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25 March 2016

Angels and minotaurs: the best children’s books for spring

Insects are big this spring, in many different guises.

By Amanda Craig

If the Easter holidays herald too many chocolate eggs, books about hunts can prove a stimulating counterpart. For toddlers, Safari (QED, £6.99, two-plus) by Surya Pinto and Surya Sajnani is a simple but absorbing treat, with descriptive questions and sliding panels revealing favourite jungle animals. The outstanding picture-book publisher Wide Eyed has Nan Na Hvass and Sofie Hannibal’s Pattern-Tastic Treasure Hunt (£9.99, three-plus), with animals in all their striped, spotted and speckled charm: highly recommended. And We’re Going on an Egg Hunt by Laura Hughes (Bloomsbury, £6.99), though derivative of Michael Rosen’s classic Bear Hunt, has enough lift-the-flaps fun for little four-plus fingers.

Insects are big this spring, and Yuval Zommer’s Big Book of Bugs is packed with interesting facts and slightly retro illustrations to which five-plus naturalists will return repeatedly. Another outstanding book is Mary Richards’s Splat! The Most Exciting Artists of All Time. It describes the life, works, challenges and historical background of great artists, with a good sense of what art historians of nine-plus will find engaging. (Both Thames & Hudson, £12.95.)

It remains far too hard to find good new books for six-to-eight-year-olds, so hurrah for the energy and charm of Polly Faber and Clara Vulliamy’s Mango & Bambang series. The second instalment, Tapir All At Sea (Walker Books, £8.99), hits the spot with its stories about Mango the little girl’s friendship with Bambang, a tapir whose anxieties make him a good avatar for those with body image issues. Also for six-plus, Ian Beck, one of our best authors and illustrators, has come up with Grey Island Red Boat (Barrington Stoke, £6.99), a fabulous early reader about a princess whose monotonous life on a rainy, grey island is transformed by a young man who brings colour to all he touches. It might make even Emma Thompson feel differently about Britain.

From The Big Book of Bugs

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In Superhero Street (Orion, £6.99), Phil Earle taps in to the fantasies of the underprivileged and overlooked – in this case Mouse, a “Z-lister” who is attempting to become a superhero. When Mouse accidentally foils a bank robbery his dream comes true – only to turn into a nightmare as the villainous Esther vows vengeance. Deliciously silly fun for seven-plus.

M G Leonard’s debut, Beetle Boy (Chicken House, £6.99, eight-plus), is a treat. Its hero, Darkus, teams up with a giant beetle called Baxter when his scientist father disappears. An eccentric but kindly uncle arrives – as does Lucretia Cutter, a villainess with a taste for creepy jewellery to rival Cruella de Vil’s passion for fur coats. Like Roald Dahl’s capers, this story has an edge of desperation and darkness that makes its animal interactions and adventure all the more exciting.

Kenneth Oppel’s dazzling imagination turns to wasps with The Nest (David Fickling Books, £10.99), a changeling tale with a difference. Steve’s little sister is seriously ill, and angelic figures offer to exchange her for a perfect, healthy child. It takes time – and Jon Klassen’s inspired illustrations – to realise that the story is quite different from that of David Almond’s Skellig. Oppel, Canada’s greatest living writer for children, has produced a subtle and sinister thriller for readers aged nine-plus.

The boyhood of the Minotaur is what inspires the start of a terrific new trilogy with Philip Womack’s The Double Axe (Alma Books, £6.99, ten-plus). King Minos’s second son, Stephan, unexpectedly becomes his father’s heir. With the help of his sister Ari, he must find a way out of the blood curse called down on his family. Violence in the labyrinthine darkness, and the pleasures of food, family loyalty and discovering your own powers as a young man, all reforge Greek myth for the new generation in vivid prose saturated with Homer.

At 11, Daisy must also learn how to fend for herself. Her artist mother disappears and she is left alone in the vast Brightwood Hall for the first time. Tania Unsworth’s second children’s novel, The Secret Life of Daisy Fitzjohn (Orion, £6.99, 11-plus), has a beguiling
flavour of Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers, being as much about the inner journey as the outer. Daisy talks to her pet rat, a topiary horse, a portrait . . . but when a stranger arrives claiming to be her cousin, she must use her wits, as well as her imagination.

Floating above the tidal wave of copy-cat young adult fiction from the US is Sally Green’s Half Lost (Penguin, £7.99, 13-plus), the last book in her gripping, tragic trilogy about the “half-breed” Nathan Byrn, son of the powerful, murderous Black Witch but in love with a gentle white witch who he believes betrayed him. Its tribes avoid the contemporary world – and use their magic to hunt each other to the death. 

Amanda Craig’s most recent novel is “Hearts and Minds” (Abacus)

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This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue