Here are the year’s best books for younger readers

By Michael Earp

Top children’s books include Meyne Wyatt’s Maku, Felice Arena’s The Unstoppable Flying Flanagan, Rockstar Detectives by Adam Hills and Akwaeke Emezi’s Bitter.

Just because the end of the year is a frenzy of big releases and gift-giving doesn’t mean the first half of the year can’t hold its own in the world of children’s publishing. Indeed, to assume that a child only wants to read a book on their birthday or over the summer holidays is to misunderstand entirely.

Finding the right book to capture their attention can be all it takes, and while there is neither time nor space to tell you about all the amazing releases since January, here are a few of the highlights that really caught our attention.

Junior fiction titles continue to be dominated by fun and silly nonsense. Gustav and Henri by Andy Matthews and illustrated by Peader Thomas (Hardie Grant) marks the beginning of a highly illustrated, incredibly droll series, filled with jokes that had me laughing through time and space. Wife and husband team Laura and Philip Bunting take their juggernaut brand up a notch as they step into chapter books featuring a quirky bunch of Australian animals in The Wild Life Book I: A Berry Long Walk (Scholastic). And Zombie Diaries: Apocalypse Cow by Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes (Hardie Grant) will have readers in hysterics from age seven.

However, it’s not all jokes and silliness for the younger readers, there’s plenty of heart. The brand new Our Stories series from Pan Macmillan Australia channels the first-chapter-book vibe of Aussie Nibbles, showcasing stories from diverse cultures and creators. Maku by Meyne Wyatt and When Granny Came to Stay by Alice Pung and illustrated by Sally Soweol Han are the first two.

Meyne Wyatt has written a book in the new series of chapter books called Our Stories.Credit:Edwina Pickles

PD McPem’s Agency for Mysterious Mysteries: The Recorder Racket by Anna Battese, illustrated by Ruth-Mary Smith (Yellow Brick) is as delightfully whimsical as it sounds. Penelope Delores McPem sees mysteries everywhere. Especially when her recorder goes missing and her grandparents – the only witnesses – are none the wiser.

A new series of young graphic novels by Remy Lai, Surviving the Wild, focuses on true animal stories and environmental issues in Rainbow the Koala and Star the Elephant (Allen & Unwin). Parents and children alike will love the tenacious hope of Moth in a Fancy Cardigan by Charlotte Lance and illustrated by David Booth, AKA Ghostpatrol (Berbay).

Middle grade readers are spoiled for choice! A big new player in Ahn Do’s readership is Wylah the Koorie Warrior: Guardians by Jordan Gould and illustrated by Richard Pritchard (Albert Street). Think Wolf Girl, but an Indigenous warrior superhero. Gabrielle Wang proves why she was named the Australian Children’s Laureate with her gorgeous ode to storytelling and her childhood dog in Zadie Ma and the Dog Who Chased the Moon (Penguin Random House).

Australian Children’s Laureate Gabrielle Wang’s latest book is a gorgeous ode to storytelling and her childhood dog.Credit:Joe Armao

Rescue dogs are also the focus of The Way of Dog by Zana Fraillon illustrated by Sean Buckingham (UQP). A powerful verse novel from the perspective of Scruffity, a shelter dog whose friendship with a boy saves both their lives.

With plenty of sporting reads around, some stand out as holding all the depth and nuance of everyday life such as How to Tackle Your Dreams by Fiona Hardy (Affirm) and the historically set The Unstoppable Flying Flanagan by Felice Arena (PRH).

Mysteries are ever popular. Some that captured my attention with their humour, heart and iconic characters are The Chameleon Thief by Mat Larkin (Hardie Grant), Rockstar Detectives by Adam Hills illustrated by Luna Valentine (PRH) and The Best Liars in Riverview by Lin Thompson (Text).

Fiona Hardy’s book stands out for holding all the depth and nuance of everyday life.

However, if you wanted to add an extra layer of magic and monsters to your mystery, then you can’t go past the cryptozoology of Xenoflight by Nean McKenzie (Midnight Sun) or the Frankensteinian mayhem of Prometheus High 1: How To Make A Monster by Stuart Wilson (PRH). Combining magic with a large helping of heart, Big Magic by Sarah Armstrong (Hardie Grant) is sure to satisfy fans of all sorts of genres.

Teenagers are often looking at the world and wondering what it is they’re going to inherit. Which is probably why we’re seeing incredible publishing such as: Unlimited Futures: Speculative, Visionary Blak+Black Fiction edited by Rafeif Ismail & Ellen van Neerven (Fremantle) and This All Come Back Now: An Anthology of First Nations Speculative Fiction edited by Mykaela Saunders (PRH). These collections speak to where we’re headed, while looking back on where we’ve come from. Upper high schoolers and adults alike will love them.

The Greatest Thing by Perth-based Sarah Winifred Searle (A&U) is a jam-packed and heartfelt graphic novel about coming of age, identity and friendship, and it’s perfect for readers 14+ who have graduated from Raina Telgemeier. My Spare Heart by Jared Thomas (A&U) offers a hopeful resource for teens (and those in their lives) who have an alcoholic parent. It’s spot on in how honest, yet sensitive it is.

An eagerly anticipated prequel, Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi (Faber & Faber), is an incredible companion to Pet, one of my favourite young adult novels. Speaking of favourites, the award-winning Marlee Jane Ward’s The Orphancorp Trilogy (Brio Books) has been released as a bind-up. The three novellas fit perfectly into one non-stop dystopian action adventure for 15+.

Fantasy readers are not to be disappointed, either. Two debuts from Melbourne-based authors have dominated the Australian Young Adult book buzz. We Who Hunt the Hollow by Kate Murray (Hardie Grant) and Only a Monster by Vanessa Len (A&U) are sure to please ravenous readers from 12 and up.

Michael Earp is manager of The Little Bookroom children’s bookshop.

The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers from books editor Jason Steger. Get it delivered every Friday.

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