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Our best children's and YA books for 2020

December 2nd, 2020, By Services to Schools staff

In such a tumultuous year, it's been a simple and reassuring joy to see the steady flow of captivating, fun, moving, challenging, and beautiful books arrive for us to send to students around New Zealand.

Here's a round-up of Services to School staff picks of the best children's and young adult (YA) books published in 2020.

Some of Services to Schools staff's favourite books published in 2020 displayed on a book stand.
Some of our staff's favourite children's and YA books published this year.

Picture books

An Ordinary Day by Elana K. Arnold, illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic, Beach Lane Books
On an ordinary street, in houses side by side, a doctor arrives at one house and a vet to the other. In one house, a baby is born and welcomed into a family. In the other house, a dog is farewelled as it dies surrounded by its family. A beautiful way to explore life and death.

I Am the Universe by Vasanti Unka, Puffin Books
A vivid picture book that takes us from far-away galaxies, past the sun and planets, through the layers of the atmosphere until you are on Earth, in a town, in a bedroom looking out at the stars. Poetic text along with information, and glorious illustration with dense darkness and luminous colours.

If You Come to Earth by Sophie Blackall, Chronicle Books
As a companion to Oliver Jeffers’ picture book Here We Are, this is an explanation of how our world works – this time to a visiting alien rather than a new baby. But it celebrates the same wonder, diversity, and infinite variety of nature, people, landscape, and society. A particularly lovely page is the one that illustrates, 'It’s better when we help each other', showing a library. The author’s note at the back of the book describes the book’s genesis and concludes, 'We are all here on this beautiful planet. It’s the only one we have so we should take care of it. And each other. Don’t you think?'. A perfect read-aloud.

Magic Mistakes by Belinda Blecher, illustrated by Lisa Allen, IP Kidz
Frankie Lane is the perfect child. She likes to draw ducks and does so very well. When asked to draw something quite different, she is very unhappy at the thought she may make a mistake, and the drawing won't be perfect. A great story to encourage a growth mindset and to step out of your comfort zone.

The Little War Cat by Hiba Noor Khan, illustrated by Laura Chamberlain, Macmillan Children's Books
A little grey cat is lost and lonely in war-torn Aleppo. She eventually finds shelter with a kind man who has created a shelter for cats. The Little War Cat is based on the true story of The Cat Man of Aleppo who created a sanctuary for cats amid the devastation of the city. This is an enchanting story, with adorable and expressive illustrations.

Three by Stephen Michael King, Scholastic Press
Three is a roaming, three-legged dog who finds a home in the countryside with Fern and her family. Stephen Michael King’s illustrations are expressive and charming, and the story works well as a read-aloud. Three was a Notable Book in the 2020 Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Awards.

Junior fiction

Across the Risen Sea by Bren MacDibble, Allen & Unwin
From the author of How to Bee and Dogrunner. Jump into this brilliant adventure in a climate-change world with Neoma and her quest to rescue Jag and save her village. Detailed characters, setting, action, and subtle commentary on ‘living a gentle life’ and being connected to land and nature rather than technology. Perfect to read aloud to years 6–8.

Boy Giant: Son of Gulliver by Michael Morpurgo, HarperCollins Children's Books
Boy Giant was inspired by Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Morpurgo has successfully transformed this classic into a new tale of adventure. There are lots of funny bits to entertain the reader, but the story also explores themes of acceptance, belonging, and prejudice. The illustrations by Michael Foreman are endearing and capture the magic of this wonderful story.

Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature From the Sea by Tania Roxborogh, Huia Publishers (Intermediate/YA)
Thirteen-year-old Charlie has a complicated family and a prosthetic leg. Down at the beach with his brother, he finds a mermaid-like creature. When wild storms begin, he has to use his singing talent to negotiate with Māori gods who're having a major battle over ocean pollution. Dramatic with dynamic personalities and awesome storytelling.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks, Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
A fantastic middle-grade story that deals with racial injustice in a child-friendly way. Zoe has a lot going on, juggling secretly writing to her incarcerated father, a bakery internship, and a friendship breakdown. Themes of family, morals, grit, and wrongful imprisonment are perfectly woven together.

Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker, Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
A heart-warming book about friendship, growing up and affirming identity, being an artist, and making the world a better place. Eleven-year-old Ware is supposed to spend the summer at a daycare centre. But instead, he finds a new world next door with another 'misfit' child who's creating a garden in the grounds of a broken-down old church due for demolition. This would make a great read-aloud for upper primary/intermediate.

The Little Wave by Pip Harry, University of Queensland Press
This lovely novel in verse follows three students in Australia. Noah and Lottie live in Manly, and Jack lives in a drought-stricken country town. The school in Manly is hosting the students from the country town on a visit to the city and to experience the sea and surf. The students take turns in telling the story and the reader gets to know them and their loves, fears, and struggles.

The Next Great Jane by K.L Going, Dial Books for Young Readers
The story of an enthusiastic writer, Jane Brannen, who wants to be the next Jane Austen. She's outraged when shut out of a writer’s visit to the town library because she's a child. She climbs a tree to find a way into the venue and is ‘rescued’ by the visiting author's son, Devon, to whom she takes an instant dislike. Imagine her despair when she discovers the writer is moving to her small town and this boy will be in her class at school.

The Tunnel of Dreams by Bernard Beckett, Text Publishing
A gripping fantasy, with ideas as original and engaging as children classics Under the Mountain and Peter Pan. It opens with two 12-year-old twin boys who investigate a flickering light, late at night, inside an abandoned house. They find a homeless girl whose twin sister was kidnapped. The boys agree to help save the missing twin. They go into a parallel world full of magic where animals talk, children fly, and tunnels breathe. The children in the story are wonderfully characterised. Most enjoyable of all, the two twin boys are sensitive, brave, and kind. It’s an enchanting story and an absolute must-read.

Graphic novels

Snapdragon by Kat Leyh, First Second, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press (Intermediate/YA)
A wonderfully diverse graphic novel about a young girl, Snap, who lives in a town where there's a witch. But perhaps this witch is not all she seems, maybe she's misunderstood? Snap discovers the humanity behind the mysterious woman. She discovers there's magic to be found, and acceptance of the different ways we think of ourselves and where we fit in the world. Snap and her friend Lulu are irresistible characters. And the family connections feel beautiful. The pages of this graphic novel are also beautifully drawn — they're a joy to look at and read. This is a treasure for any library, it's so inclusive — not in a preachy way but in a warm embrace.

The Inkberg Enigma by Jonathan King, Gecko Press (Intermediate/YA)
The author is a local writer and filmmaker, whose debut feature Black Sheep is still one of New Zealand’s biggest-selling feature films. The book features two gutsy, curious, and realistic kids. Miro, home for the school holidays, is on a quest to get money to collect the whole of an antique series. Zia, the new girl in their small fishing town, swoops Miro off into a world of adventure. They see something they shouldn't and the bad guys aren't impressed. Things escalate and they find themselves trying to solve a mystery that has been a terrible secret for many years. The book has everything — a beautifully drawn mayor who's like a Stephen King bad-guy, a creepy castle-like house on the hill with a mysterious old lady, henchmen, angry fishermen, an oblivious dad, and a girl who's largely unsupervised. Loads of fun.

Young adult (YA)

Burn by Patrick Ness, Walker Books
This is a return to form for Patrick Ness and an exciting and tense read. Set in Washington State in the 1950s, racism and homophobia are rampant. Sarah's dad has just hired a dragon to help clear paddocks of rocks and trees on the farm. While there's a truce between dragons and humans, Sarah's dad is clear she's not to get close to or friendly with the dragon. However, the dragon knows Sarah's secret and they begin to talk. At the other end of the country, a young man starts a journey north to kill Sarah. En route, he meets another young man who'll change his life and the future. There's a lot of love in this book — for parents, other people, dragons, and for humanity. There's also a lot of hate — for those who are different from ourselves, who we are suspicious of, and for those we don't understand. It's this balance that makes Burn's story so good.

Mission Girl by Fleur Beale, Scholastic Press (Intermediate/YA)
Mission Girl was first published in 2010 as A New Song in the Land. It's the story of a young high born Māori girl named Atapo who is taken prisoner during a conflict with another iwi. Set in the Bay of Islands around the time of the signing of Te Tiriti, the text is written partly as a narrative then in diary format after Atapo learns to read and write at a mission school. This is an easily accessible text for young adult readers that successfully explores the important theme of identity. In his foreword, Buddy Mikaere writes:

We need stories that tell our shared story — the story of our beginnings as a nation. We need stories about our past to be told in a way that our future — our young people — can understand and identify with them.

