What to do with bored, fractious children in lockdown conditions? Well, see this as an opportunity to read books that feel prescient about the current crisis. Quentin Blake’s The Weed (Tate Publishing, £12.99, 3+) is about a family in a world that has become “hard and dry”, who fall down a deep crack in the earth. They are almost despairing, until their pet bird Octavia flies back with a magical seed that grows so big that they can climb up into a greener place. Imagination, wit and humour never fail the master of children’s picture books.
With staff everywhere being laid off, Kate Davies’s The Incredible Hotel (Frances Lincoln, £10.99, 4+) might strike a chord too. Delaunay’s famous hotel runs like clockwork thanks to Stefan the kitchen porter – but when he is fired just before the demanding Duchess arrives, everything goes wrong. Isabelle Follath’s elegant illustrations give a wealth of detail to explore (spot the cat and mouse on each page).
Money-Go-Round by Roger McGough and Mini Grey (Walker Books, £12.99, 5+) takes characters from The Wind in the Willows to explain to the young how money flows. Mr Badger’s gold coin pays Miss Mole for her work, who in turns pays it to Stoat and so on until the coin returns to Mr Badger. If capitalism were this benign, we wouldn’t need the charm of the poet and the witty reassurance of one of Britain’s most beloved illustrators. But we do.
Roopa Farooki is a doctor and a fine adult novelist, and her first book for children, A Cure For Crime (OUP, £6.99, 9+), has twins Tulip and Ari hot on the trail of whatever is making their junior doctor mum, and others, so mysteriously sleepy. The smart-talking, fast-thinking sisters’ story is interlaced with a blog in which real medical knowledge is shared. A clever, reassuring romp.
Anna Hoghton’s The Mask of Aribella (Chicken House, £6.99, 9+) is a fabulous and, given its setting of Venice, topical debut. On her 13th birthday Aribella discovers she can shoot fire from her fingertips when fighting bullies. She belongs to the group of masked defenders of her city – but deadly Spectres are invading from the Island of the Dead. Gorgeously written with touches of Philip Pullman and Eva Ibbotson, this is almost as captivating as a trip to La Serenissima itself.
Nicola Penfold’s Where the World Turns Wild (Stripes, £6.99, 9+) is almost too topical. Juniper and her brother Bear live in a sterile city where any trace of nature is banished and humans are imprisoned by a deadly man-made virus. When their immunity to the virus is discovered, they must find their mother in the dangerous wild beyond. Fierce sibling loyalty and an understanding of the beauties and perils of nature make this a tremendous dystopian adventure.
There’s another threatened city in Struan Murray’s atmospheric Orphans of the Tide (Puffin, £7.99, 9+), about a populace terrified of the Enemy, a god who once almost drowned the world. When a boy is washed up unable to remember who he is, he is condemned to death by the people as the Enemy’s Vessel, but not if the bold inventor Ellie can save him. The energetic steampunk vibe overlies a thoughtful fable about compassion and justice. In Ele Fountain’s Lost (Pushkin Press, £7.99, 9+), Lola used to live in a big house with her family. But as one disaster followed another, they were plunged into poverty. Now a street child, Lola must find a new way to survive the concrete jungle. Gripping, vivid and searingly compassionate, this superb novel deserves prizes.
If this seems too grim, Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s You Must Be Layla (Penguin, £6.99) is a tonic, and a terrific debut for 11+. Its narrator is (like its author) a Sudanese girl who has won a scholarship to a posh Australian school. Bossy, smart and brave, she has to face the students who have it in for her as the only Muslim. Underneath its buoyant humour is a timely wisdom about finding friends in an alien culture.
Evernight, Ross MacKenzie’s dark fantasy (Andersen Press, £7.99, 9+), has a setting that reminds us of recent flooding as well as disease. Its heroine Lara is a “tosher” fishing treasure from the sewers of Silver Kingdom, and finds a strange wooden box linked to the Doomsday Spell. With its heart-in-mouth chases, evil witch and two brave friends, it’s compellingly scary.
Finally, Anthony Horowitz’s thrilling hero Alex Rider returns in Nightshade (Walker, £12.99, 9+). As ever, the plotting is meticulous and the pace relentless, but what is new is Alex’s dawning compassion for other children. Britain’s cleverest civil servants have been sacked by a traitor within: only the young can save us from national disaster. Let’s hope it really is prescient.
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special