Emily Bearn reviews the best children’s books and young adult fiction of the year. From rollicking adventures to charming picture-books, these are sure to keep even the most restless kids entertained
The Garden of Lost Secrets by AM Howell (Usborne) ★★★★★
While the Second World War has inspired some of the most famous children's novels of the past half-century (Carrie's War, The Silver Sword, Goodnight Mister Tom), the First World War has produced considerably fewer. But the centenary of the Armistice has altered the balance, with titles such as The Skylarks' War (Hilary McKay) among a stream of prize-winning new fiction set during the Great War. The Garden of Lost Secrets is another such gem.
The story begins in October 1916, when 12-year-old Clara is sent to stay with her aunt and uncle, who work as the housekeeper and head gardener on a country estate. "Try not to worry, Clara ... Look on this as a little adventure. We will all be together again soon," her mother reassures her. But on arrival, Clara finds her aunt and uncle unrecognisable from the jocular figures she remembers from earlier visits. Among her aunt's litany of rules is that Clara is "under no circumstances ... to go near the Earl's hothouses or summer house". But naturally, she does, and soon finds herself embroiled in a deftly plotted mystery involving a locked room, a ghostlike child who appears in the gardens at night – and the disappearance of the Earl's coveted pineapples. Clara, writes Howell, "had never thought of herself as particularly brave". But as her "little adventure" spirals into a perilous quest for truth, this young heroine shows herself a match for any 21st-century schoolgirl sleuth.
Debut writer Howell says her story was inspired by reading an old gardener's notebook from Ickworth House in Suffolk – and she writes with the ease of someone who feels thoroughly at home in her historic milieu. But this is also a touching story about courage and friendship, which should appeal equally to readers with more modern tastes.
Evie and the Animals by Matt Haig (Canongate) ★★★★★
Matt Haig's bestselling memoirs Reasons to Stay Alive (2015) and Notes on a Nervous Planet (2018) explored his struggle with depression, and made him one of the most popular self-help writers in the world. His children's fiction seems far removed from his adult titles, in which he remembers a youth shadowed by the fear of "death or total madness". But Haig says that all his stories are "really guide books", in which he shares the lessons learnt during his recovery. His first picture book, The Truth Pixie (2018), concerned a girl who is worried about the future. Haig described it as: "Reasons to Stay Alive for seven-year-olds – but with trolls and elves and silly jokes thrown in."
In that title, the theme was anxiety. In Evie and the Animals, we have scrolled down the self-help index to find ourselves at "fitting in": "Once there was a girl called Evie Trench. Evie was not a normal child. She was a 'special' child ... Evie often thought it would be a lot easier to be a normal child than a special child, but there you go."
Haig is too accomplished a storyteller to allow lessons to be overstated, and what follows is a suspenseful thriller, with a fine balance of peril and poignancy. Evie can talk to animals, and it is through her conversations with characters such as Beak the sparrow that Haig dispenses some of the pithy wisdom that characterises his adult books: "If you have wings. It's like freedom... There is nothing like being free to be yourself." But things take a sinister turn when Evie finds herself under threat from the villainous Mortimer, who "uses animals to kill everyone with the Talent. This is why you must never act on it again." Haig is a deeply engaging writer. This book will appeal to a wide range of readers – not just those who worry about fitting in.
Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone (Simon & Schuster) ★★★★★
Abi Elphinstone has been described as a "worthy successor to C S Lewis" and her fantasy novels (The Dreamsnatcher, Sky Song) have been compared to Narnia. This seems a heavy burden to place on her, given that Lewis was one of the most influential writers of the last century, who became – in the words of the American magazine Christianity Today – "the Aquinas, the Augustine and the Aesop of contemporary evangelicalism".
If you read Elphinstone's latest novel Rumblestar seeking theological wisdom, you will be disappointed. But this is a suspenseful and beautifully imagined fantasy that will have a new generation of followers. The book's unlikely hero is the 11-year-old Casper Tock, a bursary boy at Little Wallops boarding school. Rich children make easy villains in children's fiction, and Casper's odious classmate Candida is one such caricature: "You don't belong here... The pupils at Little Wallops are from well-connected families. We're refined. Special." Casper keeps a low profile and adheres to a rigid regime ("that way, fewer things went wrong"). But one day he stumbles into Rumblestar, an Unmapped Kingdom whose magic is under threat from the evil harpy Morg. Casper must rise to the rescue, aided by his new friend Utterly Thankless, a girl allergic to behaving, and her miniature dragon Arlo.
Elphinstone is a joyful writer who never lets the action flag. Her jaunty style is a far cry from the stark beauty of Lewis's prose. But as in all good fantasy, there is a deeper meaning, and the real magic in her story lies in the transformation of an ordinary child: "Back in Little Wallops he would have let people walk all over him [but] out here in the forest he felt suddenly bold. 'I'm a million miles from home, Utterly, but I'm giving this quest everything I've got.'"
The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury) ★★★★☆
Katherine Rundell's first four novels had ecstatic reviews ("The world had better watch out!" raved Philip Pullman about The Wolf Wilder) and made her the queen of highbrow children's fiction. She has said that her aim when she writes is "to put down ... the things that I most urgently and desperately want children to know." This sense of urgency informs her latest novel, The Good Thieves, which combines a galloping plot with some neatly scattered pearls of wisdom.
The story is set in Thirties New York, where Vita Marlowe's grandfather has been robbed of his family home by a notorious con man. So Vita and her mother set sail from their home in England to put things right. Rundell's heroes seldom have it easy. (In The Explorer, four young children have to battle through the Amazon jungle; in Rooftoppers, the infant Sophie is found floating at sea in a cello case.) But despite suffering from ongoing pain as a result of polio, Vita faces every challenge with Rundellian fortitude. When we meet her she is standing on deck as her ship crests a wave "the size of an opera house"; and she arrives in New York with the bombast of a young Donald Trump: "Vita set her jaw and nodded at the city in greeting, as a boxer greets an opponent before a fight." But when she finally tracks down the con man, Vita's quest for justice takes an unexpectedly perilous course.
As a child, Rundell has said, she read "with a rage to understand". There are moments in her writing when life's lessons can seem too eagerly applied ("Love has a way of leaving people no choice"; "It is not always sensible to be sensible", etc). But this is a nit-picking criticism. The Good Thieves is another suspenseful and beautifully written book that will delight Rundell's fans.
We Won an Island by Charlotte Lo (Nosy Crow) ★★★★★
Twenty-five years after his death, ITV’s sun-soaked adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s Corfu memoirs has catapulted his books back into the bestseller lists. With Durrell-mania at an all-time high, will this debut novel by Charlotte Lo – “about island life with hints of The Durrells” – stand up to its tantalising sales pitch?
The heroine is Luna, one of three children whose bereaved father has been suffering from depression: “Everything changed when [Granny] died. Dad barely spoke any more. Instead he just spent all day asleep or watching old Countdown episodes.” He has stopped going to work, and when the story begins the family is facing eviction from their London flat. But an escape is offered when a billionaire launches a competition to give away his remote Scottish island, and Luna unexpectedly wins: “I missed Dad’s smile. If he just gave the island a chance, I was sure he’d find it again.” So Luna’s bewildered family duly find themselves pulling their suitcases across an abandoned beach, and moving into a tumbledown house full of bats. “Vines climbed up the brickwork, twisted around the windows and swallowed the front door… our island was a tangle of weeds, colourful flowers and zippy insects.”
What follows is a touching story of domestic mayhem and the restorative power of nature. Lo is a simple, elegant writer, whose prose will appeal to readers of all ages. But while there is plenty of comedy (not least when Luna’s brother enters a local sheep pageant), at the heart of the tale is Luna’s struggle to win her grieving father back. Most children’s books contain some sort of baddie. But here there are no villains, and even the billionaire turns out to be benevolent. It might not be Corfu, but this book is definitely a bask in the sun.
Malamander by Thomas Taylor (Walker) ★★★★★
Thomas Taylor's career as a children's illustrator took off like a meteor 20 years ago, when he drew the cover for the first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Since then, he has written and illustrated umpteen picture books but only now has he finally published a fantasy novel of his own.
Malamander tells the story of 12-year-old Herbert Lemon, who lives and works in the Lost and Found cupboard of the Grand Nautilus Hotel in Eerie-on-Sea, returning mislaid goods to their owners. In summer, the town is filled with day-trippers and ice-cream vans. But in the winter, "when sea mist drifts up the streets like vast ghostly tentacles, and saltwater spray rattles the windows", the promenades empty, and everyone fears the legendary sea monster: "when darkness falls and the wind howls around Maws Rock... some swear they have seen the unctuous malamander creep."
One such winter, young Violet Parma appears at the hotel, and asks Herbert to help track down her parents, who vanished when she was a baby. "I think you are the only person in the world who can help me... Because I'm lost... And I'd like to be found." When the children discover that the Parmas' disappearance is linked to the dread malamander, their investigation takes a sinister turn.
Taylor is a supremely elegant writer, who does not dilly-dally. The plot is delivered like gunfire, and even less confident readers will be encouraged by cliffhanger chapters and knuckle-whitening prose. But this is also a touching story of friendship and loss, with wonderful vignettes of children on the cusp of growing up. Children's fantasy has become a crowded landscape in which new novelists can vanish without trace, but Taylor stands out. This is a sumptuously imagined book, which works a powerful spell.
The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher (Macmillan) ★★★★★
Animals are popular heroes of children’s fiction set in the First or Second World War. While tales of canine or equine bravery abound, this enchanting first novel by Anna Fargher shows us warfare from the often overlooked perspective of an urban mouse. The story begins in 1944, in James Smith & Sons, an umbrella shop in Bloomsbury, where the young Pip Hanway lives with her parents. Countless generations of Hanway mice have made their nest inside the same ancient umbrella (“You live in a piece of history!” as Pip’s father reminds her); and Pip has little experience of the world outside.
Then, one day, a bomb strikes the shop, killing both her parents: “The grandfather clock clunked mechanically… It was just before it finished playing the Westminster Chimes that it happened. As if from nowhere, a terrible crash thundered through the shop, and nothing was ever the same again.” So Pip sets off for northern Italy to find the umbrella museum where her mother lived as a girl, before stowing away to England in a parasol. “I know where I’m meant to go! … I’m going to the umbrella museum in Gignese.”
Mice are often sentimentalised in children’s fiction, but Fargher invests Pip with the complexity of a human while still minutely observing her every rodent characteristic. Pip’s adventure brings her into the company of other displaced animals, all of whom are rendered similarly plausible. Particularly engaging is the loquacious rescue dog Dickin, who relishes telling us what is going on: “These new V-1 rockets are Hitler’s vengeance weapons. Now that we have a foothold in France, the Allies have a chance of crossing the continent and closin’ in on Germany and he’s as mad as a hatter about it.” This beautifully written book is aimed at nine-year-olds, but will appeal to much older children, too.
The Secret Starling by Judith Eagle (Faber) ★★★★★
According to the judges of the Branford Boase Award for children’s fiction, today’s novelists are spurning adventure stories in favour of “claustrophobic” domestic dramas, and creating a “depressing children’s literary landscape”. And yet the success of writers such as Robin Stevens (Murder Most Unladylike) and Katherine Rundell (The Explorer) suggests that the old-fashioned adventure story is enjoying a renaissance – and The Secret Starling by debut novelist Judith Eagle is a fine example.
The story is set in the Seventies, and the heroine is Clara, who lives at wind-ravaged Braithwaite Manor with her “icily cold” uncle, “who didn’t have a fun bone in his body… not a glimmer of warmth radiated from this sternest of beings. It is entirely possible that he had no real feelings at all.”
The house is equally forboding: It “look[ed] like something out of a Victorian gothic novel, crouching in the middle of the moors like an angry crow. A single dark turret rose up to stab the gloomy skies.” Clara’s governesses have all fled in terror (“‘It’s like life GROUND to a halt in the 19th century!’ the last-but-one had cried, grabbing her bag”), and Clara lives a life of unremitting tedium. But the adventure begins when her uncle disappears, sacking the cook and the butler, leaving Clara with £200 to fend for herself.
Eagle is a thrilling writer, who turns this pantomime-gothic set-up into a highly suspenseful modern tale, in which Clara and her new friend Peter battle for survival and unravel a web of grown-up deceit. Eagle’s prose is sparse, and the deceptively complex plot unravels at cracking pace. But she is no Enid Blyton – for the real pleasure in this story lies in the transformative friendship between Clara and Peter, whose adventures should appeal to boys and girls alike.
Dear Ally, How Do I Write a Book? by Ally Carter (Orchard) ★★★★☆
It takes a bold novelist to tell her fans how to write a book. But Ally Carter has cause to be confident. As she muses in the introduction to this highly entertaining how-to manual for budding writers: “Surely, after 10 years in this business and with a total of 15 books under my belt, I should know what I’m doing by now.”
Carter’s enticingly titled novels (I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You; Only the Good Spy Young) have made her one of the global queens of teenage drama – and experience has taught her that fiction is not an exact science: “I can’t really tell you how to write a book. There is no single way to do it, you see. Every author is different. Heck, every book is different.” So she sets out to cover the rudimentary skills, such as plotting and characterisation.
But what one marvels at is Carter’s aptitude for drama. “Writing takes time. It takes work. It takes putting in the hours – sometimes more than a thousand of them,” she tells us breathlessly, adding that she spends “at least 900 hours” on each book, 30 of them taken up crying.
There are also lessons in metaphor: “You see, in a lot of ways, writing is like turning on a garden hose that hasn’t been used in a really long time. The first water out of the hose is always rusty and dirty… But it doesn’t stay that way. Nope. The longer the water runs, the clearer it will be.”
The water flowing from Carter’s hose sometimes looks rather transparent. (“The great thing about writers is that most of them are really, really nice” is not a sentence one might expect from someone teaching us about characterisation.) But this book is not aimed at the next Doris Lessing. It is aimed at the next Ally Carter – and for anyone wanting to write like she does, it is a masterclass not to be missed.
Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid by Jeff Kinney (Puffin) ★★★★★
The American author Jeff Kinney says that he intended his Diary of a Wimpy Kid books to be nostalgic recollections of childhood, which would appeal more to adult readers than to children. But the charm of this phenomenally successful series (its 13 books have sold more than 200 million copies) has always been best appreciated by the under-12s. The fictional author of the diaries is Greg, a gauche video-game fanatic who endears himself by dint of his childishly anarchic perspective.
But in Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid, the narrative torch passes to Greg’s best friend Rowley. “My book isn’t about HIM, it’s about ME,” Rowley explains. And what “REALLY gets on Greg’s nerves is when I copy him. So I’m probably not gonna let him know about this journal.” When Greg inevitably finds out he goes “MAD” and insists that Rowley’s diary becomes Greg’s biography. So the rest of the book is a record of Greg’s boasts (“Greg says he only uses five per cent of his brain and if he WANTED to he could levitate a building with his mind”), and of his slapstick antics: “Greg was banned from MY house because he… put cling film over our toilet bowl.”
As with the previous Wimpy Kid books, the story is propelled along by Kinney’s comic strip illustrations, with much of the dialogue expressed in explosive speech bubbles (“GAAAAH!”) – a format particularly suited to reluctant readers. But despite their easy format, the books contain meaty themes to do with family and friendship – and by the end of this nail-biting instalment, Johnson and his Boswell have spectacularly fallen out: “[Greg] said I need to go back through the book and take out all the stuff with me in it… I was pretty mad and I whapped him with his own biography.” More please.
The Year I Didn't Eat by Samuel Pollen (Yellow Jacket) ★★★★★
Samuel Pollen's novel comes with a warning: "This is a book about anorexia. It includes calorie numbers and descriptions of disordered eating. Please read and share carefully." It is perhaps not the greatest sales pitch. But this is a clever and touching novel, in which anorexia looms over the narrative like the monster in a horror show.
The story is narrated by 14-year-old Max, who records his struggle with an eating disorder in a diary that he is advised to keep by his therapist. Pollen himself developed anorexia when he was 12, and has likened the illness to having a "bad cop" inside your head. It is that bad cop, Ana, to whom Max's diary is addressed. She is his illness personified, and the only person in whom he can confide: "There are seven billion people on this planet, and somehow, the only person I can actually talk to is you."
As the illness consumes him, Max grows more isolated, avoiding people who "don't know what I'm like now". To Ana, he tells everything ("I didn't eat any food all day, then drank two pints of water..."). As he fades away, his monstrous alter ego grows ever stronger, greedily fuelling his phobias. "Do you really need to eat that? ... You'll look like a sumo wrestler if you eat one of those." Max has flashes of rebellion - "What I need to do is kick you out of my head for good" - but Ana always bounces back: "Do you reckon your mum and dad got special scales to trick you into eating more?"
It is through this torturous dialogue between Max and Ana that Pollen lets us see what anorexia is like. Some young readers might find the subject matter heavy going, but the teenage narrator is brilliantly authentic - and the message is a hopeful one. "Someone doesn't need to understand you to save your life," Max finally observes. "They just need to care."
