From John Grisham to Jenny Colgan, it’s surprising how many successful adult authors have also written children’s books during their careers.
Some, like Shopaholic creator Sophie Kinsella, produce children’s books in a totally different genre (Kinsella’s Mummy Fairy and Me series is about a mum who turns into a fairy) while others, like Adam Kay, the author of the mega-selling This is Going to Hurt, stick to subjects they know inside out.
In some cases, authors choose to revise their adult books for a younger audience. Michelle Obama recently adapted her bestselling memoir, Becoming, for youngsters aged nine and over while a young reader’s edition of US vice president Kamala Harris’s The Truths We Hold: An American’s Journey will be published in May.
Maggie O’Farrell, who won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction forHamnet, says she created her debut children’s book, Where Snow Angels Go, for her own family.
“The snow angel is a story that I made up for my children, slightly off the cuff to begin with,” she told The Irish Post. “Then I was away for a couple of weeks so I was sending them a letter every day and in some of the letters I wrote a bit more about the snow angel. I sort of developed it into a proper story. When I got back my daughters had all the letters and they said ‘we really want this to be a proper book with pictures.’”
The latest authors to turn their attention to a younger audience are Zadie Smith and her husband Nick Laird. Weirdo, their picture book, is out 15 April and to celebrate its publication we review a selection of the best children’s books written by adult authors. Many were published very recently and we’ve judged them on their readability, verve and flair.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.
‘Weirdo’ by Zadie Smith and Nick Laird, illustrated by Magenta Fox, published by Penguin Random House Children’s UK
From her debut novel,White Teeth, to the highly acclaimed On Beauty and Grand Union, Zadie Smith is a literary phenomenon. Now she and her husband, the poet and novelist Nick Laird, have teamed up to write their first picture book.
As we expected, it’s a sure-fire winner – the endearing story of a shy guinea pig dressed in a judo suit who with the help of an eccentric old lady learns that being herself is the best thing she can be. With charming illustrations by debut artist Magenta Fox, this is a book that celebrates the power of being different and will enchant children and adults alike.
‘Where Snow Angels Go’ by Maggie O’Farrell, published by Walker Books
Maggie O’Farrell is one of the UK’s most successful writers. But last year she decided to add a children’s book to her list of credits. Sure enough, it’s an out-and-out winner, the story of a little girl who wakes in the middle of the night to find a glowing figure with white wings beside her bed. Could it be the snow angel she made last winter? Illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini, this atmospheric fairy tale about kindness, strength of character and the fragility of life will appeal to children of all ages.
‘Kay’s Anatomy’ by Adam Kay, published by Penguin Random House Children’s UK
This is Going To Hurt, Adam Kay’s hilarious and at times alarming memoir about his days as a junior doctor, rocketed up the bestseller lists when it was published in 2017 and stayed there for months on end. More recently he came up with the idea of writing “a complete (and completely disgusting) guide to the human body” for younger readers.
Fascinating and funny in equal measure, it explains, sometimes in gruesome detail, exactly how our bodies work. Did you know that your heart pumps enough blood around your body every day to fill 90 baths? Or that we’re shorter at night than we are in the morning? Brilliantly illustrated by Henry Paker, this is a book we wish we’d had when we were children.
‘When We Went Wild’ by Isabella Tree, published by Ivy Kids
Conservationist, Isabella Tree, made her name with Wilding – her memoir about the rewilding project she runs with her husband in West Sussex. Their decision to stop using machinery and chemicals and let nature take its course has seen an extraordinary increase in rare wildlife, eco-diversity and eco-tourism.
Now she has written a picture book for children – the fictional account of Nancy and Jake, two farmers who try to do everything right but realise that hardly any wildlife lives on their farm. Then Nancy has an idea. Why don’t they let their land go wild? Printed on recycled paper and with gorgeous illustrations by Allira Tee, Tree’s story is the perfect way to help children connect with the natural world.
‘Mummy Fairy and Me: Mermaid Magic’ by Sophie Kinsella, published by Penguin Random House Children’s UK
Famous for her witty Shopaholic series, Sophie Kinsella is one of the UK’s most successful authors. She has written more than 20 novels and sold more than 40 million books worldwide. But she writes for younger readers too, including Finding Audrey, a young adult novel, and the engaging Mummy Fairy and Me books.
Mermaid Magic is the fourth in the series about Ella and her mum and like the others, it’s a delightful and funny read. Ella’s mother may look like any other mum but if she stamps her feet three times, claps her hands, wiggles her bottom and says “marshmallow” she turns into a fairy. The only problem is that her magic spells have a habit of going wrong.
‘Becoming: Adapted for Younger Readers’ by Michelle Obama, published by Penguin Random House Children’s UK
Former First Lady, Michelle Obama, is one of the most admired women in the world – renowned for her empathy, compassion and determination to make a difference. Her memoir, Becoming, became one of the most popular memoirs ever when it was published in 2018 and now she has adapted it for younger readers.
She’s written a new introduction, added new photographs and tells the story of how, through hard work and resolve, the girl from the south side of Chicago built an extraordinary life. Describing herself as “an ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey”, Obama says that “for every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others”. All teenage girls – and boys too – should read her compelling and inspirational story.
‘The Carpet People’ by Terry Pratchett, published by Corgi
First published in 1971, this was Sir Terry Pratchett’s first book. He went on to write more than 50 books for adults and children but is perhaps best known for Discworld, his series about an extraordinary world carried on the back of a giant turtle floating through space.
This new edition of The Carpet People, published on April 22 to celebrate the book’s 50th anniversary, is a hoot from start to finish and shows what a genius Pratchett was. Set in a fantastical world contained within the fronds of a carpet, the tale features two brothers who set out on an adventure to end all adventures. A hilarious and wise tale from a masterly and much-missed storyteller.
‘Scaredy Cat’ by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein, published by Young Arrow
Few thriller writers can match the success of James Patterson. The former advertising executive has sold more than 375 million books worldwide and has been the most borrowed author in UK libraries for 13 years running. But he also writes children’s books, and his latest, Scaredy Cat, is a comic page-turner that never misses a beat.
It stars two shelter cats, Pasha and Poop, who are thrilled when they’re adopted by the Wilde family. But their happiness is threatened by a feline bully called Scaredy Cat who rules the local cat population with a rod of iron. Patterson is passionate about encouraging children to read and this tale, complete with snappy one-liners and illustrations by John Herzog, will appeal to youngsters, even the most reluctant of readers.
‘Thunderbolt’ by Wilbur Smith with Chris Wakling, published by Piccadilly Press
Wilbur Smith’s first novel, When the Lion Feeds, was published in 1964 and since then he’s written more than 40 bestsellers. Thunderbolt is the second in his action-packed Jack Courtney series for children (the first was Cloudburst, published in 2020).
Jack is diving for lost treasure in Zanzibar when he and his two friends are lured into a trap, captured by Somali pirates and held for ransom before being taken to a militia training camp for child soldiers. Co-written with Chris Wakling, this is a pulsating, utterly believable read that kept us on the edge of our seats till the very end.
‘A Girl Called Justice’ by Elly Griffiths, published by Quercus
Elly Griffiths is best known for her two crime series, the Dr Ruth Galloway books and the Brighton Mysteries, but she also writes children’s novels. A Girl Called Justice is the first in an enthralling series about super-smart Justice Jones, a 12-year-old who’s obsessed with detective stories and murder trials.
When her mother dies her father sends her to Highbury House Boarding School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk, a scary place that looks like a cross between Dracula’s castle and a prison. Justice soon discovers that a maid has mysteriously died and she’s determined to get to the bottom of it. The second in this pacey series, The Smugglers’ Secret, has been shortlisted for the Best Crime Novel for Children (aged eight to 12) Award, and the third, A Ghost in the Garden, will be out in May.
‘Chase’ by Linwood Barclay, published by Orion Children’s Books
Linwood Barclay has written a string of blockbuster thrillers, including No Time for Goodbye, a rollercoaster of a read about a girl whose family vanishes into thin air. His first children’s book, published in 2017, is just as electrifying.
Border collie Chipper is part of a top secret experiment to turn dogs into spies, but when he escapes and teams up with 12-year-old orphan Jeff, the pair find themselves entangled in a deadly game of chase. With twists and turns galore, this is a pulsating story that will appeal to fans of Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore.
The verdict: Children’s novels by adult authors
It was a close run but Weirdo by Zadie Smith and Nick Laird is our top choice. A fun story for pre-schoolers, it’s beautifully illustrated by Magenta Fox and carries a powerful and upbeat message. Our runner-up is Kay’s Anatomy by Adam Kay which manages to be laugh-out-loud-funny and educational at the same time.
If your little one is a budding author themselves, check out our round up of the best kids’ journals to draw in and write down their feelings
IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.