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2018 outstanding children's and YA books

December 6th, 2018 By Services to Schools staff

It’s that time of year where Services to Schools staff reflect on our standout reads from the year that’s been. Read our top picks of children's and young adult (YA) books published in 2018.

The natural world is a strong theme in this year's reads.Photoby Lemuel Butler. Unsplash. License to use

A year of reading — staff picks

The brief was tight — select only the most outstanding reads from books published in 2018 and write a short review. Although we aimed for books published in 2018, a few published at the end of 2017 have also crept onto the list.

Books that received 'standout status' from a number of staff are marked with a star (*).

As is always the case with lists, our one is subjective and no doubt there are many wonderful books not featured here. If you have favourites published this year you'd like to recommend, please note them in a comment on this blog so we can share your favourites too!

Picture books

He Raiona i Roto i ngā Otaota (A Lion in the Meadow — Māori language translation) nā Margaret Mahy, ko ngā whakaahua nā Jenny Williams, he mea whakamāori nā Piripi Walker.
Piripi’s done a great job of keeping close to Margaret Mahy’s style and my children love it.

A House That Once Was by Julie Fogliano and Lane Smith
A brother and sister discover an old abandoned house and wonder who might have lived there. Lovely use of repetition, rhyme, vocabulary, and unexpected sentence construction, along with Lane Smith’s wonderful artwork, make this a quiet gem on reminiscence, memory, and imagination.

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James *
Derrick Barnes describes how a weekly trip to the barbers can boost a boy’s self-esteem. The story commences with a young boy walking into a US barber and then describes his transformation. The story is beautifully portrayed by Gordon James’s oil-based, portraiture-style illustrations. The author’s notes, giving credit to his own childhood barber, are also worth reading.

Dear Donald Trump by Sophie Siers, illustrated by Anne Villeneuve *
Sam thinks he has a solution to sharing his room with his irritating older brother when he sees Trump’s solution to sorting out the border with Mexico. He writes a series of unanswered letters to Mr Trump asking about various issues along the way. Funny and serious, this humorously illustrated picture book explores issues of conflict, living with those who are different to us, and finding constructive solutions.

If I Had a Horse by Gianna Marino
Beautifully illustrated in watercolour with panoramic images, this picture book poetically tells the story of a child’s yearning for a horse, capturing the thrill of stepping beyond boundaries and bravery.

Night Job by Karen Hesse, illustrated by G. Brian Karas
Dad works the night shift and, on Friday nights, his son accompanies him. They commute by motorbike through the dark quiet streets to the school that dad cleans. Finely observed and enchanting, this picture book captures the companionship and affection between father and son.

We Don’t Eat our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins *
Penelope the dinosaur learns a lesson that it is not the ‘done’ thing to eat the other children in her class. Ryan T Higgins’ books are funny, with great illustrations that capture the moment.

You’re Called What? by Kes Gray *
A hilarious tour around the customers at the ‘Ministry of Silly Animal Names’ trying to get their names changed. Even better is that there are photos of all the animals illustrated in the back! Humour and animals — excellent!

Junior fiction

Front Desk by Kelly Yang *
Ten-year-old Mia works the front desk of her immigrant parents’ motel in California. She befriends the guests, navigates school life, and takes on the motel owner. Mia is funny, resourceful, and endearing, and this book would make a great read-aloud.

His Name Was Walter by Emily Rodda
This is a finely crafted 'story within a story', which is beautifully written and reads like a fable.

The Mapmaker’s Race by Eirlys Hunter *
A good old-fashioned 'Famous Five-esque' story with an adventure, no parents, and challenges. Three siblings are off on a race to map a route for a new railway through an uncharted wilderness. They have to contend with food shortages, bears, river crossings, and competing adult teams who don’t play by the rules. An exciting read, beautiful production, and great characters.

The Skylark’s War by Hilary McKay
This is a story of family and friends growing up in England before and during the First World War. Hilary McKay is brilliant at creating memorable and endearing characters.

The Wild Robot Escapes by Peter Brown
This sequel to the brilliant The Wild Robot joins Roz in her quest to find her way back to the island, Brightbill, and her animal friends. Great read-aloud with short punchy chapters and neat, non-threatening themes about the future with artificial intelligence (AI), but always warm and earthy.

YA fiction

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
An atmospheric and compelling tale of magic and mythology set in a vividly created world where racism and ruthlessness rule. Main characters Zélie and Amari, although from opposite backgrounds, team up as they battle to bring back magic and kindness. This is a thrilling read and clearly (hopefully!) the first of a series.

Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo *
Acevedo’s debut is a powerful novel in verse about ‘X’ (Xiomara) finding her path, identity, and voice. This is a coming-of-age tale of teen years and the struggles with family, religion, and school, which won the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Thunderhead by Neal Schusterman
The second book from the Arc of a Scythe series continues the adventures of Scythe Anastasia and her colleagues, trained to harvest individuals in a world where no one can otherwise die. Corruption is rife in the Scythedom, but Anastasia and her colleague Rowan differ greatly on how to deal with this. This is an exciting and challenging sequel with questions on morality, corruption, and the price of utopia. Great cover design for both books so far. Can’t wait for book three and there’s a movie in the works.

Sophisticated picture books

Cicada by Shaun Tan *
Writer, illustrator, and filmmaker Shaun Tan’s latest offering highlights the impact of bullying and isolation on an underappreciated data entry clerk. Tan told The Australian ‘A lot of my stories are about animals invading human spaces, I think it serves as a sort of distorted mirror for ourselves, making us step outside of the narcissistic self-absorption of our species'. This is a sad, but ultimately hopeful, picture book for older readers.

Ruben by Bruce Whatley
Bruce Whatley combines an intriguing narrative with beautifully detailed pencil drawings. Ruben explores themes of friendship, isolation, and freedom.

Graphic novels

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
Beautifully illustrated graphic novel addressing the topical issue of gender fluidity.

Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano *
A heart-wrenching story of a 12-year-old Ghanaian boy who takes the harrowing journey across the Sahara and the Mediterranean to Europe. It's a book that deals with an important 21st-century issue with compassion and insight.

Bolivar by Sean Rubin
Find it, buy and/or borrow it, read it, and share this difficult-to-categorise, beautifully illustrated treasure about a dinosaur going about his business unnoticed in New York.


Moth, An Evolution Story by Isabel Thomas, illustrated by Daniel Egnéus
Lovely pictorial non-fiction book portraying the evolution of the peppered moth.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris *
Stunning illustrations and enchanting language make this ode to the natural world a book to be enjoyed and read aloud, by young and old.


Poems to Live Your Life by Chris Riddell *
A beautiful, evocatively illustrated collection of ‘great’ or classic poems, balanced with modern writers such as Simon Armitage, Nick Cave, and Carol Ann Duffy. Chris Riddell has selected his favourite poems about life. These are collected and arranged into thematic sections that might provide a way of looking or thinking about the poem, for instance ‘Youth’, ‘Imaginings’ and ‘Family’. This would make a fantastic gift book, or a book to share with teens and introduce them to WB Yeats, Wilfred Owen, and Shakespeare snippets, and for fans of Chris Riddell.

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