The greatest children’s books of the 21st century
As a reader destined to grow up to become a writer, the lack of representation McNicoll encountered as a child did not deter her from books. “I think when I think about it, I didn’t regret the lack of representation, I found joy in other stories,” she says. “But the negative portrayal, where disabled characters are always evil or objects of hatred or pity—that was not pleasant to read. I wanted an antidote. That’s why I wrote the antidote.”
In doing so, she sought inspiration from the works she loved as a child, including the books of Jacqueline Wilson and LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. “I wanted to write an autistic Anne Shirley,” she says, noting that some within the autistic community argue that Anne is actually neurodivergent.
It’s an interesting idea, and one that suggests that children’s and YA writing today is not only in dialogue with the books of the past, but also an opportunity to take a fresh look at those books. Take Kate DiCamillo’s exquisitely illustrated book, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (2006), number 68 on the list. It follows a clever but proud Chinese rabbit’s journey of self-discovery and riffs on big themes like loss and compassion. It’s also reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier, highlighting the almost sadistic lengths to which the story goes to enhance the game’s character.
There is no doubt that darkness has always been an integral part of children’s literature, but despite warnings and the rise of safe spaces, the perception of its role has changed radically in recent years – even in the case of picture books. Just look at Australian Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (2006), the highest-ranking 21st-century title on the list at number 16. A completely wordless story, its mysterious images and moody, muted palette offer a vision of the immigrant experience (his story). his father is Chinese), which shares the enigmatically sinister atmosphere of another Tan book, Rules of Summer (2013), ranked #42 on the list.