Books for Christmas

The Best Children's Books 2013 - by Sarah Webb

Share a Book This Christmas
Share a Book This Christmas
From The Dark
From The Dark

I've worked as a children's bookseller, writer and commentator for over twenty years now, and during that time I've been privileged to read over four hundred children's books a year. Every Christmas I do a round up of some of my favourite titles of the year for The Irish Independent. This post is a new version (with extra titles) of that article. And I'd like to thank John Spain at the paper for supporting children's books.I believe that children's books matter. I believe that the right book at the right time can change a child's life. Books help children navigate the world. They engage their imaginations. They help them walk in other children's shoes. The characters children meet in books become friends for ever.

By giving a child a book this Christmas, you are giving them a gift for life. I hope this round up helps you find some new books for the children and teenagers in your life. And who knows, you might even enjoy them too!

 Picture Books (Age 2/3+)


My picture book of the year is The Day the Crayons Quit, written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by the unstoppable Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins, £12.99). When Duncan goes to take out his crayons he finds a bundle of letters instead – letters to him from each colour. They are not happy – Orange complains that he is the real colour of the sun, not Yellow; Beige is tired of playing second fiddle to Brown. A clever, inventive story illustrated with charm and wit by Jeffers, with the help of some of his young friends, using all the crayons in the pack. A brilliant book for sharing.


I also loved Aunt Amelia by Rebecca Cobb (Macmillan, £10.99), a charming tale about a very special aunt, with wonderfully expressive mixed media illustrations; and That is Not a Good Idea by Mo Willems (Walker, £11.99) which pits a dastardly fox against a wide-eyed goose and is illustrated in show-stopping cartoon style, with a nod to silent movies. I must also mention the reissue of the much-loved The Sleeping Giant by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick (Wolfhound, e9.99); and Oscar Wilde’s Stories for Children (O’Brien Press, e14.99) a new edition featuring Charles Robinson’s stunning watercolour and line drawings and beautifully designed by Emma Byrne.

Look out too for Chris Judge’s new Beast book, The Brave Beast, a clever tale with wonderful illustrations and design; and The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by the amazing American artist, Jon Klassen. The brilliantly surreal images by a masterful artist make this book something very special.

 Younger Readers (Age 6/7+)

fortunately the milk
fortunately the milk

This year has seen the resurgence of illustrated books such as my favourite for younger readers of six plus, Fortunately, the Milk . . . by the amazing Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury, £10.99). Mum’s away, Dad’s in charge and there’s no milk – so off he goes to find some, stumbling into all kinds of trouble along the way. There are pirates, aliens, volcano gods and all manner of crazy escapades in this hilarious book. The pen and ink illustrations by Chris Riddell are genius, and watch out for Gaiman himself in a cameo role as ‘Dad’.

Chris Riddell’s own book, Goth Girl (Macmillan, £9.99) is also brilliant for sharing. Ada Goth lives in Ghastly-Gorm Hall with her father, Lord Goth. With lots of clever literary references for parents, this makes a perfect read aloud; and Oliver and the Seawigs (Oxford, £8.99) by the magnificent Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre, is an eccentric adventure story with equally whacky illustrations. (Both age 6+)

Alex T Smith's Claude on the Slopes (Hodder, £4.99) sees Claude (a dog) and his best friend, Sir Bobblysock on the slopes. When an avalanche-shaped disaster strikes, will Claude save the day? Funny, easy to read text and brilliantly stylish illustrations make this one a real winner.

In Milo and One Dead Angry Druid by Mary Arrigan (O’Brien, e7.99) can best buddies, Milo and Shane outwit the dead druid before midnight strikes? Arrigan is an experienced writer for this age group and it shows in her pitch perfect text and her short, snappy chapters. Kevin Stevens’ The Powers (Little Island, e7.99) are not-so-super superheroes who go on holiday to Baltimore. Great cartoon-style illustrations by Sheena Dempsey. (Both age 7+)

Confident Readers (Age 9+)

My favourite novel of the year for readers of 11+ has to be Geek Girl by Holly Smale (HarperCollins, £6.99), shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. Harriet Manners is a super smart girl who loves literature and science. When she’s accidentally talent-spotted by a model agency, can she transform herself from geek to chic? A wonderful book about discovering who you are and overcoming bullying, based on the author’s own experiences. I also adored Darcy Burdock by the irrepressible Laura Dockrill (Red Fox, £5.99). Darcy is a girl who sees the ‘extraordinary in the everyday and the wonder in the world.’ She’s a true original and this book is hilarious, anarchic and also brilliant for reading out loud.

geek girl cover
geek girl cover

Readers of nine plus will adore Judi Curtin’s new book, Eva and the Hidden Diary (O’Brien, e7.99), a charming story about Eva Gordon, who is good at solving problems. When she finds an old diary, written by a girl her own age, she and her friend, Kate are determined to fix old wrongs. They will also love Coco Carmel by Cathy Cassidy (Puffin, e12.99), a beautifully crafted story about family hardships and the power of friendship.

