowledgements: “to the girls from juvenile detention centres, group homes, and foster care willing to share their experiences with me… I am in awe of your perseverance. You are not forgotten; you are not a lost cause.”
I think that’s really powerful. Mary is not a perfect, pure angel; the resolution is not neat and heart-warming – we are never allowed to feel at ease reading this, and we shouldn’t. Highly recommended for age 14 and above.
The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.