When I started this blog, I set myself a challenge – 12 books to read in 12 months across my maternity leave. In April 2021 this challenge was completed with success! It has been a thoroughly enjoyable task and one that has brought me to a new book-reading community.
I set out to read books that were aimed at the early years – four/five upwards – as well as the later reading age of around 10 upwards. I have attempted to link book choices to the changing of the seasons, and seasonal events, such as Halloween and Christmas, as well as offer a mix of reading options from different time periods, ranging from Victorian through to the post-war period and 21st century.
To celebrate this 12 month milestone, I have chosen six of our favourite reads across the year – three from the early years (picture books) and three from the later reading years. I hope these recommendations are useful and that you will join me in the next 12 months, where you can check-in with the book choice each month here or over on Instagram, where I also post book baskets that offer a wider range of reading alongside a particular theme. Thank you to everyone who has followed me on this journey so far!
Top Three – Early Years
There’s a Tiger in the Garden by Lizzy Stewart (2017, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books)
There was never any doubt that this would make our top six list of favourites this year. Lizzy Stewart cleverly recognises that a young imagination always needs a bit of help, and keen-eyed readers will have spotted that on the first page of the story, Nora’s immediate surroundings inside the house she finds so boring, consists of toys that include a polar bear, a plant that out-sizes a bird ornament, a drawing of a tiger that Nora has penned, and a large ginger cat playing on the mat. Mixed with a mind that needs a little push to imagine more exciting things, these objects become the dragonflies the size of birds, the plants that eat you whole, the grumpy polar bear, and the elusive tiger in the garden. Adult readers will nod in recognition of the challenges faced by anyone caring for a young child in trying to think of new activities for them to do each day, whilst being entertaining and educational, and young readers will love spotting the clues in the pictures and the anticipation of when the tiger will finally make his appearance to Nora.
A Loud Winter’s Nap by Katy Hudson (2017, Curious Fox)
Much of Katy Hudson’s work focuses on team-work and socialisation for those children on the cusp of leaving the comfort of supervised home activities for the first time to start their independent school life. This is an important message for readers of A Loud Winter’s Nap, as Tortoise tries his best to remain where he is most comfortable, and ignore those that try to get him to join in the larger circle, where activities are taking place that he is unfamiliar with. As the first big transition in a child’s life, having books that show characters taking a leap of faith, joining in, even if they are at first afraid, and trusting in new people, is a useful tool in helping parents explain to their children that they will soon be part of a larger group of friends who will teach them new things. This is a learning curve, but one that Tortoise does not have to undergo alone, as he realises the joys of winter are best experienced with others. From this he learns to be more social, more emotionally free, and confident.
Pirate Stew by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell, (2020, Bloomsbury)
As is common with Neil Gaiman stories, the children are more knowledgeable, and clearly more sensible, than the adults appear to be, exercising sound judgement and caution when they meet Long John – a most unusual choice for a babysitter! They quickly work out that the stew is not to be eaten, unless they want to end their days as a pirate, and an alternative meal must be found if they are not to go hungry. The adventure, however, is something they are not able to exercise much control over and they must put their fears aside and follow as the pirates take them on an unexpected journey, opening a window into what pirate life is all about – pure fun and recklessness! Gaiman has said that the book that most inspired him to write was The Voyager of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis, and you can certainly see some of this influence here. Gaiman felt that Lewis treated his readers like ‘smart friends’ and this explains why the children here are sensible and the adults are silly, because we as readers share in the knowledge of the young characters and are invited to agree with their assessment of their babysitter.
Top Three later years
The Good Bear by Sarah Lean (2020, Simon & Schuster)
When Thea encounters a bear in the woods at her father’s new home in Norway, he is hungry, alone, and running from a life of cruelty. It is only then does she come to untangle her emotional difficulties with her father and focus on something much bigger (figuratively and literally) than herself and in much more need of help. It is by spending time with the bear, who is under threat from hunters, does she understand that emotion will get you so far, but ultimately action is what is needed in order to solve any problem. This is not the tale of an ordinary girl who has to be the hero to save the day, however; Thea is cruel and disrespectful to her father’s new family, but she is fortunate to have people around her who genuinely care for her and are willing to be patient. The bear opens her eyes to the powers of simple observation, to really see what is front of you before placing your own thoughts and values on it. If she had done this sooner, she would have realised that her ‘new family’ were not neglectful of her and that they had their own family traditions that were not absent, as she assumed, but simply different to hers.
Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono (1985, Fukuinkan Shoten Publishers, translated into English, Penguin Random House, 2020)
As a reader you feel Kiki’s excitement and trepidation as she starts her knew life as a witch alone and far from home. Unthinkable in the modern non-magical world, but a 13 year-old finding her own home and occupation independent of a loving family home, is a novel concept that explores the idea of discovering who you are minus the pressures of family steering you in any one particular direction. For Kik’s family such a life-altering event can only be possible with complete trust between a parent and a child, as well as an acceptance that fear is also part of that journey. This idea may have been rooted in Eiko’s own childhood, where she was faced with losing her mother at the age of five, an age when she would have been old enough to understood that her mother was not going to be around anymore, but young enough not to appreciate why. In her novel it is not fully understood why Kiki must go away for a year, but it is understood that this must happen in order for her to learn her true magical calling in life. Being away from the family is character building in many ways, but there is always the hint of perhaps this is all just too much. It is ultimately up to Kiki whether she succeeds or fails and she has nobody to blame but herself. Kiki of course not only succeeds, but gains friendship and respect from a town that could have rejected her as an outsider, but instead chooses to embrace her differences.
The Savage by David Almond (2008, Walker Books)
The Savage is a physical manifestation of Blue’s grief and anger over the death of his father, and also acts to remind readers of the power of words, as the Savage, essentially a fictional character of a story written by Blue to conquer his emotional turmoil, eventually makes the leap from Blue’s notebook into real-life situations. To assume that this book is only about how children come to terms with grief, would be a mistake however, as the creation of the Savage also represents the importance for children to have a private life. This is a common theme in Almond’s books; in modern life children are constantly observed and supervised, but Almond illustrates that this is not always healthy. Blue decides not to share his stories of the Savage with his teacher and only reads the more ‘safe’ passages to his mother and sister, but the parts of his creation that are violent and gruesome, he keeps to himself. This is, in part, because he doesn’t think his teacher and mother will understand, but also because he himself has not grappled with the implications of this darkness inside him. To come out of the other side of grief, Blue has to first tackle his demons alone.