This year’s best books for children address sadness and fear while celebrating love, resilience, hope and joy. In The Big Dreaming by Michael Rosen and Daniel Egnéus (Bloomsbury), two bears are preparing for the Big Sleep, but Little Bear worries they won’t have enough dreams to last the winter. He sets out on a dangerous journey, from which he returns with stored visions of happiness, homecoming and hope. Egnéus’s light-dappled illustrations pair seamlessly with Rosen’s simple, moving text to create a picture book of sublime warmth and comfort.
Lighthearted and rambunctious, The Ogre Who Wasn’t by Michael Morpurgo and Emily Gravett (Two Hoots) is a fairytale with a difference. While Princess Clara’s father is away, the horrible palace staff insist on decorous silence and uncomfortable clothes. When Clara finds a little “ogre” in her shoe, however, she manages to scare off the nannies and butlers – and when her father returns with a new love, there’s a blissfully muddy happy-ever-after. This sweet, spirited picture book has some of the anarchic energy of Tony Ross’s Little Princess, and an acutely observed sense of how small people see the world.
For a soaring story of the loving bond between parent and child, A Way to the Stars by David Almond and Gill Smith (Walker) is sheer delight. When Joe is desperate to reach the stars, his dad is fully on board (as soon as he’s finished his cuppa). Together they build a ladder, a tower, even a rocket – “Crash, bang, wallop!” – without success. But every time they laugh and try again, until a shed roof painted with swirling galaxies allows Joe to achieve his luminous dream.
In picture books for older children of 5+, On the Tip of a Wave by Joanna Ho and Cátia Chien (Scholastic) is an understated, eloquent account of Ai Weiwei’s career, from his childhood in a labour camp to his lifejackets exhibition at the Berlin Konzerthaus. Chien’s dusty earth tones, cold rushing blues and the strident neon orange of the lifejackets resonate strongly with Ho’s lyrical words (“The wave rider held out his hands / And helped the world / remember /humanity”), for a book that feels like a piece of art in its own right.
In a similarly thoughtful vein, Begin Again by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins) is a gorgeous, space-filled picture-book meditation on “the stories that steer us”: the “them and us” narratives that divide humanity, and the deep necessity of returning to shared stories and common ground.
From the children’s laureate Joseph Coelho, meanwhile, comes a standing invitation to creativity in the form of Poetry Prompts (Quarto), illustrated by four different artists with naive, colourful charm. Coelho is passionate about making poetry accessible, and this collection of ways to get started, complete with “poetry power-ups” and performance hints, should appeal strongly to children of five and up – and may well entice older kids along, too.
For nonfiction enthusiasts of 8+, A Really Short Journey Through the Body by Bill Bryson (Puffin), adapted for children by science journalist Emma Young, and again featuring the bright, bold, graphic work of four different illustrators, is a sure-fire winner, especially among those who enjoy a touch of gruesome humour. An investigation of human life from beginning to end, by way of cell development, musculature, organ function and disease, it sparkles with interest and excitement throughout, incorporating fascinating trivia and vignettes of medical history.
In Oscar’s Lion by Adam Baron (HarperCollins), atmospherically illustrated by Benji Davies, Oscar is alarmed to discover that his parents have vanished and that a large lion is now in residence. When the lion reads him his favourite story, takes him sledging and makes pancakes for breakfast, however, Oscar decides the new regime isn’t all bad – especially when the big cat demonstrates his ability to change into a whole menagerie of creatures. But has he really eaten Oscar’s parents? This charming, tender, unusual story of love, grief and family ties from the author of Boy Underwater will chime particularly with children who are coming to terms with loss.
From the Carnegie-winning Katya Balen, Foxlight (Bloomsbury) is another poignant story about adapting to absence. Twin sisters Fen and Rey have never known their parents; left in the bracken as babies, they’re brought up with the other “found” children until they follow a fox guide on a search for their mother. But the dangers they face are beyond their imagining – as is the widening gap between them. Quietly wild, richly thoughtful, Balen’s outstanding writing transports the reader as if on a pilgrimage.
Finally, Ultrawild (Allen & Unwin) by industrial designer Steve Mushin is a brain-meltingly intricate and inspiring compendium of the gigantic ideas needed to repair the planet by rewilding every city on Earth. From compost-firing cannons to water-filtering sewer submarines, Mushin’s bonkers, brilliant, boundary-breaking inventions give permission to eager 9+ conservationists to push their imaginations to the limit, rather than yield to despair.
• To browse all children’s books included in the Guardian and Observer’s best books of 2023 visit guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.