Horrid Henry: Up, Up and Away (Orion) ★★★★★
Francesca Simon has described her fictional hero Horrid Henry as “an embodiment of that impulse in all of us – to rule the world and get our own way”.
Henry does not always get his own way, but he might reasonably be feeling rather pleased with himself. For he has now starred in 25 books, which have sold 20 million copies, making him one of the most profitable rascals in children’s fiction.
We were supposed to have seen the back of him in 2015, when Simon announced that Horrid Henry’s Cannibal Curse was to be his final appearance. But lo – here he is again, in a new book to celebrate the series’ 25th birthday. Up, Up and Away contains four new stories, each featuring Henry in reliably rebellious mood. In one, he runs wild on an aeroplane (“WAAAAHHHH! Horrid Henry could stand it no longer. He’d go mad if he stayed in this HELLHOLE.”); in another he attempts to write an essay on the Tudors (“Who cared how many wives KING GREEDY GUTS had?”).
In the hands of Enid Blyton, such stories would read like cautionary tales. But Henry is impish rather than malicious. And Simon’s great skill is to make him lovable, by seeing the world entirely through his comically anarchic perspective: “No playtime? That was a FATE WORSE THAN DEATH.”
After a quarter of a century, Henry’s battles have a cozy familiarity. Simon is particularly good on his sibling rivalry with Perfect Peter, his smug younger brother, and on his impassioned dislike for his schoolteacher Miss Battle-Axe, an “ALIEN SLIME MONSTER” with “bulging red eyes” and “FIRE escaping from her nostrils”. But not even the most ferocious grown-up can make any impact on Henry’s behaviour. In 25 years, he has learned no lessons at all – which accounts for much of his appeal.
The Boy Who Flew by Fleur Hitchcock (Nosy Crow) ★★★★★
That children have a hearty appetite for murder has been proved by the success of authors such as Robin Stevens, whose Murder Most Unladylike series features two schoolgirl detectives, forever stumbling upon dead bodies. Fleur Hitchcock’s writing, on the other hand, really isn’t for the faint-hearted. Murder at Twilight told the terrifying story of a vanished schoolboy; in Murder in Midwinter, a child is forced into hiding after witnessing an argument linked to a killing.
Hitchcock’s readers expect a white-knuckle ride, and her latest novel – set in 19th-century Bath and filled with Gothic skylines and dastardly villains – will not disappoint. The hero is Athan, who lives in Dickensian poverty with his mother and two sisters. To help the family survive, Athan works for Mr Chen, an inventor who appeared in his life “like a kingfisher on a wet day”, and has become his mentor: “No one’s ever managed to teach me anything before, but Mr Chen’s different. It’s as if he knows everything – the why of everything, the truth.” When Mr Chen is murdered, Athan determines to prevent the details of their latest invention – a flying machine – from falling into enemy hands. But as he sets out to track down Mr Chen’s killers and protect their secret, Athan finds his family in growing peril.
Hitchcock says that this story has been 10 years in the making, with more than 30 abandoned drafts, but you never sense this struggle in her writing. The book is aimed at readers of nine plus, even the more reluctant of whom will be swept along by the cliffhanger chapters and simple, suspenseful prose. It is a far cry from Pippi Longstocking. “This morning, Haddock the auctioneer was found viciously harmed unto death. His damaged corpse was left hanging from Mr Wood’s new crescent. His tongue…”
Your Mind is Like the Sky by Bronwen Ballard (Frances Lincoln) ★★★★☆
Our most cherished picture books tend to be those that contain an underlying wisdom. Giraffes Can’t Dance (Giles Andreae) affirms that it is all right to be different; Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar has inspired Marxist, feminist and queer interpretations – but is described by its author as “a book of hope”, showing how even the most insignificant-seeming creature can unfold its talent. But our busy modern children do not need whimsical stories to help them make sense of the world. Instead, they can take direct advice from a growing library of self-help books, designed (to quote the author of one, Create Your Own Happy) to help them take “positive steps towards their own happiness and positive self-esteem!”
Some parents might find the idea of children’s self-help off-putting. But Your Mind is Like the Sky, by Bronwen Ballard (a “personal coach and organisational consultant”), is an exemplar of the genre. It is aimed at readers of seven, but would be suitable for younger ones too. “Your mind is like the sky,” it begins. “Sometimes it’s clear and blue”, with “white, fluffy cloud thoughts”, but sometimes it is full of “darker, meaner, raincloud thoughts”. This is the problem that the book addresses.
