The best books to read your children in 2020, from Julia Donaldson’s ‘The Go-Away Bird’ to the Dalai Lama's 'The Seed of Compassion'

Bedtime these days is about reading your children self-reflective picture books about loving oneself and the planet, says Charlotte Cripps, as well new potential classics by the best authors

Wednesday 05 February 2020 08:07 GMT

Gone are the days when parents would read a handful of classics to their children at bedtime, with Beatrix Potter, Dr Seuss, and Roald Dahl on constant rotation.

Worthy writers all, of course, but the reading list is likely to be a little more diverse nowadays, and to include self-reflective picture books about loving oneself and the planet.

Thanks to the “Greta effect”, there is a boom in children’s environmental books, as well as emotional intelligence ones. An inordinate number of books out this year are on kindness – a far cry from the old fashioned nursery rhymes in which people chopped off fingers with a carving knife. There is increasing attention on topics such as friendship, anxiety, finding your inner strength, believing in oneself – and even getting over insomnia with mindfulness.

Despite all the new trends, a baby/toddler/pre-schooler’s bookshelf in 2020 will still probably contain all of today’s classic read-aloud, story-led picture books, as well as some of the old classics.

It will include plenty of lift and flap books, such as The Zoo by Rod Campbell, Fox’s Socks by Julia Donaldson and her regular illustrator Axel Scheffler, and Spot the Dog by Eric Hall. There’ll be picture books, too, including Donaldson’s The Gruffalo and her latest 2019 bestseller The Smeds and Smoos, about two aliens who fall in love, as well as Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr, the beloved writer and illustrator behind The Tiger who Came to Tea (1968).

'The Go-Away Bird' is the latest book by Julia Donaldson who has written classics including 'The Gruffalo' and 'Fox's Socks'

But which children’s books should we be eagerly waiting for this year, or rushing out to buy?

While it’s probably on our radar that Hilary Mantel’s new novel The Mirror and the Light is out in March, are parents aware that in the children’s book world, Donaldson’s much-anticipated new book The Go-Away Bird is set for release in February? Or that the Dalai Lama is publishing his first kid’s book, The Seeds of Compassion, this year?

The publishing industry is just as lucrative for children’s books as it is for adult fiction – in fact, children’s fiction is doing much better. While sales of adult fiction over the past 10 years have dwindled from £476 million to £355 million, kids’ books sales in the UK have grown from £326 million to £388 million.

Books like Donaldson’s The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child together have sold over 17 million copies worldwide.

Within the children’s sector, spending on books classified within the pre-school and picture books sector grew 26 percent between 2010 and 2019, while spending on children’s and young adult fiction increased only 6 percent, according to the market research company, Nielson Book.

Everyone seems to be muscling in – even mother-daughter team Hillary and Chelsea Clinton with their first children’s book Grandma’s Garden, which is out in April.

The picture book – “a deeply affectionate tribute to the bounty of nature and the love of gardening”, according to one US review – is about Hillary’s mum/Chelsea’s grandma Dorothy, who passed on to them her love of spending time in the garden.

But when do children move to the next stage of reading from picture books to chapter books? It’s one thing to know what to be reading your children in 2020 but how do you make sure they are reading the right books intellectually?

Danny van Emden of West End Lane Books, who was also a judge for this year’s Costa Children’s Book Award (9 to 15-year-olds), says that no young child is too old for picture books.

“There is a huge rush to move children onto the next stage of chapter books as early as one or two years old or later and this isn’t always helpful,” he says. “Actually, it's just a shame that we gradually reduce illustrations from fiction as children get older. Picture books are such a wonderful way for children to really get absorbed into books and makes learning to read for pleasure so much more natural.

Kate Read's book 'One Fox' is a counting book thriller

“There is an absolute tsunami of brilliant illustrators working in children's publishing right now,” he adds, “so if your child is reluctant to move on from picture books, don't worry. Just watch them daydream into all the beautiful art as well as the words and know that this is setting their imaginations on a path to engage with the world outside the home and classroom. They will make the move into chapter books in their own good time.”

Every year, new writers and illustrators team up and hope to become household names like Donaldson, who has been honoured with a CBE for Services to Literature. The booksellers Waterstones will be shortly announcing the 2020 Children’s Book Prize winner for debut authors and/or illustrators on 6 February. Onjali Q Raúf's The Boy at the Back of the Class – a child’s perspective on the refugee crisis – was the winner of the Waterstones Children's Book Prize 2019.

But their bestselling book of 2019 (for 0 to 6-year-olds) was The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith and Katz Cowley. In 2018, the book featured in a viral video of a grandmother in fits of laughter as she tried to read it to her grandchild, leading to a sales surge of the book worldwide.

However, Donaldson’s The Smeds and the Smoos, which was published in September 2019, flew off the shelves and became the autumn bestseller.

So, what makes a good children’s book? The children’s buyer at Waterstones, Florentyna Martin, says: “The real gems are the ones that appeal equally to children and adults, and they are also perhaps the most difficult to get right. If a parent or guardian is going to read their child’s favourite story night after night (after night after night) then a strong narrative, good characters and engaging illustrations are key ingredients. The steady beat of a rhyme and the occasional dash of humour will also go a long way to sparking that first love of a book.”

Here are some of the best books to read your children this year.

Fantastically Great Women Who Saved The Planet by Kate Pankhurst

Your children might be too young to listen to Greta Thunberg calling for those in power to take action, but this picture book will gently introduce them to the importance of looking after the planet. It features notable women – such as Jane Goodall, Anita Roddick, Edith Frakas and the Gambian activist known as the Queen of Recycling, Isatou Ceesay – who have dedicated their lives to studying, conserving and protecting the planet. The best-selling author and illustrator is a descendant of Emmeline Pankhurst and it’s her third book in a series that celebrates notable women – including Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World.

Fantastically Great Women Who Saved The Planet by Kate Pankhurst​ is published on 6 Feb by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, £6.99

The Seed of Compassion by the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama is extending his teachings to children in his first picture book ever. He shares lessons of peace and compassion through stories about his own childhood, when he was just an ordinary boy called Lhamo Thondup from a small village in Tibet.

The Seed of Compassion by the Dalai Lama is published on 24 March by Penguin, £12.99

What the Ladybird Heard at the Seaside by Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks

This is the fourth book in Donaldson’s hugely successful rhyming adventure series What The Ladybird Heard, illustrated by Lydia Monks. This time, the crime-busting little ladybird is off to the seaside, but the two bad men, Hefty Hugh and Lanky Len, turn up to steal the mermaid’s flowing hair. You can even spot Donaldson and her husband Malcolm performing a children’s show on the beach, and Monks driving through the countryside, in “cameo” roles.

What the Ladybird Heard at the Seaside by Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks is published on 2 April by Pan Macmillan, £12.99

Ten Minutes to Bed: Little Dinosaur by Rhiannon Fielding

Written especially for bedtime, this is the perfect length for sending little ones off to sleep with its 10-minute countdown to bed. Rumble the triceratops crashes through the jungle until the more gentle end. Hopefully, you will be able to turn the lights off by then. Others in the series include Little Unicorn, Little Monster, Little Mermaid and Little Unicorn’s Christmas.

Ten Minutes to Bed: Little Dinosaur by Rhiannon Fielding is published on 9 July by Penguin, £6.99

David Attenborough and Martin Luther King, Jr - Little People BIG DREAMS by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara

The best-selling Little People, BIG DREAMS series, explores “the lives of outstanding people, who each began life as a child with a dream”. You may have read the ones on Coco Chanel or David Bowie to your children at bedtime. The next big releases in the series are David Attenborough, the broadcaster and conservationist, and Martin Luther King, Jr, the minister and civil rights activist. What a cool way to drift off to sleep.

David Attenborough and Martin Luther King, Jr by Isabel Sanchez Vegara are published on 4 Feb by Frances Lincoln Children's Books, £9.99

Mr Men Go Green by Adam Hargreaves

This is an ideal book to help young children understand what they can do to help their planet, and is printed with vegetable inks on FSC paper. It’s written and illustrated by the son of Roger Hargreaves, who continued his late father's popular Mr Men and Little Miss series of children's books. Mr Lazy can’t be bothered to switch off the lights and Mr Skinny throws too much food away. Luckily, Little Miss Inventor has some inventions to help them find ways to reduce, reuse and recycle.

