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28 July 2021

The best children’s books of the summer

Featuring moths, maids and mermen. 

By Amanda Craig

A few years ago, Martin Amis said in an interview that he might write a children’s book “if [he] had a serious brain injury”. Literature for the young might seem easy because it is shorter – but so are poems and film scripts. The best is exceptionally hard to write, addressing both the eternal and the contemporary. The themes of this summer’s crop include ambition, cruelty, language and being very small – all subjects familiar to Amis.

Julia Donaldson’s comic genius is unfailing. Like her famous Mouse in The Gruffalo, the protagonist of The Woolly Bear Caterpillar (Pan Macmillan, £12.99) is a mini-beast, disdained by fancier caterpillars as “a very dull one” bound to become an equally dull moth. But when metamorphosis comes, there is a huge surprise. With shades of the late, great Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, this satisfying and informative picture book, delightfully illustrated by Yuval Zommer, is my top pick for 3-5 year olds.

Gay men are notably absent in fairy tales and children’s books. Recently, both Harry Woodgate (Grandad’s Camper, Andersen Press, £12.99) and Gareth Peter and Garry Parsons (My Daddies!, Puffin, £6.99) have addressed LGBTQ families with gentle wit, charm and sympathy. However, James Mayhew and Ian Eagleton are the most child-friendly, reworking The Little Mermaid in Nen and the Lonely Fisherman (Owlet Press, £7.99). A merman and a fisherman become close. Their story reaches a moving climax in a storm whipped up by Nen’s angry sea-king father, and Nen bravely saves his beloved. Exquisitely tender, beautifully illustrated and quietly revolutionary, these are all for 3-5s. But where are the great picture books about gay girls?

[See also: Reviewed in Short: New books by Jon Yates, Lucy Ellmann, Denton Welch and Brandon Taylor]

Melissa Harrison’s children’s debut By Ash, Oak and Thorn (Chicken House, £7.99, 8+) takes “BB’s” classic The Little Grey Men, about four miniature bachelors, and updates it. When their ash tree home comes down in a storm and the eldest gnome starts fading, the gnomes set off to find more of their kind in the Wild World. Harrison, one of our best adult nature writers, has crafted a warm, absorbing eco-adventure for observant children of 8+.

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Gill Lewis’s A Street Dog Named Pup (David Fickling, £10.99) is a first-rate animal novel that asks: why do dogs love humans even when betrayed by us? A boy and his pup are inseparable – until Pup is deliberately left behind in Dead Dog Alley. How he survives in the alley, longing to be reunited, makes this the most heart-tugging animal story for 8+ since Eva Ibbotson’s One Dog and His Boy.

Phil Earle’s masterpiece When the Sky Falls (Andersen Press, £7.99, 9+) is a cross between Goodnight Mr Tom and Lucy M Boston’s A Stranger at Green Knowe. Earle’s hero Joseph is an angry, dyslexic boy sent to London to live with Mrs F during the Blitz. She is the keeper of a run-down zoo whose enormous, hungry silverback gorilla must be protected from achieving his own freedom. Prepare to weep buckets as the lonely boy and the endangered gorilla form a bond.

The Wave Riders by Lauren St John (Macmillan, £7.99) is a gorgeously absorbing thriller about twins Jess and Jude, adopted by a rich newspaper proprietor after their guardian Gabe vanishes from his yacht in the Caribbean. Mystery surrounds their origins, and danger too. I recommend it for 9+, alongside Ella Risbridger’s ocean-going kids’ debut The Secret Detectives (Nosy Crow, £7.99, 10+). Inspired by Mary Lennox’s voyage (and character) in The Secret Garden, it is quirky, funny and features three very different children who become unlikely sleuths when they witness a murder on board the ship taking them from India to England.

[See also: The pain and shame of girlhood]

Geraldine McCaughrean is a writer of ferocious literary talent. Gloria in The Supreme Lie (Usborne, £8.99, 11+) is the maid to Madame Suprema. When flood, famine and disaster hits the land, Gloria’s solution is to dress up in the tyrant’s clothes and issue new orders. A zinging black comedy, it asks sophisticated questions about power and responsibility.

In Jonathan Stroud’s dystopian England, the land is also flooded, and increasingly feral. Cheeky Scarlett is a thief who survives on her wits. After she rescues the “helpless-looking” Albert from a wrecked bus, she believes she is being hunted – but he has hidden powers. Every page of The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne (Walker, £7.99, 10+) is addictive, fast-paced fun.

Melvyn Burgess’s blistering Three Bullets (Andersen Press, £12.99) is narrated by Martina, a transgender, mixed-race, teenaged “stone cold virgin” attempting to flee the homophobic Bloods. Burdened by her annoying little brother and sexy Maude, her former school enemy, she makes gang-ravaged Britain funny, rude and violently enjoyable for 13+.

[See also: The courage of Desmond Tutu]

The very best new book of all is, however, Wolfstongue by Sam Thompson (Little Island Books, £8.99, 9+). Its hero, Silas, is unable to speak to anyone – except animals, as he discovers when helping a wounded wolf escape from the foxes who want to enslave all wolves and live like men. It may sound like standard fantasy stuff, but the writing raises this to classic status. Like Ursula K Le Guin’s immortal Earthsea books, Wolfstongue is partly about language – in this case a sinister power that deprives animals of their natural freedom. Gripping and profound, Wolfstongue may be for children but it is about being human. The author, for Martin Amis’s enlightenment, has also been a contender for the Booker Prize. 

Amanda Craig’s books include “The Golden Rule” (Abacus)

This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special