Most children’s self-help books take anxiety as their theme. Unusually, however, there are no games or activities suggested here, and no “calm down tactics”. The message is relayed solely through the pictures and text, which show a little girl wrestling with her dark thoughts – and finally beating them. “When a raincloud thought comes into your head, you say, ‘Oh, it’s a raincloud thought’”. And then you notice all the white fluffy cloud thoughts as well.” With lyrical illustrations by Laura Carlin, this is an engaging and refreshingly jargon-free book, which would be ideal for any worried child.
Enchantée by Gita Trelease (Macmillan) ★★★★★
There is something about the title Enchantée that raises suspicion. Is it chick lit? Is it a vocab book? Is it a French etiquette manual? But quelle surprise! It turns out to be a densely plotted historical fantasy by Gita Trelease – a debut novelist who is being excitedly compared to Victor Hugo.
The story begins in Paris in 1789, on the eve of the French Revolution, when the 17-year-old Camille has been left destitute after the death of her parents from smallpox. As well as providing for her younger sister, Camille must cope with an abusive older brother who squanders their rent money gambling with the Duc d’Orléans.
To survive, Camille has been reluctantly practising the magic skills taught by her mother, enabling her to turn scraps of metal into coins: “These days, her hands never stopped shaking… Little by little, magic was erasing her. Sometimes she felt it might kill her.” But hunger drives her ever further, until eventually she transforms herself into the dazzling Baroness de la Fontaine, and leaves her freezing garret for the Palace of Versailles and its decadent webs of aristocratic intrigue.
In lesser hands, this might all sound like a Disney cartoon treatment. But Trelease is a supremely confident writer who gives even the most outlandish fantasy the ring of truth. History lessons are swiftly dispensed (“Everyone’s struggling these days… We’re not the only ones. Apart from the nobles, all the people of France are hungry”); but every gilded carriage and lead sky is recorded with cinematic precision.
This book may be a far cry from Les Misérables, but it is a triumph of high jinx over history, which should keep young readers enthralled to the meticulously plotted end.
Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Sabina Radeva (Puffin) ★★★★★
It is always satisfying to find a children’s book that fills in some of the guilty gaps in a parent’s knowledge. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – in which the molecular biologist Sabina Radeva bottles Darwin’s theory of evolution down to 48 prettily illustrated pages – is just such a title. Aimed at readers as young as six, the tone, for the most part, is correspondingly simple. Darwin “travelled the globe on board the HMS Beagle, visiting wondrous lands, studying animals and collecting fossils”. When he came home, he “worked from his English country house, where he lived with his wife, eight children, and his dog Polly!” We see him visiting an orang-utan at London Zoo.
But when it comes to Darwin’s revolutionary theories, the book gets deceptively informative. After tackling the basics (species: “groups of living things that look alike and can have babies together”), we gallop straight to beefy ideas such as “Variation under Nature” and “Variation under Domestication”: “We now have over 340 breeds of dog! People have raised them for their different sizes, shapes, colours and even talents. Yet all of these breeds came from one kind of wild wolf, many howling moons ago!”
Some six-year-olds may be daunted by chapter titles such as “Imperfections of the Geological Record”, and “Mutual Affinities of Organic Beings”, not to mention an appendix that covers “Epigenetics” and “Comparative Embryology”. But Radeva wears her erudition lightly, and her breezy style will sweep even the less confident readers along (“we’ll never know just how weird and wonderful many extinct species might have been!”). The result is a triumph of concision that appeals both to the budding young scientist and to the adult who has given up hope of ever reading Darwin in the original.
Charlie Changes Into a Chicken by Sam Copeland (Puffin) ★★★★☆
Sam Copeland has been a literary agent for umpteen years, and has launched many an unknown author on the road to success. Now the roles have been reversed. He has written one of most hyped children’s book debuts of the decade, complete with film rights and 20 foreign translations. “This is Charles McGuffin,” the novel begins, beside an illustration of a boy holding a toy plane. “It isn’t actually him. It's just a picture of him. OF COURSE. If you hadn’t figured that out, this book will be way too difficult for you.”
