This piece originally appeared in the Irish Independent.
Books make stand out Christmas presents. They are gifts that outlast fad games or toys that need dozens of batteries to keep them chirping. Children are spending increasing amounts of time on screens and books are a way of counteracting that, they feed the soul and ignite the imagination.
It’s important to introduce books early in a child’s life, pop a board book in your baby’s pram, leave them on the floor with your toddler’s toys and always carry a favourite picturebook in your bag to share when you’re delayed in a queue. The greatest gift you can give a child is the gift of reading.
But with bookshop shelves a-groaning with titles, what books should you give them this Christmas? Every year I read hundreds of children’s titles, discovering outstanding picturebook gems and novels so good they make me stop and wonder. I’ve selected my favourite titles in each age group.
If you’re looking for a personal recommendation for your child, check out #bookelves17 on Twitter or Facebook, run by a team of children’s book experts including myself.
Happy reading this Christmas season!
Age 0 to 4
Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins)
Oliver Jeffers wrote this ode to kindness for his baby son, Harland. ‘Well, hello,’ it begins. ‘Welcome to this planet. We call it Earth… It looks big, Earth. But there are lots of us here so be kind.’ He walks the reader through space, land, sea, people, animals and so much more. Each double page spread is carefully designed and majestically coloured, with a sweeping New York city scene, complete with the Brooklyn Bridge (Jeffers lives in Brooklyn), and a spread showing all the different kinds of people who live on our planet. Outstanding, don’t miss it.
Owl Bat Bat Owl by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick (Walker)
If you buy one board book for a tiny tot this season, make it this beauty by an award-winning Irish picturebook maker. The owl family and the bat family share the same branch but they never mix. When a gust of wind blows everyone into the air, things start to change and both families find that having new friends makes life better. There are no words in this book, the expressive illustrations, full of gentle humour tell the story.
The President’s Glasses by Peter Donnelly (Gill Books)
This handsome hardback is beautifully crafted with vibrant illustrations and a cracking story that will make you smile. The President of Ireland (who with his dapper suit, bow tie and glasses bears a striking resemblance) is on his away across Dublin city to sign a very important document but he’s forgotten his glasses. Luckily the President’s pigeon is on hand to save the day. It’s hard to believe this is Donnelly’s first picturebook, it’s full of confidence and visual swagger and would make the perfect present to send to Irish families living around the globe.
Kevin by Rob Biddulph (HarperCollins)
Move over Julia Donaldson, there’s a new picturebook poet in town. ‘This is Sid Gibbons. And this is his mum. And this is the reason they’re looking so glum.’ So begins this tale of one boy and his imaginary friend, Kevin. Written in highly infectious rhyme, Biddulph is also an accomplished artist, and this hardback picturebook is a treat for the eye. The perfect book to read (and re-read over and over) at bedtime.
Oi Cat! By Kes Gray and Jim Field (Hodder Children’s Books)
The third in the hugely popular Oi! series, this bright, lively picturebook combines hilarious rhyme with a whacky story which follows different animals and what they are ‘supposed’ to sit on: the pony on macaroni and dingoes on flamingos. Ideal for reading aloud and bound to make any child laugh.
Yoga Babies by Fearne Cotton and Sheena Dempsey (Andersen Press)
Sheena Dempsey is an award-winning Irish illustrator and her artwork makes this sweet picturebook featuring young children doing different yoga poses come alive. The rhyming text is easy to follow and if there’s a yoga loving mum or dad in the family, this is the perfect book for the whole household. Sheena Dempsey also illustrated Irish author, Jane Landy’s debut, Ginger the Whinger (Golden Key), a rhyming picturebook about an annoying dragon and the family he visits.
Luna Loves Library Day by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers (Andersen Press)
Luna loves library day as she gets to spend time with her dad. Together they pick books about dinosaurs, mini monsters and magic for Luna to take home. They also read fairy tales together, Luna snuggled on her dad’s knee. An ode to different kinds of families, with lyrical text and richly coloured, warm illustrations.
