An Unnoticed Golden Age of Children's Books? Here are some books to discover

By Candy Gourlay

Ella on the Outside by Cath Howe, Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen, The Wondrous Dinosaurium by John Condon, Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias

I was SO excited to see the shortlist for the Crystal Kite Award last week!

Every year, members of SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) in the British Isles and Ireland vote for their choice children's books of the year – I had cast my vote only days before and I am pleased to say MY BOOK MADE IT! (Sorry, I'm not at a liberty to divulge which one of these it was)

But there were other things about the Crystal Kite list that made me even happier.

All these books are written by debut authors who deserve to be discovered by readers everywhere.

All these books are FANTASTIC READS. I know, I read them all ... in fact, at the risk of bragging, these were the books on my personal shortlist (as well as some others 😁).

Last week, author and children's book expert Dawn Finch declared on Radio 4: "This is really a golden age of children's literature and I've worked in children's books for 30 years and I've never seen books published of this quality – there are better books published now than have been for avery long time."

But, Dawn said, you wouldn't know that if you go into a supermarket.

'Publishing is a business and as a business they have to make money – so super massive advances paid out to celebrity authors means that publishers have to get that money back somehow. And the way this is being done is by a highly visible, aggressively marketed pool of authors that is actually very small. So when you go into places that sell books ... you actually only see a very tiny selection of books available ... it's drowning out some very fine authors and that choice is being taken away from children.'

Dawn pointed out that the closure of libraries, the shrinking amounts space devoted to children's books in the media, means that parents are struggling to identify and discover good books.

You can listen to the discussion on Front Row at about 19:06, also featuring editor and critic Imogen Russell Williams. I've also embedded my tweets about the programme at the very bottom of this post 

So in the name of helping parents and teachers discover some amazing new titles of this golden age, it is my pleasure to present the shiny shortlist of the Crystal Kite Award for the British Isles and Ireland – including photos from each debut author's book launch (yes, I attended them all). Winners will be announced by SCBWI in June.

Ella on the Outside by Cath Howe

Cath Howe has been writing plays for performance in schools for years which is perhaps why Ella on the Outside feels so perfectly pitched for middle grade, and enviably structured. The writing reminded me of Louis Sachar's Holes, so loaded with heart. It is about a girl with a camera and a terrible secret. She's the new girl in school and all the pressures lead to her making bad decision after bad decision and the reader wishes she could grab Ella's hand and lead her in another direction.  It is not easy to write so simply and yet so evocatively, and I sighed with envy at every well turned out chapter. I loved it. Cath's second book, Not My Fault, will soon be out and I can't wait to read it.

A fine new voice for Middle Grade: Cath Howe at the launch of Ella on the Outside at The Alligator's Mouth in Richmond.

Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen

From the moment you begin reading Matt Killeen's masterful Orphan Monster Spy, you realise that this is a work of depth, of thought, of heart that will stay with you forever. The opening scene, where a mother is shot dead as she tries to drive through a checkpoint, is a warning of the harrowing events to come for Sarah, a Jewish girl who infiltrates a Nazi boarding school for her mysterious rescuer. This is a thriller, a character study and a historical novel wrapped in one, with fresh, many layered insights to offer to a much written about period. Orphan Monster Spy deserves the accolades that have showered its launch, which includes a shortlisting for the mighty Costa Award. Bloody fantastic, Matt.

Here is Matt Killeen at the launch of Orphan Monster Spy at Waterstones, Trafalgar Square.

The Wondrous Dinosaurium by John Condon

The lone picture book on the Crystal Kite shortlist is John Condon's The Wondrous Dinosaurium, with rollicking illustrations by Steve Brown. The story imagines the ultimate petshop – a dinosaurium with "EVERY ... DINOSAUR ... EVER". Like Doctor Who's tardis, it is small on the outside but humongous on the inside and our hero, Danny gets to pick his very own dinosaur pet ... with rather fun and chaotic consequences. I am delighted that a picture book has made it to a shortlist that has tended to favour chapter books, and I am even more delighted that the picture book happens to be John's!

John Condon at the launch of the Wondrous Dinosaurium at West End Lane Books in Northwest London.

Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias

Tracey Mathias conjured this dystopian young adult thriller – a divided society, racism, lies, populist politicians – long before Brexit and Trump became our ordinary. The clock ticks relentlessly, a looming election could spell doom or relief for Zara, who must conceal the fact she is not British Born in a Britain that has decided to discard people like her. Once started, this book is impossible to put down, even though it often feels like someone is running an icy finger down your spine. There is social commentary here, but nothing is black and white under Tracey's subtle and intelligent pen. The Night of the Party may make your heart stop once or twice, and it will definitely leave you pondering for some time to come. Perfectly pitched and with a powerful respect for its teen reader.

Tracey at the launch of The Night of the Party at Daunt Books, Cheapside.
Photos by Candy Gourlay

Like what you see? Click here to subscribe to email updates