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Best children’s and teens books of 2020

Imogen Russell Williams
·5-min read

This painful year has produced some inspiring books full of poetry, adventure, powerful emotion and consoling humour. Oliver Jeffers’s newly released picture book, What We’ll Build (HarperCollins), follows a father and small daughter as they construct both a house to live in and a shared future. They’ll build a wall to keep enemies out, but also a gate to let people in – and set some love aside for later, on the shelf. Jeffers’s characteristic soaring spaces, colourful detail and quiet joy may induce suspicious wobbling in the adult reader’s voice.

In more down-to-earth vein, from earlier in the autumn, Jill Murphy’s Just One of Those Days (Macmillan) features the beloved Bear family on a day fraught with mishaps – spilled coffee, squashed glasses, nursery quarrels – followed by consolatory shared pizza and the reflection that it was, after all, just one of those days. Murphy’s acute observation of family life continues to delight both children and adults.

The eponymous star of Julian Is a Mermaid returns in Jessica Love’s Julian at the Wedding (Walker), strutting his lilac-suited stuff at the marriage of two gorgeous brides and contriving willow-frond wings for his mud-spattered cousin. “A wedding is a party for love,” asserts this beautiful book; and love, acceptance and imaginative bliss breathe off every intricate, rapturous page.

For five-plus, an animal poem for every day of the year fills the spectacular Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright! (Nosy Crow), chosen by Fiona Waters and illustrated with dreamy richness by Britta Teckentrup. From Ogden Nash to Grace Nichols, butterflies to yaks, there’s a poem here to please everyone.

Back in the spring, Serena Patel’s Anisha, Accidental Detective (Usborne) starred a determined heroine with an ebullient Indian family. Anisha is dreading being Auntie Bindi’s bridesmaid, but when the groom-to-be is kidnapped, it’s up to her to find him – with help from best friend, Milo, and indomitable Granny Jas. Patel’s astute characterisation and irresistible humour are heightened by Emma McCann’s illustrations.

Readers of eight-plus were returned to the world of His Dark Materials in Philip Pullman’s Serpentine (Penguin), a slim novella enriched by Tom Duxbury’s linocut-inspired images. After the events of The Amber Spyglass, Lyra and Pan return to the north to visit the Witches’ Consul – but what will they discover? Short but wintry-sweet, it’s sure to please Lyra’s legion of fans.

More winter fantasy has just appeared from Ross Montgomery in The Midnight Guardians (Walker). After losing his dad, Col is evacuated to Aunt Claire’s – but he’s desperate to be with his sister Rose, still working in blitz-torn London. When his imaginary friends – the gallant King of Rogues, Mr Noakes the badger and the size-changing tiger Pendlebury – manifest to inform him of a deadly struggle between the Green Man and the Midwinter King, he and Ruth, a brave Kindertransport refugee, must make their way towards London in a terrifying race against time. Montgomery’s latest is an enthralling, Narnia-flavoured novel with the folkloric feel of a Christmas classic

Edited by Katherine Rundell, and featuring work from stellar authors and illustrators including Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Jasbinder Bilan, Sarah Crossan and a host of others, The Book of Hopes (Bloomsbury), was first published online during lockdown and is now a handsome hardback full of treats. With its sprightly poems and pictures, fairytales and furry friends, it’s the perfect place to take shelter when the outside world feels dark and overwhelming.

In nonfiction, David Olusoga’s authoritative text has been condensed for children in Black and British: A Short, Essential History (Macmillan). It ranges from the first Africans to come to Britain to the shameful Windrush scandal, and takes in the industrial revolution, cotton grown on slave plantations and the black soldiers who fought for Britain in the first world war. Olusoga’s book conveys with calm clarity why all British children should be taught black history.

For teenagers, summer brought us Patrice Lawrence’s Eight Pieces of Silva (Hachette), a contemporary thriller full of deft characterisation and pinpoint-believable detail. When Becks’s new stepsister Silva vanishes while their parents are on honeymoon, Becks braves Silva’s room to discover the first of eight clues to her whereabouts. But Silva is on a quest of her own … Inclusive, funny, punchy and unique, Lawrence’s writing remains unique.

Hot off the press, Sally Nicholls’s The Silent Stars Go By (Andersen) is set in a Yorkshire village at Christmas in 1919. When her fiance Harry was reported missing, 16-year-old Margot was carrying his child. Two years later, when Harry returns, little James is being brought up as Margot’s brother. How can Margot explain to Harry – and can they forgive one another? Nuanced and evocative, this delectable novel is bittersweet perfection.

Finally, The Wolf Road (Everything With Books), Richard Lambert’s sombre, stark and captivating debut novel, follows Lucas, sole survivor of the car accident that killed his parents, as he adapts to life with his remote grandmother – and becomes increasingly obsessed with the wolf that caused the accident. A writer to watch, Lambert’s award-winning poetic pedigree stands out in the sparse, gut-punch power of his language.

Browse the best books of 2020 at the Guardian Bookshop.