Sarah Forster recommends children's books that tackle weighty topics with grace and humour.
Right now in Aotearoa, children's books are following three distinct trends: anxiety, climate change and Māori stories/books in te reo Māori.
The first two — anxiety and climate change — are international trends and, while they began prior to 2020, this year has seen a huge number of books released along these themes.
While the third trend is unique to Aotearoa, it is one that has been growing for some time. It began with a wide range of baby books and educational titles in te reo Māori, in response to a need for pukapuka for kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa Māori.
It is now reaching a milestone with the first publishing year of Kotahi Rau Pukapuka, the brilliant publishing programme led by Auckland University Press that aims to bring us 100 books translated into te reo Māori.
There are a number of international authors who have published wonderful, lauded books this year: Patrick Ness, Neil Gaiman, Chris Riddell, Jessica Townsend, poetry illustrated by Britta Teckentrup. But, as managing editor of The Sapling, I want to tell you about the books from Aotearoa I think stand with the best.
Hare and Ruru: A Quiet Moment, by Laura Shallcrass (Beatnik Books, $30) gives young children some wonderful techniques to deal with the "noise" in their heads. Hare is struggling to find a place where noise can't reach them and Ruru helps them with their wisdom, telling them to talk to someone, focus on breathing and connect with nature.
Aroha Knows, by Rebekah Lipp and Craig Phillips (Wildling Books, $20) sees Aroha teach her friends practical ways to ground themselves in nature. Kids will enjoy the soothing message and illustrations.
Meanwhile, I am the Universe (Penguin Books, $25) provides a way of figuring out where we are in the world in a meta sense, with out-of-this-world illustrations from Vasanti Unka.
If you want to begin a journey towards learning te reo Māori, first pick up Mihi, by Gavin Bishop (Gecko Press, $18), then check out Kuwi and Friends Māori Picture Dictionary (Illustrated Books, $35), featuring Kat Quin's wonderful Kuwi taking us through a great range of basic kupu, translated by Pānia Papa.
If you would like to help your slightly older kids connect with the natural world, there is no better book than The Nature Activity Book, by Rachel Haydon and Pippa Keel (Te Papa Press, $35). Kids can classify wildlife, follow patterns, learn about flowers and even learn how to conserve water with the help of this book.
Next I want to recommend three books for 8-12-year-olds that deal with the mysteries of the deep. First, Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea, by T.K. Roxborogh (Huia Publishing, $25). After rescuing a ponaturi (mermaid) from the beach, Charlie finds himself at the centre of an ancient grudge between Māori ātua Tangaroa and Tāne, fighting for the life of he and his whānau.
Classically styled graphic novel The Inkberg Enigma, by Jonathan King (Gecko Press, $30) begins with a boy obsessed with antiquarian books. On his way home from pawning a diving helmet, he spots some tentacles. He and his friend are drawn into the town's dark secrets, working together to get to the bottom of the evil at the heart of their town.
My third maritime tale is Across the Risen Sea, by Bren MacDibble (Allen & Unwin, $19) which is set in a sea-level rise-ruined Australia. Our heroine is forced by some mysterious strangers on a wild adventure into the unknown to save her best friend. It somehow teaches us about democracy, while remaining a wild ride of a story complete with jumping alligators.
Moving back on to firm land and into a castle, if you will, I have been looking forward all year to Mophead Tu: The Queen's Poem, by Selina Tusitala Marsh (AUP, $25).
She won the 2019 Margaret Mahy Book of the Year with her autobiographical Mophead, and the second is just as phenomenal, beginning with Unity — her poem for the Queen — before explaining colonisation with a flourish and doing it all with good humour and creative illustrations.
Next, let's visit the imaginary world of Gareth Ward in the vividly told The Rise of the Remarkables: Brasswitch and Bot (Walker Books, $23). This is a tale of intrigue and monsters, and wonderful steampunk creations, for kids who love fantasy. It is pitched slightly older than Ward's first series and features an immersive world of mechanical magic.
Finally, something is happening to Charlie's friends and, thanks to his dad being one of the geneticists who first discovered it, Charlie knows exactly what it is. Debut novel Neands, by Dan Salmon (OneTree House, $24), is the story of a rapidly spreading disease that makes humans hairier, angrier and hornier — a super-charged puberty that can strike at any age.