A Busy Day for Birds by Lucy Cousins (Walker)
A joyful whirlwind of a book about birds of all shapes and sizes which begs to be shared with young eyes. The jaunty rhyming text is brought vividly alive by the outstanding illustrations which zing with delicious colour.
Age 5 to 8
Rabbit and Bear: The Pest in the Nest by Julian Gough, illustrated by Jim Field (Hodder Children’s Books)
Rabbit is having a ‘lovely sleep’ when a terrible noise wakes him. He discovers a woodpecker banging holes in a nearby tree and, buzzing with anger, he ropes in his friend, Bear, to deal with the disturbance. Bear is a kind, clever fellow who manages to find a happy solution for all. ‘Maybe you could just think about the world differently,’ he tells Rabbit. ‘Maybe you could … accept it … Not try to change it.’ With engaging illustrations by Jim Field, this warm, funny friendship tale has the philosophical wisdom of Winnie the Pooh. An outstanding book that has all the hallmarks of a modern classic.
Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith (Walker Books)
‘From my house I can see the sea… And deep down under that sea, my father is digging for coal.’ I haven’t read such a deeply affecting picturebook in years, it moved me to tears. Set in Canada, it’s the story of a miner’s son, his town and his dad. The pitch perfect text and the outstanding illustrations which play with light and dark, summer sun and coal-seam black, combine to produce a masterpiece. I can’t recommend it highly enough for older children and adults who are looking for something a little different. Age 7+
Safari Pug by Laura James, illustrated by Églantine Ceuelemans (Bloomsbury)
When Pug’s owner, Lady Miranda sets off on safari, in a sedan chair carried by her Running Footmen, she brings Pug with her. But they have to settle for a trip to Animal Adventure Land. Here they have all kinds of fun adventures of their own. Full of gentle humour and cracking illustrations with lots of vibrant green and yellow, this book makes a fantastic read aloud or is perfect for children just starting to read for themselves.
The Clubhouse Mystery by Erika McGann, illustrated by Vince Reid (O’Brien Press)
Irish author, Erika McGann captures the spirit of the Secret Seven in this good natured mystery for young readers. The Bubble Street Gang set up a new clubhouse but someone has discovered its secret location. It’s up to the gang to find out who the interloper is.
There’s a Bug on My Arm That Won’t Let Go by David Mackintosh (HarperCollins Children’s Books)
If you’re looking for a picturebook that combines clever design and illustrations with a cracking story, this is it. David Mackintosh designs Lauren Child’s books and his eye for detail is exceptional. A stink bug has attached itself to a girl’s arm and refuses to let go. But sometimes even bugs need a friend.
Hopscotch in the Sky: Poems for Children by Lucinda Jacob, Illustrated by Lauren O’Neill (Little Island)
‘Every year we get the decorations down from the attic – ooh, look! Remember him!’ This is a charming, accessible collection from one of Ireland’s best poets for children. Jacob covers all kinds of topics from friendship to school and her work cries out to be read aloud. The classy, expressive illustrations by Lauren O’Neill make this a pocket treasure. Age 7+
Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of The Wizard of Oz by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark (HarperCollins)
‘I was lying right there, deep in my dreams in this very basket, when I was woken up by the sound of wind roaring.’ The narrator of this clever version of the Wizard of Oz is Dorothy’s dog, Toto, who is telling the story to a basketful of his own puppies. The illustrations are gently coloured, bringing this adventure tale to vivid life for younger readers. Ideal for reading aloud at bedtime or for a young reader to gobble up for themselves.
All Aboard the Discovery Express by Emily Hawkins, Tom Adams and Tom Clohoshy-Cole (Wide Eye Editions)
Train lovers will adore this smash up of mystery story, train facts and history. It’s 1937 and a famous professor is missing. Can you find him using the clues in the book? This interactive, immersive hardback is sumptuously illustrated and produced, with letters to read and over fifty flaps to lift, and will keep a child occupied for hours. If you want to get your youngster off their screen, this is the book to do it. Age 7+
Age 9 to 11
Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll (Faber)
Twelve-year-old Olive and her little brother, Cliff have been evacuated from London to the coast of Devon, much to Olive’s disgust. She wants to help the war effort, not be stuck in the countryside. But when she finds a mysterious note in the pocket of the coat she has borrowed from her sister, who has disappeared, slowly she starts to piece together an important war related mystery. A wonderful book, full of heart, with some cracking characters and a gripping plot. I’ve read lots of World War II books for children and this is one of the best – don’t miss it.
