Most, but not all, of these lovely books involve friendship between children and imaginary or toy animals.
Margaret’s Unicorn by Briony Kay Smith (Walker Books, 2021 hardback) is one of my top favourites from recent children’s picture books. Heartwarmingly tender, it has truly lovely illustrations with evocative coastal landscapes.
Karl Newson’s How to Mend a Friend and illustrated by Clara Anganuzzi (Bonnier Books, 2021) uses imaginary animal friends to show children how to support others who are experiencing different kinds of sadness. Just brilliant for developing empathy, but needs sensitive handling. (Could be used with slightly older children too,)
Found You by Devon Holzwarth (Scholastic, 2020) is a gentle tale of a boy making friends with a bird, but has so much to teach children, not only about being shy and making friends, but about arriving to live in a new community too.
The Girl and the Dinosaur by Hollie Hughes and Sarah Massini (Bloomsbury, 2020) is a very special book with clever ‘post-modern’ illustrations that takes readers (listeners) on a very special journey that goes far beyond its pages.
Many of Susan Jeffers’s picture books were produced twenty years or more ago, but they are well worth seeking out, not least for their breathtakingly beautiful, realistically drawn illustrations. My Pony by Susan Jeffers (Hyperion, 2008) still seems to be available and is valuable not only for its stunning pictures, but for a sensitive text that shows how imagination can make a real pony magical.
(Important note: Boys need to be taught from a young age that books about girls aren’t just for girls.)
There are two stories in Luma and the Pet Dragon by Leah Mohammed (Welbeck, 2022) so you can choose to read either or both. There is also a follow-on, Luma and the Hiccuping Dragon. The stories are warm and funny with a clever, imaginative twist.
As the title suggests Rabbit and Bear by Julian Gough and Jim Field (Hachette, 2016) is actually about two animal friends, rather than a child and friend, but is too much of a gem for me to resist including it. Hilarious in both words and its copious pictures, it presents like a ‘chapter book’ but is actually a fairly short read, so is an excellent transition from picture books. There is a whole series of follow-ons that children who have completed a phonics programme can perhaps go on to read independently.
This is a slightly longer book, so a bit of a move on from the above, but The Legend of Kevin (Oxford University Press, 2019) still has short chapters that can be read relatively quickly. Writer Philip Reeve and illustrator Sarah McIntyre are amongst the megastars of current children’s fiction and it shows in this hilarious tale of a boy and his relationship to a magical flying pony. Again there are more in the series as well as other books by this duo at roughly the same age and interest level.
Two longer reads, but broken up into separate stories:
Winnie-the-Pooh cannot possibly need any introduction. I am not generally a fan of modern writing that hangs onto the shirt tails of earlier classics, but Winnie-the-Pooh: Once There was a Bear (The Official 95th Anniversary Prequel) by Jane Riordan and illustrated by Mark Burgess (HarperCollins, 2021) is an exception. Both writer and illustrator have created a respectful tribute rather than a pastiche, and the resultant stories are just as entertaining as the originals. As with A.A. Milne’s own stories, some of the more sophisticated humour may pass over the heads of some children, but the delight will not.
However, bringing this genre bang up to date is Einstein the Penguin by Iona Rangeley and illustrated by David Tazzyman (HarperCollins, 2021). This is a joyful, surprising story of a Penguin who turns up to live with a family, quirkily illustrated and delightful to read aloud. It is surely destined to become a future classic as the ‘new Paddington Bear’.
Author biog: Now retired, Gordon Askew was for many years a primary school teacher and later headteacher. After that he was a Primary Education Adviser, first for a Local Authority and then at national level. Read more from Gordon on his From the Story Chair blog at this link.