It’s a kind of magic: the best children’s books for autumn

From Judith Kerr’s The Crocodile Under the Bed to a Psammead sequel, there are plenty of new titles to delight all ages this season, writes Amanda Craig. 

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The autumn half-term brings a bumper crop of good books for children aged between two and 12. If we get floods again, Noah’s Ark (Frances Lincoln, £14.99), meticulously illustrated in a pop-up version by Francesca Crespi, is perfect for imaginative two-to-four-year-olds, who can watch Noah’s sons sawing logs, beasts pairing up and the little ark being tossed on giant waves.

Alternatively, Judith Kerr, the nonagenarian author of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, has finally completed The Crocodile Under the Bed (HarperCollins, £12.99) – a story first conceived in 1968. It’s a charming romp about a sick boy taken to an animal birthday party, though the naughty might prefer Captain Beastlie’s Pirate Party (Nosy Crow, £10.99). Featuring a fantastically filthy captain getting an unexpected present from his crew, it is irresistible: Lucy Coats’s uproarious text and Chris Mould’s colourfully baroque cartoons are disgustingly funny for those aged three and above.

Jan Pienkowski has given us another collection of spooky fairy stories from his native land, using the Polish art form of cut-out silhouettes and setting these against brilliant primary colours. Told in crisp prose
by David Walser, The Glass Mountain (Walker, £12.99) is just the thing to raise the hair of a five-year-old on Hallowe’en.

Good stories for readers aged six and above are hard to come by. The publisher Barrington Stoke is branching out from its brilliant dyslexia-friendly novels with the Little Gem series (all £6.99), also by top authors. Alexander McCall Smith’s Good Dog Lion is about an African boy who yearns for a dog – and whose life is saved by one with three legs. Eoin Colfer’s The Fish in the Bathtub concerns a little Polish girl who makes a pet of her grandfather’s carp, intended for Christmas dinner. Both are wise and charming.

There’s more love between children and animals in the third instalment of Michelle Paver’s Gods and Warriors series, set in Bronze Age Greece. In The Eye of the Falcon (Puffin, £6.99), her vivid imagination foreshadows the myth of the Minotaur in the struggles of the priestess Pirra, the outcast Hylas and the adorable lion cub Havoc as they survive a deadly winter, a plague and pursuit by the cruel Crow people. Tense and unobtrusively educational, it shows one of our best storytellers on top form. For kids aged eight and above.

If you have a reluctant reader of nine years or over, Kenneth Oppel is your man. The Boundless (David Fickling, £10.99) is a tale about a young railway pioneer on board the most magnificent train ever built. Reputed to contain a priceless treasure, it becomes the scene of a ghastly murder that the brave, kind-hearted Will must solve as he hurtles across the frozen Canadian countryside along with a circus troupe and a bunch of villains. Adventures don’t come better than this. Oppel is the modern Jules Verne.

Another chase story for readers of 11 upwards is Tim Bowler’s Night Runner (Oxford University Press, £6.99). Zinny finds himself caught in a nightmare when his mum is in hospital and his dad disappears. Why is the sinister “Flash Coat” interested in the Okoro family and what is his connection to the bullies at school? Scared but resolute, Zinny is quick-witted and quick-footed and his resilience in the face of poverty and adversity makes this a compelling, gritty read by a Carnegie Medal-winning author.

Girls of 11 and above pining for teen romance should try Leigh Bardugo’s exotic Grisha trilogy (Indigo, £6.99), starting with Shadow and Bone, in which Alina, a modest orphan, is plucked from obscurity when crisis reveals her to be the long-sought-after “sun summoner”. She must choose between her childhood love, the hunter Mal, and an evil but seductive Grisha aristocrat. Its Russian-influenced fantasy world makes the struggle between dark magic and light magic exciting and emotionally involving.

Not enough new children’s books are aimed at the eight-to-11 age range but my last two picks are honourable exceptions. Toby Ibbotson is the son of the late, great Eva Ibbotson and his debut is about three autocratic, formidably magical “Great Hagges”. They set up a school for British ghosts, who have “grown enfeebled and sloppy”, to learn how to haunt properly. Stripping policemen naked as they drive around in a Rolls-Royce, they find a damp, northern castle for their base. Mountwood School for Ghosts (Macmillan, £9.99) is a sparkling comedy, right up there with Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost”. Its plot involves a councillor bent on destroying a town’s park but it’s the eccentric ghosts and the Hagges themselves – ruthless yet springing to the defence of the vulnerable – who make this book as hilarious as it is enchanting.

Kate Saunders’s Five Children on the West­ern Front (Faber & Faber, £10.99) is a sequel to E Nesbit’s classic about five Edwardian children who discover a Psammead or sand fairy. In 1914, the brothers Robert and Cyril are old enough to enlist. The five (now six) rediscover the grumpy Psammead – only it has problems of its own. The highs and lows of a large, left-wing family are beautifully done, as is the heart-rending time-travel magic. There has been a sandbag full of children’s books about the Great War published this year but Saunders’s novel is head and shoulders above the rest. It catches Nesbit’s voice, refreshes her characters and conveys the suffering in the trenches with just enough detail for children to sympathise rather than recoil. Keep your hanky ready – it’s superb. 

This article appears in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies