Rarely has a spring been so keenly awaited as this one. Months of monotony have lifted at last, bringing us books as cheerful as Easter eggs.
Chicken Come Home! by Polly Faber and Briony May Smith (Pavilion, £6.99) has free-ranging hen Dolly go on an unexpected journey thanks to her habit of laying eggs in unlikely places. Wild balloon-rides, rivers, fields and roads lead to warm, lively pictures that will make three- to five-year-olds laugh aloud.
All heroes go on journeys, and while lockdown lasts a succession of capers for children should appeal. Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry has been replaced by Two Terrible Vikings (Faber, £6.99). As “the best worst Vikings”, Hack and Whack don’t understand what birthday parties, baths or good behaviour mean, but four- to six-year-old readers will. Its three short stories of unfettered childhood awfulness are great to read aloud: just spare some sympathy for the butt of the jokes, poor Elsa Golden Hair. How to be a Hero by Cat Weldon (Macmillan, £6.99) is a more conventional comedy. A trainee Valkyrie mistakes a Viking thief for a fallen hero, and takes him to Valhalla. The quarrelsome pair must try to find a lost talking cup before the god Loki can unleash chaos. It’s fast-paced and fun for 6+.
[See also: How Georges Simenon found his eye]
Children worry a lot about depressed parents, and Peter Carnavas’s The Elephant (Pushkin Children’s Books, £6.99) addresses this. Olive is determined to chase her dad’s elephant away. A touching tale that’s not just for 6+, it is graceful, profound and blessedly free of mawkishness. In Tamsin Mori’s The Weather Weaver (UCLan, £7.99), Stella is sent to live with her grumpy grandpa on a lonely Shetland island – so it’s just as well she turns out to be a cloud whisperer, able to go into battle with the sea witches. The story is exciting, charming and full of emotional intelligence, and its 7+ readers should also fall in love with Hannah Gold’s The Last Bear (HarperCollins, £12.99), a stunning debut about a lonely girl, April, who accompanies her scientist father to yet another remote island in the Arctic Circle. She discovers a hungry, wounded polar bear who befriends her instead of eating her up. April’s passion for the environment will resonate in many young hearts, amplified by Levi Pinfold’s exquisite illustrations. This a glorious gift. Melt by Ele Fountain (Pushkin Children’s Books, £7.99, 8+) is an engaging eco-conscious thriller about climate change. Yutu’s remote Inuit village is suffering from global warming; when Bea’s father’s plane crashes in the Arctic tundra, Yutu and Bea must help each other. Once again, the frozen North is a metaphor for remote parents ignoring troubled children.
It’s a relief to find Frank Cottrell-Boyce cheering us on with his irrepressible boy narrator in Noah’s Gold (Macmillan, £12.99, 9+). Noah smuggles himself on to a school geography trip and finds he is marooned on an island (yes, another one!) with five other kids, a fortune in gold bars and, worst of all, without any internet. An adventure whose wit and energy recalls E Nesbit’s immortal Oswald Bastable, this is an absolute tonic about using your head instead of relying on technology, or adults.
[See also: AA Milne’s pacifism and patriotism]
The shadow of war hangs over The Swallows’ Flight (Macmillan, £12.99, 9+), the semi-sequel to Hilary McKay’s immaculate, Costa Award-winning The Skylarks’ War. Two German boys and two British girls discover that hate can be countered by friendship. Suffused with all the family love, comedy and complexity we expect from this outstanding writer, it should be read beside Liz Kessler’s enthralling When the World was Ours (Simon & Schuster, £12.99, 10+). Three childhood friends in Germany must choose sides. Two Jews must flee the country, but the third child poses a danger to them both: his father is a Nazi. A story that draws on the author’s father’s experience of the Holocaust, this is a superb novel whose sympathy dramatises the devastation wrought by cruelty on innocence. Don’t miss it.
I am the Minotaur is Anthony McGowan’s reworking of the Ancient Greek myth (OUP, £7.99, 11+). Narrated by a friendless teenager nicknamed Stinky Mog, it is hilarious, tear-jerking and gripping. In love with Ari, one of the coolest girls in school, Mog tracks down her stolen bicycle with unexpected results.
Publishing is one of the few industries that has flourished during lockdown, but it is still missing great books by favouring cookie-cutter fiction. The best young adult adventure this season is NM Browne’s Bad Water (Kristell Ink, £9.99), set in a flooded, dystopian Britain where technologies have largely failed. Its barger heroine Ollu must save her sick mother’s life by sailing her ark into the notorious area where slaver gangs prey on traders. The genetically enhanced Buzz, who has lost his father after crash-landing from overseas, must be her reluctant ally if he is to have a hope of finding civilisation. It’s a vividly imagined steampunk world that succeeds in being original despite some familiar tropes, largely because of its engaging characters. Browne is the author of 12 outstanding fantasy novels previously published by Bloomsbury, equally enthralling to both male and female readers of 11+.
Let’s hope this spring will bring the return of courageous publishing, as well as freedom. They are both long overdue.
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021