Let’s not kid ourselves, adults choose most children’s books – and that means overcoming our own nostalgia. For every Narnia, Maurice Sendak or Joan Aiken there are horribly outdated ones that deserve refreshing.
Sarah McIntyre’s The New Neighbours (David Fickling, £10.99, for ages three-plus) is about a subject that has become doubly uncomfortable in the wake of Grenfell: tower blocks and immigrants. Some rats move into a tower block full of animal tenants. The bunnies, polar bears and yaks are thrilled, then fearful; it’s all sorted out with wit and warmth. Beatrix Potter would have been harsher, but who wants Edwardian England back?
Bethan Woollvin had a hit with her graphic three-colour version of Little Red Riding Hood, and Hansel & Gretel (Two Hoots, £11.99) features housing issues, too. The good witch Willow never gets angry, so what can she do when a pair of little thieves start eating her house and magicking her cat? Hmm. It’s less scary than the usual fairy-tale for three-year-olds-plus, but only slightly.
David Roberts’s Suffragette (Two Hoots, £18.99), for ages eight-plus, should be in every primary school. With vigour, humour, elegance and conviction, his clear prose and energetic pictures tell the tale of how women won the vote a hundred years ago. Covering aristocrats and the middle and working classes, the book depicts the fight in a series of full-page stories, pictures, songs and cruel errors of judgement.
A proper children’s book is Andy Shepherd’s The Boy Who Grew Dragons (Piccadilly, £5.99, ages six-plus). Tomas discovers a strange old tree in grandpa’s garden, and its funny fruit hatches into a fiery, fantastical friend. The humour and Sara Ogilvie’s illustrations are just right.
Many summer books for four-to-six-year-olds are set near or around the seaside, and A First Book of the Sea by Nicola Davies (Walker, £14.99) is a luscious blend of marine poetry, information and completely charming illustration by Emily Sutton that will add to holiday exhilaration. Lauren St John’s Kat Wolfe Investigates (Macmillan, £6.99, ages seven-plus) is about a girl and her vet mother who must leave London for the Dorset coast. Pet-sitting for pocket money leads to a potentially deadly spy adventure. St John’s passions for animals, adventure, the environment and sympathetic characters are back in abundance.
Philip Pullman’s The Adventures of John Blake (David Fickling, £9.99) is fantastic fun, especially for boys aged nine-plus. A graphic novel superbly illustrated by Fred Fordham, it’s a time-travel thriller of just the sort that makes a summer holiday memorable. Serena, swept overboard, finds herself on a ship crewed by sailors ripped from their own time, and pursued by a malevolent force. Meanwhile Julia Green’s To The Edge of the World (Oxford, £6.99, ages nine-plus) is set on the Outer Hebrides, and as a tale of courage, friendship and survival it is as ebullient as the best sailing boat. Jamie and Mara must battle both outer and inner elements with only Django the dog to keep them company. Glorious fun.
A harsher vision of isolation at sea comes in Geraldine McCaughrean’s Where the World Ends (Usborne, £6.99, ages nine-plus), winner of this year’s Carnegie Medal. McCaughrean is a gifted writer, and this is one of her best. It is set on St Kilda, where Quill and his friends are put ashore every summer to hunt birds, only nobody arrives to take them back home. How the boys survive cold, hunger and abandonment makes for a haunting, memorable, honest tale that is the opposite of Ransome and Blyton.
Louise O’Neill’s reworking of The Little Mermaid in The Surface Breaks (Scholastic, £12.99, ages 12-plus) is equally frightening. Hans Christian Andersen’s masterpiece is given a fabulous feminist twist as Gaia struggles to free herself and her sisters from an unhappy childhood and cruel, controlling father. There is enormous passion and talent surging through this thrilling Irish novel about love, lies and family.
An adventure mixing horses and Nazis, Vanessa Harbour’s debut Flight (Firefly, £6.99) takes off like the rare Lipizzaners that Jewish Jakob and Roma Kizzy must rescue by riding across the Austrian mountains with Jakob’s wounded guardian. It’s not The Horse and His Boy, but Harbour’s engaging characters, both human and equine, gripping plot and real-life inspiration make this a great ride for ages ten-plus.
Fear and suspicion of the apparently alien also feature powerfully in Keren David’s Stranger (Atom, £7.99). Set in Ontario in 1904 and 1994, it tells the interlinked stories of two women from one family – the daughter of a female doctor who helps to save a mysterious wild boy, covered in blood, and modern Megan, over from London for her great-grandmother’s 105th birthday. Skilful, original and gripping, the plot-lines are woven together into a remarkable detective story for 12-year-olds-plus spanning 90 years.
Few young adult fantasies stand out this year for readers aged 12-plus. Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian (Macmillan, £7.99) is richly imagined but has tropes too familiar from Twilight – angry, oppressed heroine with two hot boys aiding her revolution against the invading Kaiser. Neal Shusterman’s Scythe (Walker £7.99) draws on The Hunger Games, positing a perfect world in which the only way to die is to be gleaned by a professional “scythe”. When Citra and Rowan are chosen to train as apprentices, there can be only one survivor… Funny, philosophical and very modern, this will add an edge to summer sizzling.
This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special