A debate is rumbling over whether children’s publishing is getting too ‘woke’, prioritising issues such as feminism and climate change over the pleasure of reading: "Children’s literature has become horribly right-on," as one headline put it. But in this year’s picture books, at least, nostalgia won out. Dogger’s Christmas (Bodley Head) by 93-year-old Shirley Hughes is the long-awaited sequel to the book that made Hughes’s name more than 40 years ago. Once again, Dave’s beloved toy dog goes missing – this time among a tide of new presents – leaving the entire family in tatters, since "Christmas was no good without Dogger". And in The Snowflake (Harper Collins), Benji Davies, author of Grandad’s Island, tells the lyrical story of a little girl and a snowflake, both looking for a place to call home.
"High, high in the sky a tiny snowflake is made," he writes. "But then she begins to fall."
Counting Creatures (Two Hoots) is an appealing new counting book by Julia Donaldson, whose familiar rhyming text and gently suspenseful narrative will soon have every toddler mastering the numbers to 10.
It has also been a bumper year for board books. Busy Grow (Campbell) is the latest in a winning series, in which a system of push-and-pull tabs reveals the mysteries of the allotment; while in Who’s Driving? (Gecko Press), the Belgian illustrator Leo Timmers creates a delightful play on the fable of The Tortoise and the Hare, which sees the hare driving a racing car. But for toddlers impatient to make a start on the classics, there is also a board book version of Pride and Prejudice (Familius), which boils Austen’s narrative down to the essential facts. "Mr Darcy was handsome," we learn, "but he certainly didn’t seem very friendly."
For readers aged seven and older, Brand New Boy (Walker), by the Carnegie-winner David Almond, is the story of a new boy at school, who is alienated from his peers by his strange secrets. And After the War by Tom Palmer (Barrington Stoke) is another superb title from a publisher that specialises in helping dyslexic readers. Set in 1945, the story follows three children who survive the Holocaust, and are chosen to join the rehabilitation scheme at Windermere, pioneered by Leonard Montefiore.
Meanwhile, any reader who has not yet started Cressida Cowell’s The Wizards of Once novels has some catching up to do. Never and Forever (Hodder) is the fourth and final book in the series, in which we learn whether Xar and Wish will mix their world-saving potion in the Cup of Second Chances in time to lift the curse of the Wildwoods. Fantasy lovers should also look out for The Orphans of St Halibut’s (Macmillan), a debut novel by Sophie Wills with a delightfully eccentric cast of ghoulish villains and waifs and strays. And for a gentle reminder of the importance of good deeds, How to Be More Paddington: A Book of Kindness (Harper Collins) is a compendium of uplifting quotations from fiction’s most well-meaning bear. ("Paddington was usually the first to offer his services, almost always with disastrous results...")
For older readers, The Silent Stars Go By (Andersen) is the latest page-turner from Sally Nicholls, author of Things a Bright Girl Can Do. Set during the First World War, the story follows a vicar’s daughter, who is already pregnant when her fiance is reported missing in action on the Western Front. And The Great Godden (Bloomsbury) is a dreamy coming-of-age novel by Meg Rosoff, in which a family’s Arcadian summer by the sea is turned upside down by new arrivals. As with classics such as I Capture the Castle, this is a novel that will appeal to young and old alike.
In poetry, On the Move (Walker) is a collection of verse on the theme of migration and displacement, written by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Quentin Blake. Several of the poems draw on Rosen’s own childhood in a first-generation Polish family living in London. "What you leave behind/ Won’t leave your mind," he writes, "But home is where you find it." And A Poem for Every Winter Day (Macmillan) is the latest in Allie Esiri’s highly digestible anthology series. With entries ranging from Shakespeare and Charlotte Bronte to A A Milne, there is something for readers of any age.
Finally, at the end of an unusually taxing year, no child should be without The Book of Hopes (Bloomsbury), an anthology of more than 100 poems and stories intended to "comfort and inspire’". The book’s editor, Katherine Rundell, says she started the project in lockdown "because I found myself in urgent need of hope, and I thought a lot of people might be in a similar position". Her instincts are borne out by a National Literacy Trust survey, which reported that one third of children read more during the first lockdown, and that three out of five said reading encouraged them "to dream about the future". This year’s bounty of wonderful children’s books should set many dreams alight.