In these dark times, we like to think of children’s books as a walled garden of innocence, safety and peace. Yet the greatest children’s writers have always known that young people must arm themselves against the worst, be it war, climate change, displacement or death.
One of the best new books for 9-12 year olds is by David Farr The Book of Stolen Dreams (Usborne, £12.99). Farr adapted John Le Carré The night manager for television: often the writers have a hard time switching to a different genre, but it’s really good fantasy. Rachel and Robert live in a totalitarian state that killed their mother. Its president hates children and anyone with a moral compass. Now the siblings must flee, as their librarian father has smuggled out the Stolen Book of Dreams, whose magic could make the President immortal. What follows is a breathtaking adventure of the genre that should appeal to fans of Eva Ibbotson and Philip Pullman. There is a plot to assassinate the dictator, betrayals and resistance, and pancakes, airships and loyalty. It is not an escape to a better world, but a challenge to it.
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by Lissa Evans wish (David Fickling, £12.99), for ages 8-11, is a pure delight. Not since E Nesbit or Joan Aiken has a writer stirred so much excitement and enchantment for the young and the resentful. Ed, who is in a wheelchair, his sister Roo and annoying “class clown” Willard are stuck with their annoying neighbor Miss Filey during the school holidays. They find a box of birthday candles that grant wishes until they go out. What can we do in five minutes? The children and Miss Filey’s disgusting, grumpy, talking cat Attlee discover him in a series of enchanting misadventures. Each short chapter sparkles with creativity, wit, style and charm. Evans, too, is a former screenwriter, whose brilliant adult novels (old luggage) and children (Sea Wabbit) deserve awards. wish will bring the children out of a state of worry and make them cheerful.
Being small and helpless is often what makes children vulnerable. Two delightful, heartfelt books for ages 7-9 address this, indirectly. Hannah Moffatt Little! (All in Words, £7.99) is about an ordinary boy sent to Madame Bogbrush’s School for Gifted Giants. As a ten-year-old boy on stilts, Harvey learns to stomp, stomp, and sing horribly, all to give his single mother the chance to keep working. It’s funny.
by Caryl Lewis Plant (Macmillan, £7.99) is quieter but also very funny. It’s about a boy’s warm relationship with his grandfather. Marty’s father is gone, his mother has mental health issues, he gets pushed around at school, and the board threatens to expel him. But when his eccentric grandfather gives him a seed of his own, it changes Marty’s life.
At Skye McKenna’s Witch (Welbeck Flame, £12.99) is about a bullied child who discovers she has powers and must learn to control them at a special boarding school. Her tale of how Cassie, ostracized and abandoned, arrives in fairyland, where a battle against goblin kidnappers rages, is utterly magical and compelling for ages 8 and up.
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Gwen, Noor, Dodo and Vera are at boarding school for a different reason in Jamila Gavin’s never forget you (Farshore, £8.99, 12+). We are in 1937 and their parents are abroad. Each girl is thrown into a different arena of World War II, from joining the Resistance in France to surviving the Blitz. As in his masterful Coram BoyGavin wonderfully weaves together historical events and harrowing characters, some of which are based on real-life heroines who, like Noor, defied torture by the Nazis.
Yet, while human beings do terrible things to each other, the approaching environmental catastrophe is one that worries many children. Hannah Gold’s the last bear, for ages 8-11, won awards with its story about a child’s relationship with a polar bear in a land of shrinking Arctic ice. His new book, The lost whale (HarperCollins, £12.99), is about a boy sent from London to California to stay with his American grandmother. Once again, Levi Pinfold’s dramatic illustrations highlight the story of a child’s encounter with nature – in this case a whale – during a time of extreme stress. With her mother in the hospital, Rio develops a relationship with a gray whale, terribly mistreated by humans but loved by her mother. Bursting with emotional intensity, it fits perfectly with Nizrana Farook. The girl who lost a leopard (Nosy Crow, £7.99). Set, like her previous novels, in Sri Lanka, it’s a tale for those who crave animal adventures like those of Lauren St John and Katherine Rundell. The fiery Selvi befriends a wild leopard, but poachers only see her prize. She must find a way to protect the “true king of the mountains”. Each author’s passion for the currently threatened natural world makes their book exceptional.
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Phil Earle As the storm rages (Andersen, £6.99) follows his Carnegie Medal selection When the sky is falling with another story about trying to save animals during World War II. The government has decreed that all pets must be put down, but Noah can’t do that to his beloved young dog. He goes in search of a safe place and is joined by a host of other creatures. Moving and brilliantly written, it’s a classic for 8-11 year olds.
I don’t usually review sequels, but Jonathan Stroud’s The notorious Scarlett & Browne (Walker, £7.99, 9+), which follows Outlaws Scarlett & Browne, is too good to be missed. In dystopian Britain, outlaws must pull off an impossible heist. Scarlett is a hardened master thief whose confidence and agility contrasts with the dreamy and gentle Albert Browne, endowed with psychic powers he does not control. Hunted across the Seven Kingdoms, where the Tainted (zombies) and giant mutant predators are the least of their worries, they must literally race against time to save their friends. Funny and captivating, it will be irresistible to anyone, child or adult, who loves action movies and steampunk.
For those who want to read aloud to their children or grandchildren, or for young readers aged 5 to 7, the reissue of Paul Biegel’s forgotten classic The King of the Copper Mountains (Pushkin, £7.99) is a must. After a reign of 1,000 years, King Mansolain is dying. The intrepid Wonder Doctor sets off in search of a cure. Meanwhile, a succession of animals, from a wolf to a three-headed dragon, arrive to tell the king their stories – some thrilling, some funny, some sad. Everyone must make the king’s heart beat faster, to keep him alive. It’s a reminder that whether in war or peace, the prospect of losing those we love is always the ultimate trauma.
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