I first got involved with Five Books—when it was being set up as an extension of The Browser, an article recommendation website edited by Robert Cottrell—just after my third child was born. As it was web-based and we could interview people by phone, it was something that was intellectually stimulating but also easy to combine with being home with the kids. A decade on, Five Books remains incredibly rewarding. This year I’ve been privileged enough to talk to Indian historian Ramachandra Guha about Gandhi (an interview that was about six years in the planning) as well as to Frannie Cassano, the 2018 Romance Writers of America’s Librarian of the Year, about the romance genre. I’ve learned about linguistics, bankruptcy and global history (to name just a few). I’ve talked to people I admire about the best books of 2019 in philosophy, economics, mathematics, climate change and history. But a lot of my day is still taken up with kid-related stuff, and doing everything I can to help my children grow up happy and fulfilled. Just a few weeks ago I spoke to Bianca Schulze, editor and founder of The Children’s Book Review, about the best kids’ books of 2019, and she had some lovely choices. (I also bought her own book, 101 Books To Read Before You Grow Up as a present for one of my daughters).

But here are some of the books my husband and I and our kids—now aged 13, 12 and 11—have enjoyed reading over the course of this year.

THE BOOK OF DUST: THE SECRET COMMONWEALTH by Philip Pullman

What to say about Philip Pullman and The Secret Commonwealth? It’s the fifth book in his series about Lyra, a girl from Oxford. They’re not chronological, but you probably do need to read them in order, starting with Northern Lights, the first book of His Dark Materials trilogy. The Book of Dust, the second trilogy, is both about when Lyra is a baby (La Belle Sauvage, published in 2017) and when she’s a student, in this book. There’s some discussion in our family about whether The Secret Commonwealth is as good as the previous ones. Philip Pullman is a born storyteller and he can make almost any scene interesting, but as my husband says, in this book it does seem as if he’s making it up as he goes along.

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And yet, sitting down to read it in the evenings is always one of the highlights of the day. My children are now in their tweens, but since they were little we’ve always had one book (or preferably series) that we read together as a family. It has to appeal to both grown-ups and children, and spin a fine yarn so that the kids are keen to get their teeth brushed and into bed early enough to have time to listen to it. The Secret Commonwealth fits the bill, and we’re already looking forward to the final installment, which will presumably be out either this year or in 2021.

SCARLET AND IVY: THE LAST SECRET by Sophie Cleverly

My 11-year-old daughter reads a lot and loves books in general, but Scarlet and Ivy is the series she loves above all others. It’s about twins called Scarlet and Ivy who go to a school called Rookwood and solve mysteries. The plots are always really good, it’s well written and if you read one book you’ll always want to read the next, so they’re quite ‘hooking’ (as she puts it). The Last Secret is the latest and probably the last in the series, but according to her it’s also the best (though The Whispers in the Walls, the second in the series, is amazing too).

WINTER IN WARTIME by Jan Terlouw

Winter in Wartime by Jan Terlouw was not exactly published in 2019; it first came out in 1972 as Oorlogswinter, and was one of my favourite books as a child. But this is the first time it’s been translated into English, part of a fabulous initiative by Pushkin Children’s to publish classics of children’s literature from other countries in the English language. War in Winter has been nominated by my 13-year old son as his favourite book of the year. He’s interested in war anyway (his favourite Christmas present last year was Battles that Changed History) but this is a work of fiction.

Set in the Netherlands during World War II, it’s about a young boy and the things he gets up to during the German occupation. Jan Terlouw, now in his 80s, based it partly on his own experiences, but the book has all the nice plot twists you expect from fiction. Also, as a children’s book written nearly half a century ago about a period of Dutch history that the country still struggles to come to terms with, I thought it might be a bit black-and-white: but it actually isn’t.

THE GOOD THIEVES by Katherine Rundell

The Good Thieves is by Katherine Rundell which, according to my kids, is already enough of a recommendation: the book needs no further introduction. But if you need a bit more detail, it’s an adventure story and a lot happens in it. It’s about a girl who goes to New York to look after her grandfather. She tries to put together a band of kid robbers (including two from the circus) to help steal an emerald to get back her grandfather’s home that was stolen from him.

THE BEAST OF BUCKINGHAM PALACE, by David Walliams

Now we’re in the realms of the mega bestsellers, books that you see in the window of every British bookshop and for sale at airports. Gangsta Granny, Awful Auntie, The Demon Dentist, Fing: British kids who like to read have often read all of David Walliams’s books. The Beast of Buckingham Palace is the latest and I was a bit reluctant to buy it, thinking that the formula might be wearing thin. But in this book the formula is, according to my kids, different. All Walliams’s other books are about daily life (in some sense). This one is set in the future, in 2120. There’s a king in power but anarchy and revolution rule. And yet, the characters are still funny. It’s one of his best, according to my son, while my 11-year old daughter states unequivocally, “This is the best book he’s ever written.”

Some other brilliant books read in 2019:

Finally a roundup of books that the kids read in 2019 and really enjoyed, even though they weren’t published this year. Top of the list is The Snow Angel by Lauren St John. “It’s amazing,” says my 11-year-old daughter. It’s sad (because the heroine is an orphan) but apparently that’s a good thing. Also recommended by the kids: I Am Malala—because it’s a true story about Malala’s life—and The Potion Diaries, a series of 3 books, with adventure and magic. Meanwhile my 13-year old son amassed and read the entire CHERUB series  by Five Books interviewee Robert Muchamore. 

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Sophie Roell

Sophie Roell is editor and one of the founders of Five Books. Previously she worked as a journalist in London, Beijing, Shanghai and New York. As a financial reporter, she covered the early years of the Chinese stock markets and the transition of its economy after Deng Xiaoping's 1992 tour of the south. She reported on the North Korean economy in 2001.

She studied modern history as an undergraduate at Oxford and, after travelling the world as a reporter for five years, took the Master's in Regional Studies-East Asia at Harvard University.  This wonderfully flexible program insists on at least one East Asian language and some courses on East Asia, but leaves plenty of room to roam about the university taking courses on random subjects.

It was hard to go back to a proper job after that and Five Books, set up in 2009, is her attempt to be a grad student forever (without the stress of having to write a PhD).

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Sophie Roell

Sophie Roell is editor and one of the founders of Five Books. Previously she worked as a journalist in London, Beijing, Shanghai and New York. As a financial reporter, she covered the early years of the Chinese stock markets and the transition of its economy after Deng Xiaoping's 1992 tour of the south. She reported on the North Korean economy in 2001.

She studied modern history as an undergraduate at Oxford and, after travelling the world as a reporter for five years, took the Master's in Regional Studies-East Asia at Harvard University.  This wonderfully flexible program insists on at least one East Asian language and some courses on East Asia, but leaves plenty of room to roam about the university taking courses on random subjects.

It was hard to go back to a proper job after that and Five Books, set up in 2009, is her attempt to be a grad student forever (without the stress of having to write a PhD).