John Boyne’s new novel for children, Stay Where You Are and Then Leave (Doubleday, £12.99) is set in London during World War I and is a moving and uplifting read; and Rebecca Stead won the Guardian Award for Liar and Spy (Andersen Press, £6.99), a clever mystery cum family drama. Georges has to move into a new apartment block where he meets an unusual boy called Safer. But how far should he go for his new friend? And if they haven’t already read it, When You Reach Me by the same author  is a truly wonderful time slip novel set in Ne York. One of my favourite books of the last ten years. (All age 11+)

Derek Landy has two new Skulduggery Pleasant books out this year – Tanith Low in The Maleficent Seven (HarperCollins, £10.99) and Last Stand of Dead Men (HarperCollins, £14.99) (Age 9+). There’s a new Wimpy Kid adventure, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck (Puffin, £12.99); and WARP Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer (Puffin, £12.99) is a clever time-travel adventure. (Age 11+)


And finally for this age group, The Keeper (Little Island, e10.99) is Darragh Martin’s debut novel and it’s a cracking fantasy adventure novel with an Irish flavour; and Alan Early’s Arthur Quinn and the Hell’s Keeper (Mercier, e8.99) is perfect for readers who love myths and legends with a modern twist. (Both age 9+)

 YA (young adult/teen) novels

My favourite YA novel of the year is a tie between The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Penguin, £7.99) which has already been widely reviewed, and Patrick Ness’ More Than This (Walker, £12.99), one of the most original books I’ve read in years; part science fiction, part exploration of love and family, and so much more. In the opening chapter, Seth drowns and wakes up in the suburban English town where he grew up. As he begins to explore his surroundings, slowly things start to make sense. Wickedly clever, utterly convincing, this book is outstanding, don’t miss it. And look out for John Green’s story in the seasonal collection, Let It Snow (Puffin, 7.99).

Back to Blackbrick by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald (Orion, £9.99) is a compelling time shift drama about love and loss featuring Cosmo and his grandad, Kevin who has Alzheimer’s. Published in January, it’s a book that has stayed with me all year. Inspired by Anna Carey’s time as a singer in the band El Diablo, her new book, Rebecca Rocks (O’Brien Press e7.99) is a charming, uplifting story for young teenagers dealing with bullying, friendship and teen sexuality. I also liked Improper Order by Deirdre Sullivan (Little Island, e7.99), a quirky story about Primrose Leary. Sullivan teen voice is pitch perfect.

more than this
more than this

And finally to Russian Roulette by Anthony Horowitz (Walker Books, £14.99) which features a young assassin, Yassen Gregorovich who has been dispatched to kill Alex Rider. If you’ve ever wondered how a killer is created, read Yassen’s story. It’s quite simply one of the best teen spy thrillers I’ve ever read.

Other books I loved this year:

Picture Books

Journey by Aaron Becker

A story about a lonely child in a busy world and the power of the imagination, told in pictures. It's powerful stuff and the illustrations are sublime. (All ages)


Image from Journey


After Iris by Natasha Farrant

I met Natasha at Bath Children's Book Festival - and she's as interesting as her book. A touching and beautifully written book and family and loss. (Age 11+)

Rat Runners by Oisin McGann

An action packed novel set in London of the future. A great thriller for teens.

Heroic by Phil Earle

A brilliant story about two brothers, Jammy and Sonny. One is a soldier in Afghanistan, one has been left behind. Gritty, smart, moving, it's well worth reading.

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

A thought-provoking, fast moving sci-fi novel for teens.

Sarah Webb is a writer for both children and adults. Her latest book for children is Ask Amy Green: Wedding Belles. She also reviews children’s books for The Irish Independent and Inis magazine. @sarahwebbishere

The Top 20 - My Children's Books of the Year 2011

It's that time of the year again! I'm currently writing my piece on children's books for Christmas for the Irish Independent which will be published in early December, but here is a longer version, in which I've included all my favourite books of the year. Hope you enjoy it. Do let me know which books you loved in 2011. And thank you for reading my blog. I love writing it and I will continue to share my thoughts on books and writing in 2012.

Yours in writing,

Sarah X

Picture Books 

Stuck by Oliver Jeffers, HarperCollins

A hardback picture book with stand out illustrations from the wonderful Oliver Jeffers. When Floyd’s kite gets stuck up a tree he throws up his shoe know it down, but that gets stuck too, along with a pot of paint, a ladder, the kitchen sink a whale and many other amazing things. 