The Explorer by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury)
When a group of children find themselves in the Amazon rainforest after a terrifying plane crash, they come across signs in the jungle that someone or something has been there before. Rundell’s research – she travelled to the Amazon and swam with pink river dolphins – shines out and this is a beautifully written novel, filled with vivid descriptions and plucky, clever children.
And for younger children of age five plus, her illustrated book, One Christmas Wish, illustrated by Emily Sutton is also a must.
The Guggenheim Mystery by Robin Stevens (Penguin)
Ted has a unique way of looking at the world which enables him to work out mysteries and puzzles like no other boy. When his aunt is accused of stealing a priceless painting from the Guggenheim Museum in New York, it’s up to Ted and his sister and cousin to figure out who really stole it. I read this warm, smart book in one sitting, it’s truly gripping. It’s the sequel to The London Eye Mystery by the late Siobhan Dowd but can be read as a stand-alone too.
The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd, illustrated by Levi Pinfold (Walker)
This gem of a book is something very different, magical realism for children with outstanding black and white illustrations by Levi Pinfold. Set during World War II, Emmaline is living in Briar Hill, a hospital for children with TB or ‘stillwaters’ as she calls her condition. When she starts seeing winged horses in the hospital’s mirrors, she is determined to find out where they come from. Shepherd’s writing is flowing and lyrical and this story utterly gripped me from start to finish. Ideal for a thoughtful reader who loves Michael Morpurgo.
Nevermore: The Trials of Morrigan Crow (Orion Children’s Books)
Eleven-year-old Morrigan Crow is a cursed child, blamed for everything bad that happens in her town and destined to die at Eventide. A strange man called Jupiter North whisks her away to Nevermoor, saving her life. But she can only join the Wundrous Society, a place of magic and protection, if she passes four impossible trials. A ‘wunderful’ book, full of imagination, ideal for Harry Potter fans.
The Bookshop Girl by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King (Scholastic)
As a former bookseller, I love novels set in bookshops. This one is the story of Property Jones whose family win the Montgomery’s Book Emporium. They are thrilled and set about running this huge, sprawling bookshop. But something is very wrong in the Emporium and soon their livelihood is in danger. Although Property can’t read – a secret she has kept from her loves ones – she is super smart and works out how to save the emporium. A warm and magical story, ideal for young bookworms.
Sam Hannigan’s Woof Week by Alan Nolan (O’Brien Press)
When animal lover and champion Irish dancer, Sam, gets stuck inside the body of her neighbour’s dog, no-one could predict the consequences. How will she cope with school and take part in an Irish dancing competition when she’s stuck inside a big hairy dog’s body? Nolan has a light touch and this funny book is full of heart. Perfect for David Walliams fans.
Also recommended: Bad Dad by David Walliams; Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Getaway; Hetty Feather’s Christmas by Jacqueline Wilson; The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell; Darkmouth: Hero Rising by Shane Hegarty; Stand by Me by Judi Curtin.
Age 12+ and Young Teen
Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, Illustrated by Giovanni Rigano (Hodder Children’s Books)
At the opening of this graphic novel, Ebo and his brother are in a small rubber dinghy, making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to Italy, hoping to start a new life together in Europe. Colfer cleverly weaves in Ebo’s backstory – from leaving his village alone and crossing the desert to find his brother - telling a tale of bravery and tenacity. Beautifully illustrated by Giovanni Rigano in rich shades of blue (for the sea) and red (for the desert), this is an outstanding book, told with honestly and heart.
