In these grim times, we like to think of children’s books as a walled garden of innocence, safety and peace. Yet the greatest children’s writers have always known that the young need arming against the worst, whether war, climate change, displacement or mortality.
One of the best new books for 9-12s is David Farr’s The Book of Stolen Dreams (Usborne, £12.99). Farr adapted John Le Carré’s The Night Manager for TV: often screenwriters struggle to transition to a different genre, but this is seriously good fantasy. Rachel and Robert live in a totalitarian state that has killed their mother. Its president hates children and anyone with a moral compass. Now the siblings must flee, because their librarian father has smuggled out the Book of Stolen Dreams, whose magic might make the president immortal. What follows is a heart-stopping adventure of the kind that should appeal to fans of Eva Ibbotson and Philip Pullman. There is a plot to assassinate the dictator, betrayals and resistance, as well as pancakes, airships and loyalty. It’s not an escape into a better world, but a challenge to this one.
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Lissa Evans’s Wished (David Fickling, £12.99), for 8-11s, is pure delight. Not since E Nesbit or Joan Aiken has a writer conjured up so much excitement and enchantment for the young and resentful. Ed, who is in a wheelchair, his sister Roo and the annoying “class clown” Willard are stuck with their boring neighbour Miss Filey during a school holiday. They find a box of birthday candles that grant wishes until they burn out. What can be done in five minutes? The children, and Miss Filey’s disgustingly smelly, grumpy, talking cat Attlee, find out in a series of enchanting misadventures. Each short chapter fizzes with creativity, wit, style and charm. Evans, too, is a former screenwriter, whose brilliant novels for adults (Old Baggage) and children (Wed Wabbit) deserve prizes. Wished will take children out of a state of worry and return them feeling buoyant.
Being small and powerless is often what makes children vulnerable. Two delightful, big-hearted books for 7-9s address this, indirectly. Hannah Moffatt’s Small! (Everything With Words, £7.99) is about an ordinary boy packed off to Madame Bogbrush’s School for Gifted Giants. As a ten-year-old boy on stilts, Harvey learns how to stomp, smash and sing horribly, all to give his single mum the chance to keep working. It’s riotous fun.
Caryl Lewis’s Seed (Macmillan, £7.99) is quieter but also very funny. It’s about a boy’s warm relationship with his grandad. Marty‘s dad has gone, his mother has mental health problems, he’s pushed around at school and the council is threatening eviction. But when his eccentric grandad gives him a seed from his allotment, it changes Marty’s life.
Skye McKenna’s Hedgewitch (Welbeck Flame, £12.99) is about a bullied child who discovers she has powers and must learn to control them at a special boarding school. Its account of how the ostracised and abandoned Cassie gets to the land of Faerie, where a battle against kidnapping goblins is raging, feels thoroughly magical, and compelling for those aged 8+.
Gwen, Noor, Dodo and Vera are at boarding school for a different reason in Jamila Gavin’s Never Forget You (Farshore, £8.99, 12+). It’s 1937, and their parents are abroad. Each girl gets flung into a different arena of the Second World War, from joining the Resistance in France to surviving the Blitz. As in her masterly Coram Boy, Gavin wonderfully weaves together historical events and heart-rending characters, some of which are based on real-life heroines who, like Noor, defied torture by the Nazis.
Yet while human beings do terrible things to each other, the catastrophe approaching the environment is one that preoccupies many children. Hannah Gold’s The Last Bear, for 8-11s, won prizes with its tale of a child’s relationship with a polar bear in a land of shrinking Arctic ice. Her new book, The Lost Whale (HarperCollins, £12.99), is about a boy sent from London to California to stay with his American grandmother. Once again, Levi Pinfold’s dramatic illustrations underscore a story about a child’s encounter with the wild – in this case a whale – during a time of extreme stress. With his mother in hospital, Rio develops a relationship with a grey whale, appallingly mistreated by humans but loved by his mum. Brimming with emotional intensity, it is a perfect match with Nizrana Farook’s The Girl who Lost a Leopard (Nosy Crow, £7.99). Set, like her previous novels, in Sri Lanka, this is a tale for those who crave animal adventures such as those of Lauren St John and Katherine Rundell. The spirited Selvi befriends a wild leopard, but poachers see only its price tag. She must find a way to protect the “true king of the mountains”. Each author’s passion for the natural world currently under threat makes their book outstanding.
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Phil Earle’s While the Storm Rages (Andersen, £6.99) follows his Carnegie medal-shortlisted When the Sky Falls with another story about trying to save animals during the Second World War. The government has decreed that all pets be put down, but Noah cannot do this to his beloved young dog. He sets off to find a safe place, and is joined by a host of other creatures. Moving and brilliantly written, it is a classic for 8-11s.
I don’t usually review sequels, but Jonathan Stroud’s The Notorious Scarlett & Browne (Walker, £7.99, 9+), which follows The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne, is too good to miss. In a dystopian Britain, the outlaws must carry out an impossible heist. Scarlett is a hard-bitten master-thief whose confidence and agility contrasts with the dreamy, sweet-natured Albert Browne, possessed of psychic powers he is not in control of. Hunted throughout the Seven Kingdoms, where the Tainted (zombies) and giant mutant predators are the least of their problems, they must literally race against the clock to save their friends. Funny and gripping, it will be irresistible to anyone, child or adult, who loves action movies and steampunk.
For those who wish to read aloud to their children or grandchildren, or for young readers of 5-7, the reissue of Paul Biegel’s long-lost classic The King of the Copper Mountains (Pushkin, £7.99) is a must-have. After a 1,000-year reign, King Mansolain is dying. The intrepid Wonder Doctor sets off to find him a cure. Meanwhile, a succession of animals, from a wolf to a three-headed dragon, arrive to tell the king their stories – some thrilling, some funny, some sad. Each must make the king’s heart beat faster, to keep him alive. It’s a reminder that, whether in war or peace, the prospect of losing those we love is always the ultimate trauma.
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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special