BOOKS: The best children’s books for Christmas written by Booker Prize authors

Written by Donna Mackay-Smith

After the crackers have been pulled, the fire is roaring and those bellies are full, there’s no bigger joy at Christmas time than settling down as a family and turning the crisp pages of a new book. 

With the festive season upon us, we’ve compiled a list of children’s books written by Booker Prize-nominated authors that make the perfect gifts for everyone from tots right through to teens. From wintery classics to read together in the run-up or laugh-aloud stocking fillers for the big day, this selection of books will pass on the magic of storytelling to the children in your life.

Weirdo by Zadie Smith (ages 0-5)

Booker-shortlisted Zadie Smith dipped her toe into the world of children’s picturebooks in 2021 when she co-wrote Weirdo, along with her husband Nick Laird and Magenta Fox on illustrations.  It follows a gutsy little guinea pig who breaks the mould while wearing a judo suit. What’s not to love? With colourful images which are stylistically akin to a modern Raymond Briggs, Weirdo is a book with a big heart that will show readers it’s OK to be different and their individuality is something to be celebrated. Widely regarded as one of the finest contemporary writers, Smith first made the longlist in 2002 with The Autograph Man, followed by nominations for On Beauty in 2005 and the breathtaking Swing Time in 2017.

Meg’s Christmas by Jan Pieńkowski and David Walser (ages 2-5)

Jan Pieńkowski may not have been nominated for a Booker Prize, but the children’s picture book illustrator is an honorary member of the Booker Prize family – he designed the first Booker Prize trophy, after all. Pieńkowski is renowned for his timeless Meg and Mog stories, following hapless witch Meg, her cat Mog and their friend Owl in a series of silly escapades. Published in 2018, Meg’s Christmas, a festive-themed tale in the series sees the trio desperately trying to rescue their Christmas day after averting a disaster at home. With its simplistic images and irreverent humour, it’s an ideal read for pre-schoolers.

Up in the Tree by Margaret Atwood (ages 2 – 6)

Renowned for her terrifying dystopian works which have become symbols of resistance against the patriarchy, Margaret Atwood isn’t particularly associated with the slightly more quaint world of children’s picture books. Written in 1978, eight years before she published The Handmaid’s TaleUp in the Tree was the future Booker Prize winner’s first children’s book – a story about two children who make a home high in the branches. But when the ladder that connects them to the world down below is destroyed, they are left wondering if they are really so free. A playful read with a simple message at its core, Up in the Tree is illustrated by Atwood herself and a book adults and young children can enjoy together.

Can it be True? by Susan Hill (ages 2-7)

In 1988, master of the Gothic Susan Hill leant into a Thomas Hardy poem and turned it into an exquisite picture-led children’s book that won The Smarties Prize. Hill had been shortlisted twice – first for I’m the King of the Castle in 1970 followed by The Bird of Night in 1972 as well as judging the prize on two separate occasions. Can it be True? captures the essence of the British Isles through beautiful winter renderings of native animals, from hares to foxes, barn owls to whales, illustrated by Angela Barrett. With an underlying message of celebration and peace during the festive season, this is a perfect stocking filler that can then be enjoyed each Christmas Eve.

Rover Saves Christmas by Roddy Doyle (ages 7 – 9)

This action-packed read whisks children away with the jolly red man himself on a hilarious quest. Join Rover the dog as he tries to save Christmas when poor Rudolph gets the flu and grounds Santa’s sleigh. Written by Booker Prize-winner Roddy Doyle in 2001, whose novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won in 1993Rover Saves Christmas is full of slapstick gags and jokes that will spread a little festive cheer throughout the holiday season.

Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor (ages 8-11)

In 1967 Elizabeth Taylor wrote a book that still has the timeless ability to transport a reader to the halcyon days of childhood – a book full of marbles, tree climbing, forest explorations, and day-long adventures. But most of all, a book full of just the right amount of mischief. Mossy Trotter is a whimsical read that perfectly captures the essence of growing up between its pages and, surprisingly, it was the only children’s book the author wrote. Taylor went on to be shortlisted for Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont in 1971, a book at the opposite end of the spectrum – a ruthlessly observant study of eccentricity in old age.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders (ages 8-12)

Amid his many essays, columns and novels, Lincoln in the Bardo author George Saunders also regularly turns his fantastical imagination to children’s books. Before he won the Booker in 2017, he wrote The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, published in 2005, an endearingly strange story about the townspeople of Frip who are battling against an invasion of creatures called ‘gappers’ who are upsetting their herd of goats. Sounds wacky? It is, but remember, that’s what Saunders does best. Complemented by haunting artwork by award-winning illustrator Lane Smith, this is a fable with a deep-rooted message of community at its heart.

A Stitch in Time by Penelope Lively (ages 9-11)

Got a kiddo in your life who loves to sink into a mystery? Penelope Lively’s 1976 classic will be right up their street. Following Maria, an introspective young girl who often gets lost within the secret world in her imagination, and begins to see and hear things that aren’t really ‘there’. But when she connects with a ten-year-old girl from over a hundred years ago, Maria is drawn into the Victorian child’s life, where past and present merge. A gorgeous, time-travelling tale for independent readers by the twice-shortlisted author, who won the Booker Prize in 1987 with Moon Tiger.

The Owl Service by Alan Garner (ages 9-11)

It’s not every author that gets called ‘the most important British writer of fantasy since Tolkien’. An indisputable master of the genre, Alan Garner’s weird and wonderful stories are perfect for entertaining adults and children alike. In his Carnegie medal-winning The Owl Service which was later adapted for TV, three teenagers are drawn into a Welsh legend that they are doomed to replay. Combining mystery and mythology with a sprinkling of adventure, Garner’s 1967 story is a coming-of-age novel that will delight fans of eerie, darker reads. The author was shortlisted for the Booker Prize just this year with his fable Treacle Walker.

The Daydreamer by Ian McEwan (ages 9-11)

In 1994 Ian McEwan teamed up with former Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne to create the peculiar world of The Daydreamer, a novel where a young boy with a big imagination enters a world of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. McEwan evokes the strange and beguiling world of childhood while Browne’s bold and surrealist illustrations create a far-fetched masterpiece together, which draws comparisons to the zany worlds of Roald Dahl. The author has been nominated an impressive six times and won the prize in 1998 with Amsterdam, his darkly funny tale about a fragile friendship.

The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden ages (ages 9-11)

If you’re on the hunt for a heartwarming read to occupy an animal lover over the festive season, then look no further than Nina Bawden’s treasured classic The Peppermint Pig, published in 1975. A pint-sized piglet leaves a giant mark on one down-and-out family while they are struggling to make ends meet after their father goes overseas. The mischievous runt brings a dollop of laughter back into the children’s lives just when they need it most. Nina Bawden was a prolific writer for both children and adults and has been shortlisted for the prize twice with The Birds on the Trees in 1970 followed by Circles of Deceit in 1987The Peppermint Pig went on to win the 1976 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, a once-in-a-lifetime award judged by a panel of British children’s writers.

The Village by the Sea by Anita Desai (ages 9-11)

Three-time Booker-nominated Anita Desai won the Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize with The Village By The Sea in 1983, which she wrote in between two of her shortlisted books, Clear Light of Day and In Custody. A story of a small rural community in Bombay, India, it depicts the struggles and strengths of two children who hold their family together through both financial hardships and sorrow. Desai’s intricate writing beautifully illuminates a culture, through an emotional, coming-of-age story.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie (ages 9-11) 

Seven-time nominated and 1981 Booker Prize-winner Salman Rushdie routinely imbues a magical quality within his works, so it’s no surprise he can write masterpieces for younger readers to enjoy, too. Haroun and the Sea of Stories, published in 1990, is a fantastical tale in which a child is determined to return the gift of storytelling to his father, recapturing his lost stories on the back of a hoopoe bird. An enchanting read all about the strength of the familial bond.

The Six Lives of Fankle the Cat by George Mackay-Brown (ages 9-12) 

owAs a poet, George Mackay-Brown is renowned for his rich and evocative use of language, his native Orkney always providing the backdrop or inspiration for his work, as in his 1994 shortlisted saga Beside the Ocean of Time. It’s here he has also set his 1980 children’s book The Six Lives of Fankle the Cat, an imaginative feline caper where a cat tells Jenny, a little girl, of its former lives and the adventures he undertook. Now he is down to his final three. With each little life occupying a new chapter, this makes a lovely bedtime read, by one of the 20th century’s most original writers.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (13+)

Golding won the Booker Prize in 1980 with his haunting epic Rites of Passage, but it’s Lord of the Flies, his 1954 dystopian that has left an indelible mark on British culture. Revealing the darker side of adolescent life, it could be classified as one of the original YA novels, going on to sell over 25 million copies in the English language alone. A group of schoolboys are left stranded after a plane crash and while they try to forge their own society without adult supervision, order collapses and the grand idea of island adventures slowly slip from their grasp. A novel synonymous with the lost innocence of childhood, it’s a thought-provoking and captivating read for young readers who love survival stories, with a twist.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: