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17 July 2016

Detecting dogs and Norse gods: The best new children’s books for summer

The best children's books don't feel like more school. These picks will help make the summer holidays even better.

By Amanda Craig

Some kids never read a page once school ends, but the best summer books enhance a summer holiday. Emily Gravett’s Tidy (Two Hoots, £12.99) bristles with her characteristic originality, wit and quirkiness. Pete the badger is maniacally clean, hoovering leaves, digging up trees and causing disaster. A dead ringer for George Osborne in his hard hat, he finds himself needing help to put messy life back into the resulting desert. Julia Donaldson’s utterly delightful The Detective Dog (Macmillan, £11.99) is about a crime-solving spaniel whose nose for drama is matched by Sara Ogilvie’s warm, colourful draughtsmanship. Its happy conclusion should encourage library visits. Both books will be hilarious for three-plus readers.

Meanwhile, Bethan Woollvin’s Little Red (Two Hoots, £11.99) is inspired by the author’s robust childhood response to “Little Red Riding Hood”. Its strong lines and bold colours are excitingly modern and highly recommended for kids over four.

What Do Grown-Ups Do All Day? (Wide Eyed, £14.99) is Virginie Morgand’s take on an important question. The answer is handsomely produced and unpatronising; this book should be in every primary school for showing work as both serious and fun.

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel (Chronicle, £10.99) is an outstanding exploration of perception and perspective. How a cat is seen – by a child, a dog, a fox, a fish, a mouse, a bee and a flea – is different each time. The most imaginative ­picture book of the year, it is closely followed by Lane Smith’s dazzling There Is a Tribe of Kids (Two Hoots, £12.99), in which a child discovers collective nouns for animals. Both books have ambition for what a child of six-plus can grasp about the natural world.

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth (Macmillan, £12.99) by Frank Cottrell-Boyce takes as its subject the idea of how we might seem to aliens. If our hero, Prez, can’t find ten things worth seeing or doing to share with a small, friendly but threatening alien called Sputnik, Earth will be shrunk to the size of a golf ball. Where Prez sees another boy, his family sees a dog. This, Sputnik says, is unsurprising, because: “Humans share 90 per cent of their DNA with dogs.” It’s comedy gold for seven-plus readers.

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Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark (Puffin, £6.99) also tells the story of a boy discovering his destiny as a defender of humanity. Denizen Hardwick is an Irish orphan who must learn to fight scary beings called “the Tenebrous” and save his best mate. The taut writing and snappy dialogue in this fast-paced fantasy adventure will ­appeal to boys of nine-plus.

What if Earth were full of clockwork creatures instead of monsters? Cogheart by Peter Bunzl (Usborne, £6.99) goes beyond steam-punk to imagine a world as weirdly inventive as Philip Pullman’s Clockwork and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Lily’s father has disappeared in an airship, and his talking clockwork fox, Malkin, becomes her first ally in a race against evil, silver-eyed kidnappers. Although it overdoes the “steam and steel” idea, this one is marvellous fun for nine-plus readers.

Being punished for a crime committed by your parents or grandparents is the premise of Simon Mayo’s terrific Blame (Corgi, £7.99). Ant and her brother Mattie are locked in the Spike, a family prison simmering with tension. When they break out, they must change the system. A smart, suspenseful satire on crime and punishment, it will keep boys of 11-plus gripped.

I usually hate teen romance but Sophia Bennett’s Love Song (Chicken House, £6.99) is the shining exception, being both respectful of first love and very funny. The sensible Nina is dragged to watch the Point, the world’s biggest boy band, and reluctantly becomes embroiled with their leader. Rarely have musical talent, celebrity and confusion been discovered with such generosity and wit. Don’t miss it.

Sarah Crossan’s One (Bloomsbury, £7.99) sounds like the kind of book you’d want to avoid: it’s about conjoined twins. It is told in blank verse but is very easy to read and has just been awarded the Carnegie Medal. Not only does it paint a portrait of a disability that touches on bullying and pain, it offers a mind-expanding story of love and identity.

Best known for her Horrid Henry books, Francesca Simon has come up with a searing work of black comedy about the Norse goddess of the underworld, Hel. “You’d think after my brother the snake was born they’d have stopped at one. But no,” is how she begins The Monstrous Child (Faber & Faber, £9.99). Half-human and half-corpse, Hel is rejected by the ultimate dysfunctional family, on which she turns her withering wit. Any unhappy teenager aged 13 and above will root for this scathing yet sympathetic heroine, whose unexpected ­redemption is in keeping with myth and what we wish for her.

Also inspired by Norse myth – and also stunning – is Julia Gray’s The Otherlife (Andersen, £7.99). Two bright boys, one rich and one poor, are thrown together by tutorials for a private-school entrance exam. The quiet, obsessive and impoverished Ben must win a scholarship but is mesmerised by the world of ancient Norse gods, which he believes he can see; the charming, bullying Hobie has everything he wants but this gift. A searing satire on the pressures that privileged children are put under by pushy parents, the story also depicts how sanity can be invaded by fantasy. It’s a wonderful debut novel; the only downside is that it will remind those on holiday just how appalling school can be. 

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This article appears in the 13 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM