Children’s books: Stories for summer from balaclavas and kings to Nazis and teen troubles
In this selection of books for young people you will find stories that make you laugh and cry, that bring the past to life and illuminate the present
Courage: the Paris of 1942 comes vividly alive in No Stars at the Circus by Mary Finn
Stories to make us laugh and stories to make us cry; stories to bring the past to life and stories to illuminate the present: today’s selection of fiction for young people’s summertime reading provides enjoyable examples of all of these, and more. The first two titles are intended for readers aged seven to nine; the next five are for readers aged 10 to 12; and the remainder are for teenagers.
“You’ve got to read it to know about me – Specky Becky Bucks, legend, genius, star and modest to a fault.” Thus says the redoubtable 11-year-old heroine of John Quinn’s Becky Bounces Back (Becky Books, €6), whose passion for Gaelic football dominates this light-hearted and entertaining novel. Proceeding at a lively pace, the story celebrates youthful ambition and enthusiasm, mingling its focus on Becky’s sporting endeavours with humorous glances into school and family life.
Primary-school life figures also in Jenny Robson’s Balaclava Boy (Little Island, €6.99), but here the classroom is in South Africa. A new boy, introduced as Tommy, arrives, and although he is welcomed by his fellow pupils they are bewildered when he refuses to remove his balaclava. Some young readers may guess the revelation to come in the closing pages, but their prescience should not diminish their enjoyment of this delightfully undidactic fable of tolerance and acceptance.
Claire Hennessy’s Seeds of Liberty (Poolbeg, €6.99) is a cleverly themed and structured work of historical fiction comprising, in effect, three novellas. In each we are in the late 18th century, with geographical settings moving from Boston to Paris to Wexford. In these locations various young people find themselves embroiled in the revolutionary movements of the time, helping in the process to sow the seeds of a new age. Their participation in their respective conflicts is neither trivialised nor glamorised.
From Hennessy’s 18th century we move back, in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (Hesperus Minor, £7.99), to the London of 1547. This elegant new edition of the American classic will serve admirably to introduce today’s young readers to the linked destinies of the two boys of the title, who are brought together in an accidental encounter and go on to switch places and roles in the England of their time. Boyish adventure is in plentiful supply, but so too are reminders of the period’s social inequalities.
Widely regarded as one of last year’s most absorbing novels, Tonke Dragt’s The Letter for the King is now available in paperback (Pushkin, £7.99). A classic of 20th-century Dutch children’s literature, here translated by Laura Watkinson, this is the story of 16-year-old Tiuri and the quest on which he embarks to deliver an all-important missive. His experiences and encounters en route provide material for a medieval fantasy of the highest order, action-packed and atmospheric.
The Paris of 1942 comes vividly alive in Mary Finn’s No Stars at the Circus (Walker Books, £6.99), an excellent addition to those novels dealing with children’s courage and initiative in confronting Nazi oppression. The central character is a Jewish boy, 10-year-old Jonas, who manages to escape the appalling Jewish round-up of July 16th. His subsequent existence, separated from his parents and his younger sister, sustains a narrative of unforgettable poignancy, beautifully told.
The second World War also serves as backdrop for Sonya Hartnett’s The Children of the King (Scholastic, £12.99), in which 14-year-old Jeremy and his younger sister, Cecily, London evacuees, become temporary residents of their uncle Peregrine’s country mansion. Visiting a nearby dilapidated castle, the children encounter “two very horrid boys”, as one chapter heading describes them.
Might they be ghosts – and how do they fit in with Peregrine’s stories? Past and present are expertly fused, resulting in a totally engaging narrative.
Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Why We Took the Car (Andersen Press, £6.99), translated by Tim Mohr from the original German, is an enjoyably offbeat contribution to the young-adult road-trip novel. Its narrator, Mike, an introspective and largely friendless 14-year-old, finds himself accompanying Tschich, the school’s new and highly unconventional student, on a picaresque jaunt across Europe in an ancient “borrowed” Lada. Its humorous and wry tone apart, the book’s real distinction lies in its depiction of the relationship between the boys and their shared navigation of early adolescence.
In the case of 15-year-old Hannah, in Non Pratt’s impressive debut novel, Trouble (Walker Books, £6.99), her early adolescence is complicated by the fact that she is pregnant. Pratt skilfully involves her readers in speculation about the identity of the child’s father – and, even more intriguingly, in teasing out why Hannah’s classmate, Aaron, should be keen to claim that the child is his. Witty, frank and determinedly nonjudgmental, this is very much a “teenage pregnancy” text for our time.
Early in Deirdre Sullivan’s Primperfect (Little Island, €7.99) its 16-year-old heroine, Primrose, remarks: “I’m just a girl trying to survive in this crazy mixed-up world.” We are prepared for a popular theme in contemporary young-adult fiction, but rarely is the path towards survival tracked with such humour or with such insight into the confusions of adolescent friendships, rivalries or relationships, social or sexual.
The strength of Sullivan’s writing lies in her ability to portray her characters in the round, imperfections included, and to create for them a way of speaking that sparkles with authenticity.