Melanie McDonagh Melanie McDonagh

Children’s books for all ages: the best of 2021

There’s a marked return to early history, with tales of Roman Britain, the Vikings, King Arthur, and the Norman conquest

Beautifully drawn and slightly creepy: an illustration by Chris Riddell from Arthur, The Always King by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Walker Books, £20).

She’s done it again: J.K. Rowling has written a captivating children’s book. The Christmas Pig (Little Brown, £20) is about a toy pig, Dur Pig (DP for short), a boy called Jack and what happens when DP gets chucked out of a car and is replaced with an unwelcome Christmas Pig. It’s also about how horrible divorce is for children, what happens to lost things and how the least prepossessing creatures can show courage and self-sacrifice. It’s also a rattling adventure story about Jack and the Christmas Pig’s progress across the Land of the Lost, pursued by a scary ogre called the Loser. It takes place on Christmas Eve, ‘a night for miracles and lost causes’, and is much more Christmassy than any of the festive books about Santa’s lost elves and underperforming reindeer which bring out the Herod in so many of us.

It’s customary nowadays to categorise children’s books by age range, but it’s hard to know how you’d bracket Fish for Supper by M.B. Goffstein, a welcome reprint from The New York Review Children’s Collection (£13.99) of her 1976 story about a grandmother who gets up at five in the morning to go fishing, catches ‘sunfish, crappies, perch and sometimes a big northern pike’ and then goes home to clean the fish, take fresh rolls from the oven and put on hot water for tea. Finally, she ‘sat down and ate very carefully, taking care not to choke on a bone’. It’s simplicity itself, both the spare prose and the spare line drawings, and is brilliant.

One picture book that made me laugh is Bad Apple by Hew Lewis Jones and Ben Sanders (Thames & Hudson, £11.99) about ‘a nasty piece of fruit’ who torments everyone, but makes a mistake when he eats Snake’s cake. Ben Sanders’s bold illustrations are naive and subversive.

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