The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff, Bloomsbury Young Adult (Senior YA)
Beautifully crafted YA story of a quirky, extended family hosting two older teen boys at their summer house. The mystery unfolds at a tantalising pace as the family succumbs to one of the boys’ irresistible charm. Great summer read.

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, Scholastic Press
A captivating novel of acceptance and striving for your dreams in the face of adversity. Readers join Liz on her mission to become the first black, queer prom queen in her small town, through plenty of trials, determination, and feel-good vibes.


Seagull Seagull by James K Baxter, illustrated by Kieran Rynhart, Gecko Press
A selection of poems for children by James K Baxter taken from The Tree House, published in 1974. These poems were written by Baxter in the early 1950s while he was a teacher at Epuni School in Lower Hutt. Beautifully illustrated by Kieran Rynhart, the book is filled with evocative images of the time and complement Baxter’s prose wonderfully, 'Swing, swing, swing. Swinging wide and high — if you swing high enough your feet will touch the sky'.

The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane, illustrated by Jackie Morris, Hamish Hamilton
The Lost Spells is the ‘little sister’ of the beautiful homage to nature and language, The Lost Words In The Lost Spells, Morris's exquisite watercolours of British wildlife weave among the poetic spells which are created to be spoken aloud. New Zealand children (and adults) will enjoy the familiar and unfamiliar creatures and plants, the lyrical poems, tongue twisters, and charms:

To enchant means both to make magic and to sing out. So let these spells ring far and wide; speak their words and see their art, let the wild world into your eyes, your voice, your heart.


Birds of New Zealand: Collective Nouns, Ngā Manu o Aotearoa: Ngā Kupuingoa Tōpū by Melissa Boardman, HarperCollins
He whētētē pukeko! A gawky of pukeko! Aren’t they just so gawky, and isn’t it the perfect collective noun for them? And how great is it to have a bilingual book of collective nouns for New Zealand Birds? He manawarū tūī — an ecstasy of tūī. Oh yes! Beautifully illustrated in muted colours, this book is an absolute gem.

Te Kuia Moko: The Last Tattooed Maori Women by Harry Sangl, Oratia Books
Reproduced unchanged from the original version published in 1980, this is an extraordinary record of one aspect of the art of tā moko. In the 1970s, artist Harry Sangl embarked on a journey around Aotearoa to find and paint as many kuia with moko kauae as he could find. Over three and a half years he met 34 women and recorded their moko as well as some recollections of their eventful lives. Along with Michael King’s book Moko and the photographs of Marti Friedlander, this book is an important and beautiful historical record of not only the kuia Sangl represents but the art of tā moko too.

Stamped: Racism, Anti Racism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibrim X Kendi, Little, Brown and Company
Stamped is a spinoff from Kendi’s non-fiction, National Book Award winner, Stamped from the Beginning. The book is a history of racism and slavery that's engaging and real, and a must-read if you want to better understand the Black Lives Matter movement. Although written so American teenagers will know their history, it's a book that will work for anyone. There is power in the words in this book — the power to inspire people to make change, to adjust attitudes.

Sophisticated picture books

I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James, Nancy Paulsen Books
This joyful and affirming picture book is for everyone and all ages. Narrated by a young black boy, the book uses colourful and energetic illustrations to celebrate the incredible value, character, and potential within each child. It concludes with the empowering message that all are, 'without a shadow of a doubt, worthy to be loved'.

Rona Moon by Tim Tipene, illustrated by Theresa Reihana, translated by Stephanie Huriana Fong, Oratia Books
Fresh, contemporary drawings bring this retelling of the myth of Rona and the moon to life. Rona’s anger is her trademark, and she is warned to change her ways or she will be carried away to the moon. Tipene makes his point with gentle humour and believable dialogue from a te ao Māori point of view. Bilingual text — Māori and English.

Window by Marion Arbona, Kids Can Press
An interactive, wordless picture book that features the power of a little girl’s imagination. As she walks home, she conjures the fantastic worlds she imagines must live behind each window she passes. The reader is drawn in as each window unfolds. Beautifully illustrated in pen and ink, the images have an edgy feel. They culminate in the final scene of her window, which opens to her world — a room full of the familiar items that have fed her imagination.

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