Copeland, on the other hand, makes it all look way too easy. His book is a masterclass in publishing savvy. It is aimed at readers of eight who, as any agent will tell you, are not interested in lyrical prose. Jokes are what sell, and from the opening paragraph Copeland strikes just the right larky tone. The hero is “like you and me” (commercial tick) except for “one MAJORLY HUGE, MASSIVE difference”, which is that he can change into animals. (“One minute he’s a normal boy, the next minute he’s a wolf. Or an armadillo.”) In chapter four he becomes a pigeon, narrowly avoiding the clutches of his child-hating head teacher (tick) Ms Fyre, who lurks in a sweltering office full of orchids.
But it is more than a comic caper. Charlie is a thoughtful child, and his transformations are brought about by anxiety. He is worried about his brother, who is in hospital, and about Dylan, the bully at school: “We are enemies, Charlie, and we can never forget that. We are destined to fight.”
So here is the modern masterpiece: a book that is full of laughs, while also exploring childhood anxiety – currently one of publishing’s favourite themes. Hats off to Copeland for this is a touching and engaging story, even if it’s so slick you can almost hear the cash tills ringing. Order Charlie Changes Into a Chicken from the Telegraph Bookshop
The Truth about Old People by Elina Ellis (Macmillan) ★★★★★
If we are to believe a recent survey, more than five million British grandparents are now regularly relied upon as babysitters – which may explain why they have become ever more popular material for children’s books. Grandpa Christmas by Michael Morpurgo and Great-Grandma and the Camper Van by Lois Davis are among a flood of recent examples. There are five different books on sale called I Love You, Grandma, not to be confused with Grandma Loves You, of which there are four. Now for the budding anthropologist comes a book that boldly sets out to reveal The Truth About Old People.
The story is told in the words of a little boy, whose findings are based on his own grandparents – both “really old” with “wrinkly faces” and “a little bit of hair”. The boy has been hearing “lots of strange things about old people”, most of them negative. Some people have told him that old people are “not much fun”; others that they are “slow” and “clumsy” and “scared of new things”. But, as Ellis’s drawings charmingly reveal, the truth is very different. In one picture, the grandparents cavort with their grandson on roller skates; in another, they dance a jig in their drawing room. In one illustration – contrary to reports that “old people definitely don’t care for ROMANCE” – they are (eek!) shown kissing. “Old people are… AMAZING!” the boy concludes, as his grandparents race into the sunset on a tandem.
The publisher’s claim that the book “tackles ageism” is perhaps overstated – this is a defiantly upbeat book, which does not concern itself with any geriatric nitty-gritties. (Most grannies would not risk the consequences of bouncing bare-legged on a trampoline.) But grandparents are the rising stars of children’s fiction – and this simple, touching story shows why.
Happy Girl Lucky by Holly Smale (Harper Collins) ★★★★★
OMG!!! Here it is! The long-awaited new series by the high priestess of teenage fiction, Holly Smale. Geek Girl, her phenomenally successful debut novel, told the story of Harriet Manners, an unfashionable 15-year-old who is spotted by a modelling agency. This time, the heroine is Hope, who lives in London with her brother and two sisters, and is feted wherever she goes: “We’re one of the most famous families on the planet. A dynasty of movie stars stretching back four generations… We are the Valentines.”
Hope is destined for stardom (“My parents took one look at my beaming, newborn face and thought: There’s a girl who’ll embody rainbows, sunrises and the kiss at the end of a film”). But her gilded life is mired by family dysfunction – which has culminated in her mother being admitted to a rehabilitation home, following an apparent breakdown: “Her platinum-blonde hair is perfectly smooth, her eyes are closed and one hand is held delicately against her forehead… My mother really knows how to command a scene.”
As does Hope, who spends much of the story squabbling with her sisters, and getting in high dudgeon that she is not allowed her full share of the limelight until she is 16: “When I’m finally unleashed on my adoring, impatient public, I’ll be so talented and glamorous that my world-renowned siblings will collapse with jealousy” and “beg me to explain my wondrous movie star ways”. This is a far cry from Noel Streatfeild. Yet Hope is also is an eagle-eyed narrator who captures her family’s eccentricities brilliantly. “My eyelashes must have been fluttering too fast to see properly,” she says near the start. But the triumph of this book is that she never misses a thing.
Little Bird Flies by Karen McCombie (Nosy Crow) ★★★★★
Karen McCombie is best known for her long-running Ally’s World series, the adventures of a 13-year-old girl under titles such as Sisters, Super-Creeps and Slushy, Gushy Love Songs. But in the course of 80-odd books, McCombie has shown she has many strings to her bow. Her latest novel makes a seamless leap to the Victorian Highlands, and the fictional, storm-battered island of Tornish.
