This has been an outstanding year for children’s literature, with conservationist, comic, reflective and adventurous books all finding enthralled readers. In picture books, Britannica’s Baby Encyclopedia by Sally Symes, illustrated by Hanako Clulow, is aimed at 0-3. Filled with crowd-pleasing topics such as numbers, shapes, animals and food, this big, bright, thoughtfully curated board book is ideal for babies to leaf through (and for toddlers to demand their favourite sections over and over again).
A gorgeous fable of self-acceptance, The Midnight Panther by Poonam Mistry (Templar) follows small, shy Panther as he tries to emulate Lion’s magnificent mane and Tiger’s stripes before finding the courage to climb into the treetops and look out into the night, as dark and exquisite as he is. Mistry’s simple, effective story and stunning geometric artwork, influenced by Indian textiles and traditional designs, make this a picture book to remember.
A thematic departure for Oliver Jeffers, though illustrated in his characteristic luminous style, Meanwhile Back on Earth (HarperCollins) uses a car trip and a sibling squabble as a springboard for a detour through the solar system – and a journey back through Earth’s history, focusing on human conflict. From Mercury, Venus and Jupiter, humanity’s wars over territory and resources look increasingly small in this gently challenging picture book for readers of perhaps 5+.
Or take a journey through the history of music-making in Listen to the Music by Mary Richards (Quarto), allowing children of 5+ to hear fragments of melody, ranging from a medieval hymn to a Mozart piano sonata, from classical Indian raga to 1940s bebop. Engagingly written, and illustrated with welcoming charm by Caroline Bonne‑Müller, it encourages young listeners to examine their own musical responses.
The Boy Who Lost His Spark (Walker) by Maggie O’Farrell, meanwhile, is perfect for sharing with 6+ readers. Miserable about moving home, Jem dismisses his younger sister’s insistence that an impish “nouka” is living in their extinct volcano hill – but the nouka senses Jem needs some mischief to rekindle his own spark. This tender tale’s folkloric magic is heightened by Daniela Terrazzini’s atmospheric illustrations.
Poetry lovers of six and up will find inspiration in the slim, wide-ranging Courage in a Poem (Little Tiger), an anthology exhorting young readers to face their fears and embrace their sense of self (as Cecilia Knapp says: “You are the perfect satsuma. You are the electric fizz of tangy sweets”). Featuring Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Elizabeth Acevedo and Jay Hulme, among others, it’s a thoughtful, joyous mood boost illustrated in vibrant colour by four different artists.
Inquiring readers of 7 or 8+ will relish The Bedtime Book of Impossible Questions by Isabel Thomas, illustrated by Aaron Cushley (Bloomsbury). Thomas explores fascinating conundrums, such as “Why am I me and not someone else?” and “How long would it take to count to infinity?”, and answers them with enough carefully gauged research to both satisfy and whet the reader’s appetite. Top-notch nonfiction from a profoundly accomplished author, it’s the sort of book that could ignite lifelong scientific curiosity.
Beautiful and compelling, the long-awaited Tyger by SF Said (David Fickling) is imbued with rapture and menace by Dave McKean’s chiaroscuro illustrations. Adam Alhambra lives in the Soho ghetto with the rest of London’s “foreigners” until one day he finds an extraordinary being: a wounded celestial tyger. She needs Adam’s help, as well as his friend Zadie’s, but to save her they must unlock their own dangerous, secret inner powers … Set in an alternative Britain where oppression and division have driven out joy, compassion and creativity, Tyger is both a riveting 9+ adventure and a fable layered with meaning.
Another beautiful book with an allegorical animal theme, Leila and the Blue Fox by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (Hachette) intertwines the journeys of Miso, a migratory Arctic fox, and Leila, who left Syria to make a new home in England and is now trying to reconnect with her scientist mother in Norway. Navigating sub-zero temperatures and the gulf that’s grown between them, Leila and her mum find healing and hope as they follow Miso’s courageous path. This ambitious novel for 9+, including Tom de Freston’s glimmering illustrations, deals sensitively and powerfully with trauma, conservationism and displacement.
Lastly, The Tale of Truthwater Lake by Emma Carroll (Faber) follows Polly, living through a heatwave in 2032, as she discovers a drowned village revealed by drought and finds herself transported back to 1952, when the village was first flooded. Combining the gripping story of an indomitable young swimmer with quiet observations on the impact of human activity, this intensely readable novel shows the 9+ reader a vision of the past through a thought-provoking near-future lens.
Shaun Tan, Walker Studio
From the creator of The Arrival and The Lost Thing, this huge compendium of “paintings, drawings and reflections” is filled with Tan’s “odd little interlopers” – the mysterious creatures he has drawn since childhood that populate the pages of his published work and sketchbooks, “more humane for not being human”. Its absorbing philosophical commentary and unsettling, bizarre, delightful beings will appeal to imaginative, artistic 12+ dreamers.
Dogs of the Deadlands
Anthony McGowan, illustrated by Keith Robinson, Rock the Boat
When the Chernobyl disaster happened, the people living nearby were forced to abandon their pets. Now pups Misha and Bratan are growing up wild with danger on all sides and face the threat of starvation and attack. Will they ever again have contact with humans? Best for readers of 12 and up, this visceral story of heartbreak and survival, complemented by Robinson’s sharp images, has the memorable feel of a classic such as White Fang or Watership Down.
Philip Pullman, illustrated by Tom Duxbury, Penguin
This short, disquieting tale, heightened by Duxbury’s linocut illustrations, has the feel of an MR James ghost story, complete with college setting, unsettling painting – and mysterious deaths. Featuring an early incarnation of Marisa Coulter, it’s a perfect stocking filler for 12+ His Dark Materials fans.
Holly Jackson, HarperCollins
Six teenagers are road-tripping in an RV, on their way to the beach for spring break, until their tyres are shot out and they’re faced with an ultimatum from the unseen marksman. One of them is keeping a deadly secret – and unless they surrender themselves, all six are marked for death … A nail-biting thrill ride for 14+ from the author of A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder.
Well, That Was Unexpected
Jesse Q Sutanto, Electric Monkey
When 17-year-old Sharlot Citra gets caught in a compromising position, she’s shipped off to Indonesia for the summer, her phone confiscated. And when George Clooney Tanuwijaya – no relation – also gets caught in a compromising position, his wealthy, influential family decides he needs a well-behaved girlfriend to get him back on track. Accidentally drawn together by their parents’ catfishing, can Sharlot and George possibly have a chance at a real relationship? A hilarious, heartwarming YA novel, part delightful romcom, part love song to Indonesia.
• To browse all children’s books included in the Guardian and Observer’s best books of 2022 visit guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.