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
Orla and the Serpent’s Curse by CJ Haslam ★★★★★ (Walker)
Any children’s book with “curse” in its title risks sounding slightly off-putting these days, as life starts to feels ever more like the plot of a dystopian novel. But Orla and the Serpent’s Curse, by the first-time children’s author CJ Haslam, is a welcome breath of fresh air.
The action begins on the first day of the summer holidays, when 12-year-old Orla Perry is travelling to Cornwall with her mother and two bickering brothers. In an image familiar from the spring-summer Boden catalogue, we meet them “in a steamed-up hatchback in a 15-mile tailback somewhere west of Exeter on the A38”, with their surfboards strapped to the roof-rack. But on arrival at their remote holiday cottage, events take a sinister turn – and when Orla discovers a necklace in the woods, she finds herself embroiled in a helter-skelter adventure involving a witch’s curse that is poisoning the land and threatening to destroy everything it touches. (“Mum dreamed about having a daughter who loved museums and spa days and shopping trips, but that was all it was: a vain and foolish dream.”) Only Orla can hold the evil forces back, assisted by her dog, Dave, with his impressive snout for trouble: “Suddenly, Dave was on alert. He was staring up at the cliff, making the low, rumbling growl he used when his suspicions were aroused.”
Haslam is described in the flyleaf as a travel writer “specialising in extreme adventure” – and his fiction combines high drama with seductively descriptive prose. (“Outside, the morning twilight had paled into a low, grey overcast of fast-moving cloud pushed by the wind like a dirty mop,” reads a typical sentence.) We pause to admire every view – but the action whips on, resulting in a wonderfully suspenseful debut that will lift the spirits of any child cooped up at home.
The Pear Affair by Judith Eagle ★★★★★ (Faber)
Last year, The Bookseller lamented the demise of the old-fashioned children’s adventure story, as today’s novelists ditch the outdoors in favour of domestic dramas about mental health and family breakdown. But school librarian Judith Eagle is bucking the trend. Her first novel, The Secret Starling (2019), was set in the Seventies, and told the story of a child forced to fend for herself after being abandoned by her uncle in a remote manor house. Her second novel, The Pear Affair, has a modern setting but a similarly nostalgic feel.
This time, the heroine is Nell, a lonely 12-year-old neglected since birth by her Dahlesque parents: “All the Magnificents cared about was expanding Magnificent Foods, their supermarket chain, which already generated gazillions of pounds.” The only person who has ever shown her affection is Perrine, or Pear, the French au pair who looked after her until she was packed off to boarding school, aged seven. “She had loved Pear with all her might. The memories of their time together were far, far away, but they still had a golden tingle.” Pear now lives in Paris, and writes to Nell every month, promising that one day she will come and rescue her. Then Pear’s letters mysteriously stop, despite Nell’s “feverish letters pleading for a reply”. So when Nell’s parents take her on a business trip to Paris, she begins her quest to track Pear down.
The novel is aimed at children aged eight to 12, and even less-confident readers will be swept along by the combination of swift chapters and simple, suspenseful prose. The baddies verge on pantomime villainy, and wrongs are righted with a fairytale ending. But as in Eagle’s first novel, the story is deeply layered, with meaty themes such as friendship and loyalty thickening the adventure, but never spoiling the broth.
Lost by Ele Fountain ★★★★★ (Pushkin)
We may want to cocoon our children in a world of fairies and dragons, but children’s fiction is increasingly looking to the world’s political woes for its inspiration. A few months ago, It’s a No Money Day by Kate Milner became the first picture book to tackle British food banks, and in the past five years there has been a barrage of stories about the refugee crisis. Among them was Ele Fountain’s debut, Boy 87, the tale of a young boy travelling to Europe, which was nominated for 11 awards, including the Carnegie Medal. There are high hopes for this, her second novel, about two siblings fighting to survive extreme poverty in India.
The heroine of Lost is 13-year-old Lola, who, when the story begins, is living in an air-conditioned apartment with her father and her brother Amit, who hopes to become an actor. Lola’s mother died in childbirth (“[Dad] says that Mum would have died whatever happened, but in a hospital at least they could save Amit”) and the children are looked after by a housekeeper, and attend a private school. But when Lola’s father fails to return from a business trip, she and Amit are evicted from the family flat, and forced into destitution among the city’s street children. Then Amit goes missing, and Lola must rely on the goodwill of her homeless friends as she begins a dangerous quest to get him back.
Fountain’s first book was inspired by the three years she spent living in Ethiopia. Here, as then, she writes with the confidence of a natural storyteller, who has witnessed events at first hand. The book is billed as addressing “urgent social themes”, which might sound a bit like a health warning. But do not be put off, for this is an enchanting story in which the heartstrings are pulled but the morals never laboured.
The Problem with Problems by Rachel Rooney, illus Zehra Hicks (Andersen) ★★★★★
It is not often that children’s poetry books cook up a political storm. But last year Rachel Rooney was accused of peddling “terrorist propaganda” with My Body is Me!, which transgender activists saw as hostile to “trans-inquiring” children. Rooney (whose Twitter biography used to say “full-time woman”) says she wrote the book to help children “be comfortable with their bodies”, and was reportedly so upset by the backlash that she considered giving up writing.
Now she is back, and the subject of her latest book – The Problem with Problems – might owe something to her recent upheavals. “Problems are creatures”, it begins, showing a little girl standing next to a blue cloud. “Each one is different – I’ve met quite a few./ But all of them want to make trouble for you.” One problem is a brick wall (“They’ll stand in your way”); another is an imaginary monster, frightening a child on a slide. The book is aimed at readers as young as three – and this time the transgender activists will find little to protest about.
But this book is not as simple as it looks. Children’s self help is a booming market, and Rooney gives a masterclass in how to do it well. Lesson One: confront every problem head on. “Have a good look at it. Call it by name. (A problem is sometimes quite easy to tame.)” Lesson Two: think outside the box. “Look at it twice. From a new point of view. Maybe it isn’t a Problem for you.” Lesson Three: don’t bottle things up. “Problems, like secrets, are terribly shy… They hate to be shared. So give it a try.” Children prefer stories to psychology, which is why many self-help books fall flat. But here the combination of Rooney’s sing-song rhymes and Zehra Hicks’s cosily expressive illustrations make the medicine go down very easily.
Mickey and the Animal Spies by Anne Miller (OUP) ★★★★★
In children’s fiction, there is a school-aged spy lurking behind every bush. In the past few years, a swelling army of young detectives has marched into the bookshops, with the success of series such as Ruby Redfort (Lauren Child) and Murder Most Unladylike (Robin Stevens) attesting to the childish love of solving crime. With so many undercover agents at work, some vanish without trace – but Mickey and the Animal Spies by the debut children’s novelist Anne Miller has the makings of a hit.
The titular sleuth delights in cracking codes: “Mickey really loved codes. More than cartoons, more than ice cream – not quite more than her parents, but it was definitely close.” She dreams of following in the footsteps of her hero, the super spy Hildegarde L McTavish – and her chance comes sooner than expected, when she is travelling home from school and spots a piece of paper containing a jumble of letters and numbers stuck to a window of a bus. “Mickey felt as if someone had squeezed her stomach, the way you’d wring out a sponge… It was a code!” She duly deciphers it, and finds herself drawn into a spy ring run by talking animals who come to depend on her in their top secret operation to track down a human diamond thief.
The author has worked as a scriptwriter for the television comedy quiz show QI; here her cast of loquacious animals gives rise to some delightful comic banter. (“We tried to make him put his head between his knees to calm himself down”, but “he knocked himself out on the floor”, the rat remarks of the giraffe.)
With simple prose and gunfire chapters, this is a novel that confident young readers will devour in an hour. But Miller’s helter-skelter plot contains some rich vignettes of characterisation – and a spy who stands out from the crowd.
Otto Tattercoat and the Forest of Lost Things by Matilda Woods (Scholastic) ★★★★★
These are boom times for fantasy. In a recent survey that canvassed half a million British children about their favourite books, only one non-fantasy novel made it into the top 10. With such a glut in the fantasy market for eight- to 12-year-olds, there is a danger that even the darkest woods can start to seem old hat, but Matilda Woods succeeds in plundering fantasy’s most familiar tropes – witches, cursed forests, eternal winters – and giving them a fresh twist.
Her story is set in Hodeldorf, where temperatures have been falling for the past 50 years. It is now “the coldest city in the world”, where “the feathers of birds froze as they flew and fell like stones out of the sky”. It is here that 11-year-old Otto arrives with his widowed mother, an impoverished seamstress who hopes to make a living selling winter coats. But when she vanishes (“It was like the wind itself had carried her away”), her son is swept up by the Tattercoats, a gang of homeless children who survive according to a strict code of conduct. (“You must only steal what you need, not what you want,” is rule number three.) Among their members are the orphaned Nim and her pet rat, Nibbles, with whom Otto ventures into Hodeldorf’s feared magical forests in search of his mother.
Woods’s first novel, The Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker (2017) was set in Italy, and told the story of the friendship between a boy and the man who makes his mother’s coffin. “A lot of agents were not comfortable with a coffin maker as a central character,” says Woods. In this novel, similarly, she tackles death head on. “When a coldstorm hit a few Tattercoats would die and others would join the group”, is typical of her style. But this is a lyrical and beautifully imagined story in which the enchantment outweighs the fear.
The House of One Hundred Clocks by A M Howell (Usborne) ★★★★★
Adventures are harder to engineer in an age when every child is carrying a smartphone – which may explain why children’s historical fiction is enjoying such a boom. Even Jacqueline Wilson – hailed as the queen of children’s kitchen sink drama – has said that she finds it easier to put herself in the mind of a Victorian 13-year-old than a contemporary one.
A M Howell’s debut novel The Garden of Lost Secrets (2019) was set during the First World War; for her second, we are transported back to Edwardian Cambridge. The heroine is Helena, who, after her mother’s death, lives with her father and a parrot called Orbit. When the story begins, Helena’s father has accepted a post as clock-winder in the home of the ghoulish Mr Westcott (“his skin was almost translucent, like a vampire or an animal which only ventured out at night”), who warns of untold calamities: “No clock must be allowed to stop – ever”. As Helena unravels the house’s secrets, she realises what danger they are in – but, true to the spirit of any modern heroine, her fear is matched by curiosity: “She was certain something rather terrible had happened to Mr Westcott and his family to make things the way they were now.”
Howell is a hypnotically readable writer, who keeps the pulse racing, while allowing every character slowly to unravel. (Even the parrot’s dialogue is beautifully observed, with his poignant reminders of Helena’s mother: “Mother-loves-Helena-Mother-loves-Helena, hickory-dickory…”) Howell says that her inspiration for the story came from the clock collection at Moyse’s Hall Museum in Suffolk, which prompted her to “wonder what an obsessive collector of clocks might be like”. As with every good historical novelist, though, she has let her imagination outstrip the facts.
The Highland Falcon Thief by MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman (Macmillan) ★★★★★
Adventures on Trains, the tantalisingly nostalgic title of this new series by MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman, conjures up images from a lost world of Biggles and Boy's Own. But we realise very quickly that we are in a contemporary setting when we meet 11-year-old Hal, hero of The Highland Falcon Thief, in the throes of a sulk. Hal's mother is about to have a baby, and Hal has been sent to accompany his journalist uncle Nat, who is on an assignment to cover the last journey of the royal train, the Highland Falcon. "I don't want to go with Uncle Nat... I don't like trains. They're boring." But when Hal befriends an 11-year-old stowaway called Lenny, the adventures swiftly start to unfold.
Some priceless jewels go missing from among the celebrity passengers, and it falls to Hal to find the true culprit and clear Lenny's name. What follows is a brilliantly suspenseful detective novel, in which no one is beyond suspicion – not least characters such as the mysterious Baron Wolfgang Essenbach, and Steven Pickle, a reality TV show star whose "skin looked like uncooked sausage meat. He had bangers for arms and chipolata fingers." ("We're lucky we're nobodies," Hal's uncle muses – giving voice to one of the unspoken morals of children's fiction.)
Leonard's debut novel Beetle Boy (2016) told the story of the transformative bond between a boy and a gigantic rhinoceros beetle, and was nominated for the Carnegie; Sedgman is a debut novelist with a passion for trains. Their combined skills have produced a first-class book. Despite its modern setting, the real pleasure lies in the way it captures the age-old romance of the railways: "The locomotive sighed out a puff of steam, as if it were alive – a dragon, ancient, powerful, and ready to fly."
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre by Tanya Landman (Barrington Stoke) ★★★★★
The prospect of a “truly accessible retelling” of Jane Eyre in a format “perfect for set text study”, might not make your heart sing, but Barrington Stoke is an independent children’s publisher specialising in “dyslexia-friendly fiction” – and this book, printed in a dyslexic-friendly font, is part of a commendable campaign to introduce reluctant readers to the classics.
It takes a bold author to meddle with Jane Eyre, but Tanya Landman, to whom the task has been entrusted, has cause to feel confident. Her bestselling novels have marched us through several centuries: The Goldsmith’s Daughter was set during the Aztec civilisation of South America; Buffalo Soldier (winner of the 2015 Carnegie Medal) in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Here, as always, she writes with the ease of a natural storyteller, thoroughly versed in her historic milieu.
Sensibly, she has resisted any temptation to meddle with Charlotte Brontë’s narrative sequence. The familiar scenes of the original novel are punctuated with (some) familiar words. “There was no chance of taking a walk,” Jane tells us on the first page, in a pared-down echo of Jane Eyre’s immortal opening line: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”
Landman’s version contains 32 bite-sized chapters, some only a few paragraphs long. To state the obvious, it is not as elegant as the original. But the surprising triumph of this book is that, despite the ruthless trimming, Brontë’s voice can still be heard. By page 19, when in the course of 18 words, Jane leaves Lowood and arrives at Thornfield Hall, I was gripped. Landman says that her aim was to “keep the plot and the passion and cut out the padding”. Faced with the task of turning a complex classic into an easy read, Landman has excelled.