 The Lonely Beast by Chris Judge, Andersen Press

Winner of the Junior Category in the Irish Book Awards, this is a fantastic book with stunning, beautifully coloured art work. When a beast gets lonely, he goes on a quest to find new friends with surprising results.

Picture Book of the Year:

Marshall Armstrong is New to This School by David Mackintosh, HarperCollins

Strong artwork, lyrical writing and exceptional design combine to make this a picture book in a million. Marshall is not like other boys, but soon the young narrator begins to realise that this is not altogether a bad thing. Brave and highly original, my picture book of the year.

 It’s a Book by Lane Smith, Macmillan

A great book about, well, books! Simple artwork and witty text.

Sally Go Round the Stars: Rhymes from an Irish Childhood by Sarah Webb and Claire Ranson, illustrated by Steve McCarthy, O’Brien Press  

Yes, it’s one of mine, but I’ve really included it for the artwork. Steve’s illustrations are stellar – warm, funny, touching and very clever indeed. A talent to watch out for in the future!

 Books for Younger Readers 

Marco Moves In by Gerry Boland, illustrated by Aine McGuinness, O’Brien Press

A sweet, warm book featuring the friendship between a young boy, Patrick, and Marco, a grizzly bear who appears on his doorstep one day. Original and highly readable, it would also make a great read aloud.

Penny Dreadful is a Magnet for Disaster by Jo Nadin, Oxford University Press

Laugh out loud funny, this clever, mischief prone character is Horrid Henry with bells on!

Gangsta Granny by David Walliams, Harpercollins

A very funny book, with great illustrations by Quentin Blake. Ideal for Wimpy/Mr Gum/ Horrid Henry fans.

Books for Confident Readers

Skulduggery Pleasant: Death Bringer by Derek Landy, HarperCollins

Derek Landy is a world class writer and this fantasy-horror adventure about a skeleton detective and his teenage side kick is a hilarious, rip roaring read. It’s book six in the series, so if your young reader isn’t a fan yet (and they will be!), best to start at book one.

 Eva’s Holidayby Judi Curtin, O’Brien Press

Curtin has a deliciously warm touch and this book is perfect for girls of 8+. Eva loves fashion and hanging out with her friends, so when she has to spend the whole summer in a cottage down the country, she’s not happy. But soon she finds out that there’s more to life than clothes and having the right friends. Highly recommended.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever by Jeff Kinney, Puffin

I love Greg Heffley and his family. Hilarious!

Spirit of the Titanic by Nicola Pierce, O’Brien Press

A beautifully written and highly original book about the ghost of a boy who is killed while building the Titanic. Recommended.

 Novel of the Year for Age 9+:


When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, Andersen

I LOVE this wonderful book. Part time-travel novel, part family and friendship drama, it’s original, compelling and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s set in New York too, and I love books set in NYC. David Maybury also recommended it in his round up in the Irish Times this week. It's a cracking read. Please give it to every child you know for Christmas!

Marshmallow Skye by Cathy Cassidy, Puffin

Another cracking, warm read from Cathy.  

 Books for Teens

YA Novel of the Year:

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness,Walker Books

I also LOVE this book. It made me cry, a lot. It’s sad, gripping and at times almost unbearable to read. It’s about a boy whose mum is dying of cancer. A monster starts to visit him every night in the form of the yew tree in the back garden. Exceptional illustrations. Read it!

 Flick by Geraldine Meade, Little Island

A wonderfully honest coming of age story about a gay teenager called Flick (Felicity), by a debut Irish author.

 A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle, Scholastic

Unusual ghost story about four generations of women who go on a road trip. Beautifully written and very touching.

Angel Kiss by Laura Jane Cassidy, PuffinIreland

Excellent family/romance drama with a supernatural twist.

The Real Rebecca by Anna Carey, O’Brien Press

Funny, sweet story about Irish teen, Rebecca and her embarrassing mother. Won the Senior Children’s Category at the Irish Book Awards. 

 And By the Way by Denise Deegan, Hachette

Strong drama set in Dublin by an experienced Irish writer. Funny and touching, with a great teen voice.

 Bruised by Siobhan Parkinson, Hachette

Gritty teen drama by an award winning Irish author and the current Children’s Laureate.

Another Brilliant YA Novel:


Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, Speak (Penguin USA)

One of the best YA novels I've read in years. It came out in 2010 so it's not strictly new, but I only read it this year and it rocks, big time. If you have a son or daughter of 15+, or you yourself are looking for a funny, touching, gritty read about the most honest and most odd teenagers you're every likely to meet, this is the book for you. I found it on It is truly wonderful.