The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (David Fickling Books)
Eagerly awaited by fans of Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’, this book is a must for fans of that trilogy and is also an excellent introduction to this richly imagined world for new readers. The hero of The Book of Dust is eleven-year-old Malcolm who works in his parents’ pub and this new book explains how Lyra, the hero of the original books, came to be saved from her enemies and to live at an Oxford college. An immersive, old-fashioned fantasy adventure, full of drama and magic.
Star by Star by Sheena Wilkinson (Little Island)
I read this book in one heady gulp, captivated by its teenager narrator, Stella and her longing to be someone and do something important, something young teens will deeply relate to. Set in 1918, women have recently won the vote and Stella’s mother, a loyal suffragette, has just died from the flu pandemic, before she gets the chance to vote herself. Stella wants to mark her mother’s life in some special way but is frustrated by her small, quiet life. Can she make a different, no matter how small?
The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius (Pushkin)
A joy from start to finish, this book is narrated by the remarkable Sally Jones, an ape with profound insights and ability. Sally and her friend and saviour, Henry Koskela, the ‘Chief’, run a cargo ship and when one of the enterprises goes badly wrong, the Chief is falsely convicted of murder. Against all odds, Sally must fight to clear his name. An adventure tale like no other, a story to get truly lost in.
Satellite by Nick Lake (Hodder)
Pitched as ‘The Martian’ for teenagers, this epic space adventure is gripping. Born on Moon 2 Space Station to an astronaut mother, Leo has never been to Earth. Now he and fellow space baby twins, Orion and Libra are preparing for their first trip home. But their journey has far reaching consequences. A heady blend of science fiction and mystery, written with confidence and verve.
A Dangerous Crossing by Jane Mitchell (Little Island)
Ghalib and his family live in Kobani, a town in Syria near Aleppo. After daily attacks by ISIS his family decide to flee the bombings and travel by minibus to Aleppo where they start the long and arduous walk towards the border with Turkey. Mitchell spent a week volunteering at the Jungle Camp at Calais and her descriptions of the camp ring with authenticity and truth. A striking, honest book with real heart.
Moonrise by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)
Winner of many prestigious awards for her previous young adult novels, Sarah Crossan is one of our most accomplished writers. This book packs a devastating punch. Joe hasn’t seen his brother for ten years. There’s a good reason for this, Ed is on death row. With the execution date set, Joe travels to be with his brother, against everyone’s advice. What he hears and learns will change his life forever. Written in free verse, this compelling, thought-provoking novel is a book I will never forget.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (Walker Books)
When sixteen-year-old Starr’s unarmed best friend, Khalil is murdered in front of her by a US police officer, she’s thrown into turmoil. What she knows could get her killed but is she brave enough to speak out? A powerful and moving novel written with urgency and passion, with some of the most vividly real characters in any YA book I’ve ever read, it’s a must read.
Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan, illustrated by Karen Vaughan (Little Island Books)
A beautifully produced collection of dark, feminist fairy tale retellings with sinuous line drawings by Karen Vaughan. Many of the tales are written in the second person, which is a hard voice to pull off but Sullivan does it with aplomb. From The Frog Prince (‘Doing Well’), to Cinderella (‘Slippershod’), her sinuous, lyrical writing will have you transfixed.
Turtles all the Way Down by John Green (Puffin)
John Green is best known for his previous bestseller, The Fault in Our Stars which was made into a successful movie. This book features a mystery at its heart, missing millionaire, Russell Pickett and the scramble to find him and receive the $100k reward. The story is told by Aza, Holmes, a sixteen-year-old with anxiety. Aza knew Russell’s son, Davies as a child and when they are reunited she falls for him. Although it can be a little slow in places, Green really understands teenagers and Aza is beautifully drawn.
Knock Back by Pauline Burgess (Poolbeg Press)
Don’t be put off by the sombre cover, this is a strong mystery story set in Belfast by an experienced Northern Irish teacher who certainly knows her teens, her main character’s voice is spot on. Ben is determined to uncover a family secret so he gets himself sent to a centre for troubled youth, Knockmore Farm. Here he finds out more than he bargained for.
Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nichols (Andersen Press)
I adored this bright, sparky book with its strong characters and knock out plot. It’s the tale of three young women whose lives are changed by the suffrage movement in England. Each is very different and two of them fall in love (with each other). There’s May, a Quaker and pacifist, factory worker, Nell, and Evelyn, who has a devoted and largely supportive boyfriend, Teddy. Nicholls deftly handles a wide range of topics – empowerment of women, poverty, sexuality – in this warm, wise novel.
Age 0 to 4
William Bee’s Wonderful World of Trains and Boats and Planes (Pavilion)
If the child in your life loves trains, this quirky picturebook is perfect. It’s packed with simple facts and vibrant illustrations that leap off the page.
Lots by Marc Martin (Big Picture Press)
This large format book is a celebration of the wonder of the world, both natural and man-made, from oceans to rainforests, cities to villages. Each vibrantly coloured spread is packed with detail and it’s a book my son and I come back to time after time. Magical. Age 4+
Age 5 to 8
The Variety of Life by Nicola Davies and Lorna Scobie (Hodder Children’s Books)
If your child loves animals, this is the perfect gift, a generously sized hardback featuring all manner of life, from beetles and spiders, fish and whales. The delicious watercolour and ink illustrations by newcomer, Lorna Scobie are a joy to share.
Foclóiropedia by Fatti and John Burke (Gill Books)
The award-winning father/daughter team behind Irelandopedia and Historopedia which have sold over 100,000 copies is back, this time with a romp through the world of the Irish language from arán to zú. Suitable for all levels of Irish, it covers topics like the weather, clothes and sport in glowing colour.
The Boole Sisters by Anne Carroll, illustrated by Derry Dillon (Poolbeg)
If your child is interested in history, this charming story of one remarkable family is ideal. Born in Cork, the Boole sisters went on to become novelists and scientists, defying conventions of the time. Jaunty writing combined with fun illustrations make this a great introduction to women’s history of ‘herstory’. See below for more great ‘herstory’ books.
Age 9 to 12
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo (Particular Books), various illustrators
Originally produced using crowdfunding of more than a million dollars – the most funded original book ever – this illustrated book has become a phenomenon, inspiring dozens of women’s history (or ‘herstory’) books for children. Our own Grace O’Malley is in the mix, along with well-known pioneers and activists such as Helen Keller, Malala, Rosa Parks and many other women who may be new to readers.
Watch out for Good Night Stories 2 in early 2018, plus some Irish ‘herstory’ books from Little Island and O’Brien Press, published to celebrate the centenary of Votes for Women in Ireland.
The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton)
‘For adder is as adder basks.’ A fascinating book of ‘spell-poems’ designed to ‘re-wild the language of children’. The illustrations alone are a work of art. Both Mcfarlane and Morris see nature as strange, beautiful and magical and these lyrical poems and accompanying watercolours are ideal for reading aloud and sharing with children (and adults) who still have wonder in their hearts.
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Saved the World by Rachel Ignotofsky (Wren & Rook)
This striking book brings together fifty women from the world of science, from Marie Curie to Jane Goodall. Although the book is quite text heavy, there are lots of quotes and snippets of information on the pages, and the biographical information never seems overwhelming. What makes the book a real winner is the distinctive design. Each spread has a saturated black background and Ignotofsky uses one bright colour to highlight the women’s portraits and the text.
A Galaxy of Her Own: Amazing Stories of Women in Space by Libby Jackson (Century)
‘The whole universe is out there. And it’s waiting for you.’ This attractive hardback chronicles the lives of the women behind the Apollo space missions, from Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space (June 1963) to Peggy Whitson, who has completed ten moon walks and holds the record for the most days in space by an American astronaut. Jackson is a space expert and the exuberant illustrations by students from the London College of Communication send this fascinating book into orbit.
Sarah Webb is a children’s writer and creative writing teacher. She is also the Children’s Programmer of the ILFD (International Literary Festival Dublin) and her latest book is A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea: Favourite Rhymes from an Irish Childhood, illustrated by Steve McCarthy.