The story begins in 1861 and is narrated by Bridie, or Little Bird, a 12-year-old crofter’s daughter who is grieving for her mother’s death. Undaunted by the damaged arm and leg with which she was born, she dreams of escaping the island with its “endless days… filled with nothing but chores and school and the same faces whichever way I look”; and of sailing to America: “[I] stare westwards, where the sea has the grand name of the Atlantic Ocean. Its vastness stretches to the horizon… I know I am peculiar but I prefer to look up and away and beyond.” Bridie’s father, though, had promised her mother that he would see all their children settled on the island: ”Father’s promise to my dear, dear mother binds me tight to Tornish. And so my raging and restlessness must stay secret and stamped down inside and known to no one.” But her longed-for adventure finally comes with the arrival of a cruel new laird, who drives her family from their home.
McCombie is a supremely digestible writer, who unravels a dense plot in 20 brisk chapters, with some lyrical descriptions of the landscape, plenty of domestic nitty-gritty, and a smattering of Highland history thrown in. It may all seem a far cry from the “slushy, gushy love songs” of Ally’s World. And yet here, as there, McCombie displays her gift, which is to create a narrator who sounds thoroughly convincing, and to inhabit the consciousness of a child.
The Peculiar Peggs of Riddling Woods by Samuel J Halpin (Usborne) ★★★★★
In January there is always a barrage of new children’s fantasy fiction. For the overwhelmed buyer, this debut novel by the 27-year-old television producer Samuel J Halpin would be an excellent place to start.
Our heroine is 12-year-old Poppy, whose mother has died, and whose father is a cycling fanatic who has made “Lycra look revolting in more than 30 different climates”. When the story begins, he is cycling in Canada, and Poppy has been sent to stay with her grandmother, who owns a pet pig called Churchill and prides herself on her gauche manners: “I’m not a proper lady… I talk with my mouth full. I put my elbows on the table. I like interrupting people.”
“Gran” lives in Suds, which was once famous for the cloth woven at its garment mills. But the town is now tainted by stories about children disappearing without trace – the details of which Gran relates to Poppy with witchlike relish: “One by one, like the birds of summer, children began to vanish.” Among them was Wilma, a 10-year-old swimming champion who turned “as grey as an old woman”, then sank in the river and “dissolved like a blob of paint”. But, like every good heroine, Poppy does not believe all that the grown-ups tell her: “She was 12 after all, and 12 is the age when one truly starts reasoning what is real and what is fabricated.” When she discovers a book bound in old Helligan silk, she finds herself drawn to the Riddling Woods, where the mystery of Suds will finally be unravelled.
Halpin said that he wanted his book to be frightening, and much of it is – with a darker tone than much of the fantasy in this age range. But he is too witty a writer to be truly ghoulish. The real joy of his writing lies in his ability to observe adult vanities through the eyes of a child.
Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange (Chicken House) ★★★★★
The centenary of the Armistice triggered a barrage of children’s fiction about both World Wars – and the books are still coming. Take this mesmerising second novel by Lucy Strange, set during the Second World War, which is as much fairy tale as historical fiction.
Our heroine is Pet, a 12-year-old girl who lives in a Kentish lighthouse, of which people say “that the Daughters of Stone stand here on our cliff top as a warning to those who sail these dangerous waters. If you close your eyes and listen very carefully, you might just be able to hear their sad, sweet, ghostly song”. When war breaks out, that ephemeral music is drowned out by planes – and Pet’s German-born mother is accused of setting fire to the Scout Hut, then of leaking intelligence about the British Navy. “The fact that our Mutti had been born in Germany was never important to us – it was just normal, as normal to us as living in a lighthouse – but now that the war had started, other people seemed to think it was very important indeed.” When Pet sees her mother sneak out of the cottage to follow a mysterious figure across the cliffs, the ancient legends of her childhood take on an eerie new resonance.
Strange is a glutinously atmospheric writer, for whom less is never more, and not even a gas mask is what it seems: “Sometimes I can feel [it] looking at me from its home on the kitchen sideboard – with its round, glassy, goggle eyes, and its round mouth too – fixed in an O of horror." Her first novel, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, set in the aftermath of the Great War, told the story of a young girl whose mother has been left shattered by the death of her son. This novel, similarly, couches grown-up themes in a semi-magic setting. Although it is aimed at readers of nine-plus, it will appeal to those well into their teens.