WHO would have thought that a picture book about five toys sitting on a shelf could be so intriguing, philosophically engaging and cute, all at the same time. In Waiting by Kevin Henkes (HarperCollins) little readers will glean a surprising amount as a group of toys watch and wait, as seasons pass and the world beyond their window changes. The text is brief, but expertly honed and features a genuinely touching story with universal themes.
Tackling “issues” in the picture-book format can be tricky; let the subject matter swamp the story and the magic dies, let loose an avalanche of sparkly sweetness, and subtlety dissolves. In Mr Huff, Anna Walker (Penguin) manages the balance perfectly. As young Bill grapples with anxiety, Walker’s sensitive and sincere illustrations soothe, and in the character of Mr Huff, Bill eventually finds a valuable ally.
Heartstrings get a workout in Sad, The Dog by Sandy Fussell and Tull Suwannakit (Walker Books). A cranky couple move house, leaving behind a dog they refused to name, so the mutt calls himself Sad. Everything changes for the better, however, when young Jack moves in and gives Sad the best friend he deserves. This is a moving friendship story about reaching out to the vulnerable.
Sad, the Dog by Sandy Fussell & Tull Suwannakit
Marc Martin’s story begins on the front cover – run your fingers over the embossed image of a rainforest and count the eyes peeping out of the shadows. A River (Penguin) is a stunning book that transports readers. Like the body of water that wends its way throughout the images, the environmental message is both vital and subtle
The Marvellous Fluffy Squishy Itty Bitty by Beatrice Alemagna (Thames & Hudson) is gloriously unsubtle. Edith is a girl looking for two things, her place within a family of overachievers and the illusive Fluffy Squishy. As she scampers around Paris (blissfully unsupervised) badgering shopkeepers, her confidence and personality blossoms.
Friendship also blooms in Imaginary Fred (HarperCollins) by Eoin Colfer and Oliver Jeffers, a picture book about the challenges that come with making friends, the upside to loneliness and the power of a vivid imagination. Colfer teases the humour out of the story, while Jeffers’ illustrations lend emotional weight.
Middle fiction readers had plenty to chose from, too. While thousands climbed The 65-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, lots of other books for readers between eight and 12 hit the shelves – including The Wolf Wilder (Bloomsbury), a fantasy adventure by Katherine Rundell.
Set in Russia, the “dark and stormy” Feodora and her mother live in the woods, teaching abandoned pups how to survive in the wild. When their cottage is burnt down and Feo’s mother is taken by Russian soldiers, a bleak, but gripping, detailed fantasy unfolds. While the tempo of the storytelling varies, the power of Rundell’s characters, both human and hound, linger beyond the last page.
Two especially lovely hardback books about cats and their eccentric “owners” also appeared in 2015. In The Cat With the Coloured Tail by Gillian Mears, illustrated by Dinalie Dabarera (Walker Books), Mr Hooper and his cat spend their days spotting heart shapes in “apple seeds” and “scabs on knees”, but when they realise the heart of the world is deteriorating, they set off on a pilgrimage to heal it. Short, sincere and powerful.
The Adventures of Miss Petitfour by Canadian novelist/poet Anne Michaels (Simon & Schuster) is full of whimsy and just the right amount of sweetness as a mysterious heroine and her 16 cats seek adventure in even the smallest of moments. This book really comes alive when read out loud, with all of those carefully selected words dissolving on the tongue like meringue. A long way from whimsy is the hugely entertaining Son of Death by Andrew McDonald (Hardie Grant). This funny, tender and inventive story revolves around Sod, a 14-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a rock legend, but discovers a very unusual family secret.
YA readers enjoyed a bumper year, with lots of Australian authors exploring diversity, finding new ways into dystopian fiction and, perhaps the most frightening, unpredictable and exhilarating theme of all, relationships.
Lili Wilkinson’s Green Valentine (Allen & Unwin) is a sharp, wisecracking romance about the popular and environmentally focused Astrid and Hiro, the boy who hates her. But there is so much more going on in this book as Lobster Girl and Shopping Trolley Boy work out how to save the world – and more importantly, how fruit trees have sex. So good.
Relationships, intimacy and mystery lie at the heart of Vikki Wakefield’s Inbetween Days (Text). A book that got its hooks into me from page one and refused to let go. Set in Mobius, a small town famous for a mysterious tragedy and home to 18-year-old school dropout Jack (Jacklin) and Trudy, her brittle old sister, this is an utterly gripping read with authentic, complicated and relatable characters.
Fiona Wood’s Cloudwish (Pan Macmillan) was just as hard to put down. Deeply pragmatic, Van struggles under the weight of expectation. Her parents, Vietnamese refugees, assume she’ll finish school, go to university and become a doctor but Van has a secret wish and things get beautifully complicated when that wish comes true. Wood is a brilliant storyteller and in Cloudwish she delves into family relationships with empathy and skill.
Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (Allen & Unwin) was no sooner published than Brad Pitt’s production company snapped it up. Set in 2575, Kady and her ex-boyfriend, Ezra, are stewing in mutual aggression over their break-up when their planet is attacked. The pair manage to escape, but on different ships. This addictive, chunky read more than lives up the substantial hype and while the clever inclusion of emails, IMs, dossiers and reports all add to the visual pyrotechnics, at its core this is a heartfelt story locked on hyperdrive, which makes the wait for book two all the sweeter.
Much less sweet is Risk by Fleur Ferris (Random House), a former policewoman and paramedic turned YA contemporary writer. Risk was at risk of reading like a lecture about the dangers of chat rooms and online stalkers, but with strong characters and a credible plot, this book is a gripping and frightening look at how two girls get caught up in the web.
Most 17-year-olds crave independence, but in Erin Gough’s authentic and tender debut novel, Flywheel (Hardie Grant), Del (Delilah) finds herself overwhelmed. Her mother’s out of the picture, her father is mending his shattered heart overseas, while Del attempts to go to school and manage the family cafe – and she’s in love with Rosa. Winner of The Ampersand Project, Gough’s book is tough and textured, and it doesn’t shy away from exploring the acute awkwardness that comes with trusting your true self to others.
If you’re looking for a satisfying book snack, pick up Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon (Corgi). This is a love story involving 17-year-old Maddie, a girl who has read “many, many more books than you”, because a medical condition means she has spent her whole life at home with only her mum, who also happens to be her doctor and her nurse. Isolation has made Maddie highly observant so when a new guy and his family move next door, a very unlikely but intense relationship begins.
Three outrageously gorgeous editions hit the shelves this year. First was the 150th-anniversary edition of The Complete Alice (Pan Macmillan) with a foreword by Philip Pullman. From its die-cut cover to its original illustrations by John Tenniel, this edition should only be read under the perfect tree. Cosier than a Gryffindor common room, Jim Kay’s fully illustrated, unabridged Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (Simon & Schuster), is a must for fans, or anyone lucky enough to be discovering her books for the first time.
And finally a hardback edition of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (Harper) designed by the graphic design team behind the Harry Potter movies. So much care and creative thought has gone into this project and it shows in the details; certificates, maps and letters makes reading or returning to this classic a special experience.
This piece first appeared in The Age, 2015.