If this is your first dip into our countdown of the 100 best books of the decade, I highly recommend taking a peek at our other picks too. We’ve got the best of Young Adult, non-fiction, crime/thrillers and sci-fi/horror. But for a complete change of tone, this week’s list is one of our best literature resources – children’s fiction.
It’s not just a simpler style of story-telling, or even something you can grow out of. The stories told to children can form the minds of tomorrow, can begin to build a world we want to see while reflecting the one we currently live in, and will stay with their readers for a lifetime. Even as an adult, the best lessons I’ve learned have been found in the pages of a children’s book.
Below you will find ten of the best from the past decade; all award-winning and bestselling stories of children being brave, kind and, most importantly, themselves. I am very sad we were only allowed to talk about ten, but the ones chosen are truly excellent and essential to any bookshelf. Please buy them all for your favourite mini-humans (or just keep them all for yourself).
1. Wonder by R. J. Palacio (2012)
This is one of my all-time favourite children’s books. It’s beautifully written, told by several distinct voices that you want to hear more from.
Humans are terrible at accepting anything even slightly different to us, and we can pass this perception onto the next generation without meaning to. For people who have disabilities and differences, it’s normal to experience stares, rude comments and obvious discomfort from others just from their presence in public. This is certainly something Wonder’s protagonist, August, faces, even more so when he begins school for the first time ever. Through his journey of forging friendships, facing bullies and learning self-acceptance, we see all the ugliest reactions humans are capable of (and not just from children). But we also see what compassion, friendship and understanding look like, and what a difference they can make in the community around us.
It reached the New York Times Bestseller List, has won several awards including the Junior Young Reader’s Choice Award in 2015, been adapted into a film (with Owen Wilson as Auggie’s father – wow!), and been transformed into an enchanting picture book for younger readers.
2. The Day The Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers (2013)
Before you dismiss picture books as far beneath your reading ability, please read this one. I was definitely one of those children who thought all of my toys were secretly alive, although I’m not sure that included my stationary too. If our crayons could talk, they would probably do a lot of complaining about the pictures they’re forced to draw, as Duncan finds out when his crayon pals send him some grumpy letters.
This New York Times Bestseller and winner of the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Picture Book was author Drew Daywalt’s debut, and her words will leave you laughing no matter how old you are. Illustrator Oliver Jeffers is a picture book pro, and I am obsessed with everything he’s written.
There’s also an even more colourful sequel from this duo called The Day The Crayons Came Home.
3. Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens (2014)
If I said boarding school tales, or mystery-solving children, you might guess an Enid Blyton book is next, but I see your dated ginger beer picnics, and raise you Robin Stevens.
Murder Most Unladylike began life as a NaNoWriMo project, which is National Novel Writing Month for the uninitiated. It happens every November, and as it is currently the month in question, perhaps the next big thing is being penned as we speak (or type, in my case).
Stevens takes all the best bits of Blyton and gives it a hearty dose of sass, humour and murder for good measure. It’s an excellent first book that leaves you craving more adventures from Daisy and Hazel, the founding members of the Wells and Wong Detective Society. After finding their Science Mistress dead, the friends assume there’s been a terrible accident. But when the body goes missing, something more sinister seems to have occurred. Their first step in solving the murder is proving that it actually happened in the first place.
It’s been nominated for the Carnegie Medal, won the 2015 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, along with a bunch of other accolades. Pretty standard at this point on the list. And if you think that is impressive, check out the next seven in the series.
4. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard by Rick Riordan (2015)
Representation is a complex topic, particularly in children’s literature. Some authors argue that not mentioning certain aspects of their characters’ identities in the actual text doesn’t mean they weren’t present. While you can argue it might not be relevant to the story, it could be very relevant to the readers.
Then there’s Rick Riordan. He doesn’t have one gay character added after the fact, or a couple of token black friends floating around. Across his several mythology-based adventure series, he’s included characters from a multitude of different backgrounds – we’re talking representation for different races, religions, gender and sexual identities, and abilities.
The Percy Jackson series, unfortunately published five years too early for this list, came into being because Riordan’s son, who had been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, wanted bedtime stories inspired by Greek mythology. Most of the demigods in Percy Jackson also have ADHD and dyslexia, and are awesome heroes because of it.
Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, which first appeared in 2015, stretches further. Its prominent characters include Muslim Valkyrie Samirah al-Abbas, and Alex Fiero, the gender-fluid child of Loki. Riordan is a fantastic example of a writer using his popularity and platform in a positive way to see that as many children as possible get a ‘they’re like me!’ moment in the midst of an excellent story. The first book of this series, The Sword of Summer, won the Goodreads Choice Award for Middle Grade and Children’s Books in 2015.
