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Best books of 2016: the 20 best books for kids

Sarah Forster – a judge at next year’s children’s book awards – chooses the best 20 local and international books of the year.

PICTURE BOOKS

That’s Not a Hippopotamus (Gecko Press, $19.99) by Juliette MacIver and Sarah Davis

A hilarious take on the plight of the quiet boy who is the only person who can see the hippopotamus in the room. Sharply rhymed, energetically illustrated, this is frequent collaborators MacIver and Davis at their best.

Do Not Open this Book (Upstart Press, $24.99) by Andy Lee and Heath McKenzie

Do Not Open this Book unleashes the power of the reader to change the life of one poor little monster, who as it turns out, just doesn’t want to be turned into a frog. This is a brilliant read-aloud, and the illustrations keep the tension high. More than a little reminiscent of The Monster at the End of this Book, a Sesame Street classic. Best for 4+.

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Don’t Cross the Line! (Gecko Press, $29.99) by Isabel Minho Martins and Bernado P. Carvalho

This superb picture book encapsulates an entire collection of short stories, spurred on by the actions of one dictatorial general, who believes the book and all its pages belongs to him. It’s a book for those kids that love to tell a piece of the story themselves – and those that just love to pore over a complex world of characters.

Fuzzy Doodle (Scholastic, $19) by Melinda Szymanik and Donovan Bixley

Fuzzy Doodle is one of the most creative picture books published in New Zealand this year. Fuzzy grows from page to page, and Bixley’s drawings get wilder and wilder as Fuzzy gorges himself on pencil, ink and paint to grow. Glorious!

Here Comes Mr Postmouse (Scholastic, $29.99) by Marianne Dubuc

Mr Postmouse travels through the different habitats of his friends to deliver their mail in this beautifully illustrated picture book. From the big long snake hut, to the dragon’s cave where Postmouse joins his friend for a sausage lunch (kitted out with a flameproof suit, naturally), to Mr Croc’s swamp, underwater for Octopus and so on, every page is packed with charming detail. Kids as young as 2 will enjoy this gentle tale.

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My Grandpa is a Dinosaur (Puffin, $19) by Richard Fairgray and Terry Jones

Wanda’s grandpa is a dinosaur, and she seems to be the only one who can see it. The humour of this brilliant story of the power the brain has just to shut out the truth occasionally makes it a favourite for me. There’s an edge to this straight-seeming fairytale that will see it endure.

JUNIOR FICTION

Dragon Knight: Joust! and Barbarians! (Scholastic, $12 each) by Kyle Mewburn, illustrated by Donovan Bixley

The final titles in the Dragon Knight series, which started with Fire! in 2014. Action-packed and frequently hilarious, I recommend the full series as a must-read for anyone who likes the Horrible Histories or the tales of King Arthur.

Flying Furballs: Hot Air and Dogfight (Upstart Press, $14.99 each) by Donovan Bixley

This new series from Donovan Bixley (also featured in the Picture Book section above) has the potential to take adventure-book publishing in NZ to the next level. It’s DOGZ vs CATs, with dogs posed as Nazis and Cats the French Resistance. Claude D’Bonair is one of the most heroic characters around, and his offside Syd Fishious isn’t far behind, despite his fondness for food.

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Frankie Potts and the Sparkplug Mysteries and Frankie Potts and the Bikini Burglar (Puffin, $11.99 each) by Juliet Jacka

Another junior fiction double-pack, this is a release that sees Juliet Jacka launching her Frankie Potts series in style. Frankie is a Harriet the Spy-type character, seeking out the mystery in every situation. The first book tells the story of her dog Sparkplug, and the second develops the characters well. Highly recommended for ages 5-9.

Lily Max: Slope, Style, Fashion (Luncheon Sausage Books, $22) by Jane Bloomfield

Lily Max is back, and she’s heading for the hills. Some last-minute alterations to the school-issue ski suit and off she goes. Irrepressible, zany and the most fashion-forward pre-teen you could ever hope to meet, I look forward to more adventures in the future.  Age 9-12.

Rona (Huia, $15) by Chris Szekely and Josh Morgan

Rona is a thoroughly New Zealand heroine. She lives with her grandparents, and is part of a large and wonderful whanau. There are two stories in this book, one based in the spring school holidays, and the other in the run-up to Christmas. These are hugely relatable and comforting stories, perfect to share with a child age 5-9.

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The Sam & Lucy Fables (Submarine, $25) by Alan Bagnall and Sarah Wilkins

This stands out on the shelves as a lovely production. Sam and Lucy are pigs, and have been going around the world putting it to rights. They’ve solved the problem of the bus stops, the man who was exercising without going anywhere, and more. Appeals age 6+.

NON-FICTION

A is for Aotearoa (Puffin, $25) by Diane Newcombe and Melissa Anderson Scott

A lift-the-flap book for older kids, about the geography of New Zealand, by the letter. Each flap gives a clue to where the alphabet has taken us; Some of the clues made me LOL. The illustrations are done in a collage style, and the book is beautifully designed from A to Z. Everybody from 4-10 will enjoy this book.

From Moa to Dinosaurs (Potton & Burton, $29.99) by Gillian Candler & Ned Barraud

A great book to help your kids learn more about our wildlife past and present – all the way back to the dinosaurs. It has an element of pick-a-path, allowing you to choose between following the story or digging deeper into the past, which is certain to appeal to fact-loving 8-12 year olds.

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Maui and Other Maori Legends (Puffin, $40) by Peter Gossage

Gossage’s original edition of Maori Legends formed the basis of my knowledge of Māori mythology. His art is magnificent, and this bind-up of eight of his best illustrated tales is essential for every New Zealander’s library.

Snark (OUP, $59.99) by David Elliott

Lewis Carroll is a genius, and The Hunting of the Snark and Jabberwocky are still in my top few poems ever. David Elliott takes both, and tells the story surrounding the journey to capture the Snark. The illustrations are incredible, and the presentation is just wonderful. This feels like a mission accomplished for David Elliott, in the same way Much Ado about Shakespeare did for Donovan Bixley last year. A book for the whole family to enjoy.

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Spot the Lot (Lonely Planet Kids, $19.99) edited by Lonely Planet

The perfect spotting book to keep your kids entertained while you are travelling. There are things to find on beaches, at skifields, at the train station; everything is ranked from 5 for easy finds to 50 points for more difficult finds. My sons both loved it, and I think it would appeal into the early teens, when the batteries on their new smartphones run low.

YOUNG ADULT

Anna and the Swallow Man (Corgi Books, $21) by Gavriel Savit

This book cast a spell on me when I read it earlier this year. Anna, aged 7, is abandoned by her father in WWII Poland, and is taken under the mysterious wing of the swallow man. Quite unique.

Lungdon (Hot Key Books, $18.99) by Edward Carey

This final book in a magical illustrated YA trilogy. Filth threatens to take over an entire city, and only Clod and his friend Lucy Pennant can prevent it. It has gallows humour and so many perfect lines that it aches. Pick it up and be engrossed.

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The Hate Race (Hachette, 37.99) by Maxine Beneba Clarke

The Jamaican-Australian writer’s biography is probably my favourite book of the year. Her love for her family and friends shines even as she tells a story about racism and bullying. It’s especially important for teenagers to understand the impact words can have, and I’d recommend this for 14+.

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