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Books of the year 2013: Children


The Book of Bedtime Stories (Walker, £14.99) consists of 10 original tales selected by Michael Rosen from more than 400 entries for last year's Mumsnet and Gransnet children's story competition. Each illustrated by an up-and-coming artist, themes range from the adventures of a pig-riding sheriff to the exciting rescue of a dancing bear. Beautifully produced, this could be a collector's item. Alex T. Smith's Claude in the Spotlight (Hodder, £4.99 paperback) tells how the amiable dog of the title, accompanied by his regular friend Sir Bobblysock, gets caught up in a theatrical performance that nearly goes terribly wrong. Illustrated on every page by the author, this cheerfully eccentric story is highly entertaining. So too is Bernardo Atxaga's The Adventures of Shola (Pushkin Children's Books, £14.99). Translated from the Basque by Margaret Jull Costa and lavishly illustrated by Mikel Valverde, these gently ironic stories about another small dog whose aspirations regularly outrun her abilities are totally charming.

Adam Britten's Captain Valiant and Me: Return of the Silver Cyborg (Piccadilly, £5.99 paperback) has as its hero young Mark Taylor, also known as Dynamic Boy when he dons the special Astral Guardian uniform that in his opinion makes him look like an "electric bee". Illustrated by Arthur Hamer, there is plenty to laugh at here as the evil computer genius Algernon Pratt finally gets his come-uppance. Philip Reeve's Oliver and the Seawigs (Oxford, £10.99) has its young hero making use of a friendly island that both talks and moves as he searches for his missing explorer parents. Generously illustrated in full comic-book style by Sarah McIntyre, there is excitement as well as good humour here as Oliver beats off an army of greasy, green sea monkeys before leading his suitably humbled parents safely back home.

For 10-year-olds or about, Ross Montgomery's Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door (Faber, £6.99 paperback) rattles along at manic speed as its under-sized young hero escapes bullying at school in order to search for his missing father lost somewhere in the Forbidden Lands. Aided by his youthful headmaster – the first time this post has been endowed with heroic stature in children's books? – the two endure countless adventures before returning to home and safety. Good writing here, though the main plot at times gets out of hand. Not so in Simon Packham's superb Firewallers (Piccadilly, £6.99 paperback). Here, teenage Jess and her mother escape to a remote Scottish island to get away from newshounds anxious for details of their recent family scandal. But the island in question is run by the cultish Dawdlers, who reject all modern technology in favour of living entirely off the land. Teenagers already there, now known as Striplings, seem to be going along with all this until Jess discovers otherwise. Comic and sinister by turns, this story is so good it almost reads itself.

Author of the mesmerising Toby Alone, the French novelist Timothée De Fombelle has now come up with yet another utterly distinctive adventure story: Vango: Between Sky and Earth (Walker, £14.99). Expertly translated by Sarah Ardizzone, this tall but continually gripping tale is set in the 1930s in an atmosphere reminiscent of pre-war French cinema at its most romantic. Vango, a youth with a mysterious past, is continually on the run from dark forces linked personally to Joseph Stalin but also involving the Parisian police and Nazi spies. On his side is a group of monks, a Zeppelin captain and his ability to climb up any building he chooses. Satisfyingly long, with a plot that flits between time zones but is always easy to follow, this is simply too good to miss, with a sequel promised next year.

Lydia Syson's That Burning Summer (Hot Key Books, £7.99 paperback) is set in the Fens during the summer of 1940. It tells the story of teenage Peggy, who falls in love with a deserting Polish Airman who has lost his nerve. Things nearly turn nasty as a misguided younger brother starts interfering, but the final resolution lives up to this story's consistent excellence. This is only the second novel from an author very much to look out for. Alexia Casale, on the evidence of her fine debut novel The Bone Dragon (Faber, £9.99 paperback), also shows rich promise. Adopted by a loving couple, teenage Evie still cannot face up to the abusive circumstances of her life before. Keeping this part of her world secret makes it tough for all concerned. But at night she finds support from a talking dragon originally carved from one of her ribs, given to her by the hospital following an operation. Evie uses their joint wanderings to solve some of her own half- remembered mysteries. Readers must decide for themselves whether all this is either real or imagined as this densely written story runs its course.