Mr Men Go Green by Adam Hargreaves is published on 11 June by Egmont UK, £3.99

The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad

The New York Times bestselling book by the Olympic medallist and social justice activist Ibtihaj Muhammad is an empowering and moving illustrated story about being proud of your roots. The day Faizah starts school is also her older sister Asiya’s first day of hijab. But not everybody finds her hijab of dazzling blue fabric so pleasing. In the face of criticism, Faizah has to toughen up.

The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad is published in paperback on 7 May by Andersen Press, £7.99

I Like To Be Kind by Campbell Books

Teaching children emotional intelligence is just as important as pushing them to succeed academically. This board book is part of the Little Big Feelings series, which also includes Sometimes I Am Worried. Children can lift the flaps, slide the tabs and turn the wheel as they learn about kindness, with colourful illustrations by Marie Paruit. It also included helpful tips for parents from the early years expert Dr Janet Rose, who offers extra guidance in guiding your child towards being a caring person.

I Like To Be Kind by Campbell Books is published on 28 May by Pan Macmillan, £6.99

Don’t Worry, Little Crab by Chris Haughton

From the award-winning creator of Shh! We Have a Plan is a new story about budging out of your comfort zone. It might even convince your little ones to try something new – like eat broccoli. Little Crab and Very Big Crab, who live in a rock pool, go out for a swim in the ocean, but the waves are a little frightening. But with the reassuring words, “Don’t worry, I’m here,” the little crab finds anything is possible.

Don’t Worry, Little Crab by Chris Haughton​ is out now, published by Candlewick Press, £12.99

Hello Friend! (2020) by Rebecca Cobb ​

This touching story is about kindness, empathy and friendship. The author is one of the most talented names in picture books, with classics including Missing Mummy and Aunt Amelia. She also won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2013 for Lunchtime, and has collaborated with Julia Donaldson on bestselling picture books The Paper Dolls and The Everywhere Bear.

Hello Friend! (2020) by Rebecca Cobb is published on 30 April by Pan Macmillan, £11.99

Kind by Alison Green

With a forward by The Gruffalo illustrator Axel Scheffler and illustrations by the world’s top illustrators including Quentin Blake and Lydia Monks, who have donated their work for free, this inspiring book shows children the many ways in which everybody can make the world a better place. The sale of each printed copy will donate £1 to the Three Peas charity, which helps refugees from war-torn countries. The hardback version came out last year.

Kind by Alison Green is published in paperback on 3 April by Scholastic, £6.99

To the Moon and Back for You by Emilia Bechrakis

Not many children’s books talk about infertility. But for those who have struggled to get their miracle baby, it really can feel like you’ve gone to the moon and back. The debut picture book by Emilia Bechrakis is based on her own experiences with IVF. At least after reading this, they will never question how much they were wanted.

To the Moon and Back for You by Emilia Bechrakis is published on 24 March by Penguin Random House, £8.49

Arlo The Lion Who Couldn’t Sleep by Catherine Raynor

Does your child have trouble falling off to sleep? This dreamy bedtime book about an exhausted lion who just can’t drop off to sleep is the perfect antidote with its gentle mindfulness message. It’s by Catherine Raynor, the Kate Greenaway Medal-winning illustrator whose other titles include the critically acclaimed Solomon Crocodile and the award-winning Smelly Louie.

Arlo The Lion Who Couldn’t Sleep by Catherine Raynor is published on 25 June by Macmillan, £12.99

My Art Book of Happiness by Shana Gozansky

Emotions for toddlers and pre-school children can be confusing. This book (my personal favourite) brings together 35 full-page colour artworks by famous artists, including Matisse, Jeff Koons and Antony Gormley, each accompanied by a short, read-aloud text that introduces the feeling of happiness (and its transitory nature). It’s the third in a series that also includes My Art Book of Sleep and My Art Book of Love. It also teaches young children that it is okay not to be happy all the time.

