The best new children’s books for summer

From happy lions to runaway robots.

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Who can doubt that children’s books are primers for the state we’re in?

Back in 1969, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar celebrated the postwar abundance of food as an insatiable pest (that’s us) metamorphosed into “a beautiful butterfly”. But in The Goat Café (Faber & Faber, £6.99, ages 4+) Francesca Simon and Leo Broadley’s relentlessly rumbustious ruminants invade a farmer’s fields and, when the crops are devoured, move gaily on to the posh house next door. Anarchically funny, it’s populism in action.

By contrast, Louise Fatio and Roger Duvoisin’s The Happy Lion (Scallywag Press, £11.99, 3+) is contented to stay in his cage, being fed “the best tidbits” by “polite and sensible people”. Then he wanders out and unwittingly terrorises his town. The lion is about to be shot until Francois, the zookeeper’s son, greets him in the proper, friendly manner. Anti-Brexiteers, start with this charming bit of French nostalgia to help maintain the status quo.

Friendship and optimism are what Rebecca Cobb’s Hello Friend! (Macmillan, £11.99, 3+) addresses, with typical insight, wit and graphic elegance. A little blonde girl insists on befriending a shy brown-haired boy at nursery, relentlessly offering him things he doesn’t like. She risks rejection – but triumphs. Matilda and Dad in Lizzy Stewart’s The Way to Treasure Island (Frances Lincoln, £11.99, 4+) are very different from each other, too. Matilda is tidy, slow and insists they “have to follow this map”; Dad is impulsive, prone to distraction but – crucially – notices variety rather than sticking to boring rules. There’s a moral to these colourful, humorous stories about exploration and curiosity that are both universal and characteristically British.

In Jon Agee’s delightful Life on Mars (Scallywag Press, £12.99), a little astronaut fails to notice that the very thing he is searching for is under his nose. “Nothing could possibly live here!” he exclaims disappointedly, as a large, friendly alien tries in vain to attract his attention. Children of 3-5 will shriek with laughter, and even adults may get the joke.

Hummingbird by Nicola Davies (Walker, £11.99, 5+) is about the journey of the tiny jewel-like birds from Central America to North America. Though they are “lighter than a penny”, and many die of hunger in their epic flight, their migration is a miracle – not something that a wall can keep out. Jane Ray’s exquisitely detailed illustrations make this a very special gift.

Evie and the Animals (Canongate, £12.99, 7+) sees Matt Haig team with Emily Gravett to produce a captivating and sensitive story about a child in all kinds of trouble – because she can understand what animals say. References to humans destroying the planet sit alongside other topics, including Instagram and how to deal with a depressed dad.

One of the most interesting novels for 8+ is Christopher Edge’s The Longest Night of Charlie Noon (Nosy Crow, £6.99). Three children are lost in the woods, and are also lost in time. A moving, haunting story about friendship, nature and mystery, it weaves physics with TS Eliot’s Four Quartets and will be an addictive read for bright children.

Another endangered child is Brat in Lorraine Gregory’s The Maker of Monsters (Oxford University Press, £6.99). When the monsters get off their island prison, it triggers a chase in which his loyalty and ingenuity lock horns with relentless yet familiar ambition to rule the country. Inspired by Frankenstein, it should particularly please boys of 8+. Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s Runaway Robot (Macmillan, £12.99, 9+) is a masterpiece that deserves to sell millions. Lonely Alfie has a bionic arm, and when he truants from school and comes across Eric, a one-legged humanoid robot, it sets off a series of hair-raising events with a precision that has you laughing one moment and crying the next.

Annet Schaap’s Lampie and the Children of the Sea (Pushkin Press, £12.99, 10+) is a Dutch tale surging with watery wonder about a disgraced daughter sent away to work as a servant. Mysteries, mermaids, monsters and lost mothers all combine in an enthralling story. Meanwhile, the Danish author Lene Kaaberbol’s classic Shamer Chronicles quartet (Pushkin Press, £7.99, 9+) has had a timely republication. A Shamer is someone with the gift of seeing all a person’s secret misdeeds, a power that, as our ambassador to the US has discovered, is as dangerous for the seer as the seen. With poisonous dragons, evil lords and a resourceful heroine, these tales pack a fabulous punch.

Katherine Rundell’s heroine is confronting a swindling property developer in 1930s New York. Vita has crossed the Atlantic to avenge her broken-hearted Grandpa, though she is armed with nothing but her ability to hit targets and a talent for planning. The verve of The Good Thieves (Bloomsbury, £12.99, 11+) makes it a joy to read, as is Rundell’s faith in children’s ability to undo wickedness.

An especially enjoyable 12+ fantasy is Margaret Rogerson’s Sorcery of Thorns (Simon & Schuster, £12.99). Its resilient heroine Elisabeth is a trainee in a library of living magical books with recalcitrant personalities. Brought up to believe that sorcerers are evil, she is saved from unjust imprisonment by dashing Nathaniel – and his demon manservant Silas. Romantic, funny and action-packed, this complex magical world is the perfect escape for imaginative teenagers – particularly those who love what is left of our public libraries.

My top recommendation for older readers is, however, William Sutcliffe’s The Gifted, the Talented and Me (Bloomsbury, £7.99, 12+). Fifteen-year-old Sam wants an ordinary life in Stevenage but when his dad’s invention makes them stinking rich, (or, as he puts it, “mildly smelly”) his family move to a new home (“both really posh and a bit of a dump”) in Hampstead. At school, everyone is confident, beautiful, liberal and talented – except poor Sam, who yearns to play football. But then hormones ensure he gets roped into playing Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and he discovers he can survive.

Weirdly similar in outline to David Nicholls’s new novel Sweet Sorrow, this book forgoes adult romantic insights for one of the funniest and most robust novels about a teenage boy ever written. Whether you are one or have one, it is guaranteed to make you laugh aloud and forget about the problems of real life. 

Amanda Craig’s latest novel is “The Lie of the Land” (Abacus)

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special