5. Beetle Boy by M. G. Leonard (2016)
Beetle Boy is the first tale in M. G. Leonard’s insect-ellent (oh come on, I worked hard on that one) trilogy. Darkus’ father disappears without a trace – could it be connected to his research at the Natural History Museum, or the creepy Lucretia Cutter, or his new beetle friend Baxter?
If you don’t like insects, you might just uncover a new appreciation for them in the pages of Beetle Boy. One of Leonard’s aims was to teach children about the environmental importance of beetles and why we should love them instead of fear them. There’s a very good reason why this book has been licenced to over thirty-seven international territories, and has won and been shortlisted for a whole crate of awards such as the Branford Boase Award for Outstanding First Novel for Children in 2017. Leonard is also working on a TV adaption of her beetle trilogy.
6. Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo (2016)
If I ever have a daughter, this book will sit proudly on her bookshelf. And if I ever have a son, this will also be on his bookshelf, because stories about rebel girls should be told to everyone.
The first volume of this record-breaking crowdfunded masterpiece was published in 2016, and was Kickstarter’s Most Funded Children’s Book, along with being shortlisted for the Waterstones Book of the Year in 2017. Featuring the work of sixty female artists, it tells the true stories of 100 great women both historical and current, from the world of politics, sport, medicine, literature and more.
The fact that this book must be ‘hidden from view’ and can only be sold to adults in shops in Turkey should tell you something of its impact and of its need to be shared. Traditional fairytales are often not excellent for the women involved – all girls deserve role models that show them being female doesn’t mean accepting the way things are. One of the most essential pieces of writing advice is ‘show, don’t tell’. This book doesn’t just tell its audience they can change the world. It doesn’t tell them they are powerful and capable of greatness. You can work out where I’m going with this.
7. The Explorer by Katherine Rundell (2017)
Fred has always wanted to be an explorer, and his dreams unexpectedly come true when the plane he’s in crash-lands in the Amazon jungle. Con, Lila and Max also survive, and together the four children set out to survive, accidentally uncovering a mystery in the heart of the jungle along the way.
Katherine Rundell has been praised highly for her previous novels, and her ability to take her readers into the settings of the stories. The Explorer, which won the Children’s Award at the 2017 Costa Book Awards and was longlisted for The CILIP Carnegie Medal in 2018, is no different – and what setting is more exciting to explore than the Amazon rainforest?
With it currently in danger of irreparable damage, there can be no better time to enrapture children with a love for one of our best and most essential natural resources.
8. Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love (2018)
This is another beautiful example of picture book art. Not only are picture books essential for children developing reading, language, imagination and perception skills, they are often so darn pretty too. And their simplicity can be the perfect place to introduce some really complex ideas to children. There are picture books that speak with sensitivity about death, racial prejudice, divorce, gender identity and so much more.
Winner of the 2019 Stonewall Book Award, Julián is a Mermaid is a gentle tail of self-expression and acceptance, and while it may be light on words, it’s also soaked deep in heart and meaning.
When Julián is on the subway with his Abuela, he sees three beautiful mermaids and wants to be just like them. This is another debut, and hopefully not the last we’ll see of author and illustrator Jessica Love.
9. The Boy At The Back of the Class by Onjali Rauf (2018)
Another crucial topic for our current world is immigration, and this tale delivers an important lesson about it. It’s so easy to look at the figures for people seeking refuge in different countries and completely forget about the individual humans behind those numbers.
The Boy At The Back of the Class is a reminder that each refugee is an individual story, a person deserving kindness and friendship wherever they have travelled from. This is Onjali Rauf’s debut novel, and it’s already won Waterstones Book of the Month for April 2019, along with Overall Winner of the Children’s Book Prize in 2019. Ahmet is new in school, and despite many rumours, nobody really seems to know a lot about him. When a group of friends discover he’s a refugee and has been separated from his family, they decide to do everything they can to help him.
Rauf chose to tell Ahmet’s story through the eyes of one of the children in his new class, which is excellent in allowing all readers to see how they might view someone in the same situation as him. Children are endlessly curious, and a new child who is so notably different from them is bound to fill them with questions, so this book exists partly, in the author’s own words, as ‘an answer to their questions’, and an example of the difference kindness can make.
10. The Truth Pixie by Matt Haig (2018)
For anyone who knows me, there’s a fairly good chance I’ve treated you to at least one rant about Matt Haig. He is the author of many excellent novels and non-fiction books for adults (Notes on a Nervous Planet is rightly featured on our Ten Best Non-Fiction Books list), as well as a fair few stories for tiny humans.
The Truth Pixie is truly delightful, a story all in verse about a poor pixie who can’t help telling the truth in every situation. This makes her feel rather lonely, as most beings don’t appreciate her honesty, until she meets a worried girl desperately in need of some truthful advice.
With charming illustrations by Chris Mould, this Sunday Times Bestseller is perfect for any children facing anxiety, scary circumstances or big life changes.
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