The Girl who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook (Nosy Crow) ★★★★★
The novelist Hanif Kureishi thinks creative writing courses are a waste of time. Writing is "a difficult thing to do and it's a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don't think you can," Kureishi said recently, bemoaning his own attempts to do so at a college in London where he complained that 99.9 per cent of his students had no talent at all. His criticisms will have fallen on deaf ears at Bath Spa University, where the MA in "Writing for Young People" has so far produced 48 successfully published children's authors – of whom the Sri Lankan-born Nizrana Farook is the latest name to watch.
Her debut, The Girl Who Stole an Elephant, tells the story of Chaya, a young girl from Serendib who – having plucked a leaf from Robin Hood – spends her days stealing from the rich in order to give to the poor. In lesser hands, this might sound like a manifesto. But Farook embeds her message in a cracking narrative – and never lets us feel we're being preached to. When we meet Chaya, she is trying to save a boy who has been attacked by a crocodile: "His family has been told of a medicine man... But they need a lot of money." So she breaks into the palace and steals the queen's jewels: "There were sapphires, tourmalines and star rubies, set in heavy, shiny gold... How many jewels did one person need?" But when Chaya commits a burglary too far, her friends must embark on their most dangerous adventure yet - fleeing through the jungle on the back of a stolen elephant.
Farook does not beat around the bush. "Chaya looked at the bronze spear pointing at her neck," reads the novel's first sentence – and in the ensuing 48 chapters, the pace rarely slackens. But she allows every character time to unravel, resulting in a deceptively dense adventure that will appeal to readers well into their teens.
The Missing by Michael Rosen (Walker) ★★★★★
Michael Rosen does not mollycoddle his readers. His Sad Book (2004) was an account of his grief after the death of his teenage son Eddie, and included a poem recording his darkest thoughts: "I don't want to be here/ I just want to disappear." This time, Rosen's subject is the Holocaust, and his tone is similarly blunt.
As a child in the Fifties, he explains, "stories used to hang in the air" about his Jewish ancestors from France and Poland who were "there at the beginning of the war" but "gone by the end... What happened? I'd ask. Don't know, my family would say. [But] it didn't make any sense to me... How could people just disappear?". This extraordinary story is Rosen's attempt to answer that question, and to find out what befell his great-uncles Oscar and Martin – one a clock mender, the other a dentist – who were presumed to have "died in the camps".
The book is aimed at readers as young as 10, and Rosen keeps his narrative suitably brisk. "I'm sure you know that lots of people died... and not just on the battlefields", is typical of his page-flicking style. But the book is deceptively informative, comprising years of research, and a painstaking trail of clues unearthed after trawling public records and family scrapbooks.
Rosen has always been a bit of a firebrand. An outspoken republican, he turned down an OBE, and in the Seventies was reportedly fired by the BBC for being a Communist. But what is so affecting about this book is its gentle tone. Instead of anger, there is contemplation – and, as always with Rosen, an innate ability to see every mystery through a child's eyes. As he writes in one of several poems that intersperse the narrative: "My mother and father were able to survive/ and here we are now and we're all alive."
Nell and the Circus of Dreams by Nell Gifford (OUP) ★★★★★
We owe a huge debt to Nell Gifford, who died last month of cancer aged 46, having lived out her childhood dream - to found a circus – and enchanted everyone who piled into the big top to witness it. In a recent interview, she described her travelling Gifford's Circus as a "land of pure magic" that rejuvenated her after chemotherapy – and she kept performing in shows on her white horse until only a few months ago, often accompanied by her nine-year-old twins, Cecil and Red.
Nell and the Circus of Dreams, written shortly before her death, was her first book for children, and captures that "land of pure magic" by means of a simple narrative with an intensely personal feel. "That summer Nell's mother was so ill that she did not get out of bed," the story begins, with a picture of a little girl playing on her own in the garden of her family's farmhouse. But when Nell befriends a lost chick, and tells it her dreams and fears, the magic begins – and one morning she wakes to find her longed-for circus camped in a nearby meadow, filled with horses and acrobats. "The dew soaked her feet and her dreams were scattered all about." Nell is invited into a caravan for tea, and then taken into the big top, where the children are juggling silver hoops and dancing on the back of a white horse: "The mother sailed through the air and someone took Nell's hand as if to say, 'Come on, fly with us!' ... Nell wished that this beautiful circus of dreams could last forever."
Announcing Gifford's death before Christmas, her circus colleagues said "her vision... was to bring happiness, imagination and enliven people's souls". The same vision pervades this extraordinarily touching book. Gifford wrote it when she knew she was dying. But it is still a story of enchantment – hopeful, magical, and beautifully told.