My Art Book of Happiness by Shana Gozansky is published on 13 May by Phaidon, £14.95

The Go-Away Bird by Julia Donaldson

This is 2020’s most anticipated release – and yet another potential children’s classic by Julia Donaldson, who teams up with the award-winning Catherine Rayner for the striking story told in her trademark rhyming format. You may not always want company, but everyone needs friends sometimes. Lovely story and gorgeous illustrations that will bear repeated bedtime readings.

The Go-Away Bird by Julia Donaldson is published on 6 Feb by Macmillan Children’s Books, £6.99

Too Much Stuff by Emily Gravett

The western obsession with stuff means we are at a tipping point of material saturation and clutter. This very funny rhyming woodland book from the creator of the modern classic Meerkat Mail – about two hoarding Magpies who ram their nest with too much stuff, including a car and a pram – might help educate young children about the consequences of always wanting more… but I doubt it. Based in the same forest as Gravett’s award-winning Tidy, it features many woodland animals, including Tidy’s Pete the badger.

Too Much Stuff by Emily Gravett is published on 15 Oct by Macmillan, £12.99

Aalfred and Aalbert (a love story) by Morag Hood

It’s refreshing to have a love story, even if it is between aardvarks. The picture book is by the rising star author-illustrator Morag Hood, who has also written Colin and Lee, Carrot and Pea, I Am Bat and The Steves. Aalfred and Aaalbert’s sleep cycles are different and they are doomed never to meet but eventually, an accidental meeting gives them a happily-ever-after ending.

Aalfred and Aalbert (a love story) by Morag Hood is published now by Macmillan, £6.99

I’m Actually Really Grown-Up Now by Maisie Paradise Shearring

We’ve all heard kids declare themselves grown-up, but sometimes they need to stop racing ahead. This funny picture book with busy and colourful illustrations is about “independence, self-esteem and knowing when to stop being grown-up!” It’s Shearring’s follow-up to her acclaimed Anna and Otis, about overcoming fears and making friends. The author has a special talent for capturing the highs and lows of childhood. When Meena realises being grown-up means unpacking the shopping and putting the food away, it isn’t quite as fun as she expected.

I’m Actually Really Grown-Up Now by Maisie Paradise Shearring is published on 22 August by Macmillan, £11.99

Pablo and the Noisy Party by Pablo

All Pablo books are written by writers on the autistic spectrum and are grounded in the real-life experiences of autistic children. This time, Pablo runs away from his cousin’s noisy party and hides in a car, but Pablo’s friends make him realise it is OK not to want to go to the party. It is designed to help young children understand that not everybody thinks in the same way.

Pablo and the Noisy Party by Pablo is published on 19 March by Penguin, £6.99

Dogger’s Christmas by Shirley Hughes

At 92, Shirley Hughes – who Philip Pullman calls “ a national treasure” – has written a nostalgic sequel to her enduring tale of a lost toy, 43 years after the multi-award-winning Dogger was first published in 1977. Dogger’s Christmas embodies the values that Dogger is known and loved for: kindness and warmth. It’s set at Christmas but in all the excitement of new toys, will Dave forget about his old friend Dogger?

Dogger’s Christmas by Shirley Hughes is published on 29 October by Penguin, £12.99

Clean Up by Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola

This children’s book on plastic pollution couldn’t be more timely. When Rocket goes on holiday to visit her grandparents on a Caribbean island, she's shocked by the pollution that is ruining their island home and is putting the sea life at risk. Can she save the day? It’s the sequel to Byron and Adeola’s debut Look Up!, in which Rocket tries to convince her brother to stop looking down at his phone and start looking up at the stars.

Clean Up by Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola is published on 9 July by Penguin, £6.99

Peppa Pig: Super Peppa!

This empowering story, about learning that you can be anything you want to be, is being published in time for International Women's Day. At Peppa’s pre-school, Madame Gazelle asks the class to dress up as what they want to be when they are grown-ups. Edmund Elephant wants to be an astronaut and an anthropologist and Rebecca Rabbit wants to be a carrot – but Peppa’s career trajectory isn’t so clear. Luckily, she gets some ideas from Mummy Pig, Daddy Pig and Miss Rabbit.

Peppa Pig: Super Peppa! is published on 20 February by Penguin, £6.99

Find Spot at Halloween by Eric Hill

This brand new Spot edition, with unexpected lift-and-flap surprises, involves Spot and his friends dressing up in spooky costumes to go trick-or-treating. This year is also the 40th anniversary of the iconic Where’s Spot, and the board book is being reissued on 5 March with sturdy, toddler-tough flaps. With its hide and seek flaps, the Spot series is the perfect first book for little ones.

Find Spot at Halloween by Eric Hill is published on 3 September by Penguin, £6.99

Where Snow Angels Go by Maggie O’Farrell

The Costa Novel Award-winning Maggie O’Farrell’s debut illustrated children’s book is much anticipated. It is based on a story she told her children at bedtime, about a girl who creates her own guardian angel while playing one wintry day. O’Farrell said: “I have always thought of the picture book as a unique and pervasive art form, and one that has the potential to reach people from a very young age, sometimes staying with them for life.”

Where Snow Angels Go by Maggie O’Farrell​ is out in the autumn by Candlewick Press

The Box Turtle by Vanessa Roeder

This is a very sweet story about having the confidence to be oneself. A cute-looking turtle was born without a shell so he uses a cardboard box instead. He loves it…until another turtle points out that his shell is weird. He goes in search of the perfect shell but eventually, he learns it’s OK to be different.

The Box Turtle by Vanessa Roeder​ is published on 2 March by Prentice Hall Press, £13.99

Tomorrow I’ll Be Kind by Jessica Hische

This follow up to Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave is by the award-winning illustrator Jessica Hische. It encourages children to spread kindness in their community by being grateful, kind and helpful. Her inspirational words and scenes are brought to life vividly with her colourful hand-lettering and drawings. A mouse, cat, and rabbit highlight the many ways to express empathy and compassion – such as running over to help when somebody falls off a scooter.

Tomorrow I’ll Be Kind by Jessica Hische​ is published on 1 Feb by Penguin Workshop, £11.07

Meet the Planets by Caryl Hart

This read-aloud, rhyming, picture-led book takes you on a space adventure to meet all the planets of the solar system and the smiley-faced planets from “shimmering Saturn” to “mighty Mars”. Caryn Hart, who also writes young fiction, is best known for picture books including How To Catch a Dragon and The Princess and the Peas.

Meet the Planets by Caryl Hart is published on 20 February by Bloomsbury, £4.99

One Fox by Kate Read ​

A “counting book thriller” definitely sounds like a new genre. The gripping drama, by debut author and illustrator Kate Read, is set in a moonlit farmyard, with close-up illustrations of a fox on the prowl. It will have you and your children sitting on the edge of the bed. Will the fox get the hens? There is something different to count on every page, to help learn numbers from one to 10.

One Fox by Kate Read is published on 23 February by Macmillan, £7.99

Elephant Me by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees

This empowering book is from the creators of the international bestseller and much-loved classic Giraffes Can’t Dance – a joyful story about self-acceptance, when a Giraffe realises he can dance . This new story is about a little elephant called Num-Num, who also learns how the best thing you can be is yourself.

Elephant Me by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Reesis published 14 May by Orchard Books, £12.99

Today I’m Strong by Nadiya Hussain and Ella Bailey

Nadiya Hussain is better known for winning The Great British Bake Off than for writing children’s books. Her first children’s book, Nadiya’s Bake Me a Story, was a bestseller in 2016. In 2019, having suffered from panic attacks, she wrote her first picture book My Monster and Me, about dealing with anxiety. Today I’m Strong is her second picture book and it’s about finding inner strength.

Today I’m Strong by Nadiya Hussain and Ella Bailey is published 15 October by Hachette Children’s Group, £12.99

Oi Aardvark! ABC – Oi Frog and Friends by Kes Gray and Jim Field

From the creators of Oi Frog! with “a special fold-out surprise”, this hilarious rhyming story helps young children learn their ABCs. With the help of Frog, Dog, and Cat, it takes you through the alphabet from Aardvark to Zebra. Other books in the series include Oi Dog!, Oi Duck-billed Platypus!, and Oi Goat!. The series has sold two million copies worldwide to date.

Oi Aardvark! ABC – Oi Frog and Friends by Kes Gray and Jim Field is published on 1 October, by Hatchette Children's Group, £12.99

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