The latest children’s books

Robert Dunbar rounds up the new titles, including a memorable coda from the late Maurice Sendak


P icture-book devotees will this year be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are , widely regarded as one of the most inventive, influential and controversial examples of the genre.

Sadly, Sendak’s death last year means that his newly published My Brother’s Book (HarperCollins, £18.99) must now be seen as posthumous – but what a memorable coda to his work it is.

Arranged on its 32 pages as a blank-verse poem and incorporating 13 full-colour paintings, the book is in essence a tale of two brothers, their separation and their eventual reunion. It is a tale fuelled primarily by Sendak’s sense of pain, loss and anger on the death of a much-loved brother of his own, but these are themes moving well beyond the merely personal in the book’s wealth of literary and artistic allusion.

The illustrations derive much of their inspiration from the work of William Blake; the text carries many echoes of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale , not least the haunting words of the boy prince Mamillius: “A sad tale’s best for winter.”

The sadness is certainly there in Sendak’s telling, but it is elevated by the working of his art into something replete with its own magic and mystery.

The Winter’s Tale is, initially at least, set in Sicily, a fact that points to the ageless fascination of islands as locations for numerous literary works, children’s and young-adult fiction included.

In the latter they have, at one level, merely been adventure playgrounds, where Blytonesque boys (and occasionally girls) indulge in piratical fantasies; at another, they become backdrops for psychological examinations of self-sufficiency, loneliness or insularity; and there is everything in between.

Their popularity persists in many different guises in a number of this year’s new children’s books.

While the extent to which Gulliver’s Travels may be seen as a children’s book remains problematic, there is no denying the influence it has had on numerous subsequent fictions written for the young.

The latest of these is the extremely entertaining Lilliput , by Sam Gayton (Andersen Press, £12.99), in which Lily, a child three inches tall, has been snatched by Gulliver from her native island and brought to London.

His intention is that she will act as proof of the truthfulness of the stories of his wanderings; hers is that, using every degree of resourcefulness and ingenuity she possesses, she will eventually make a return journey home.

With a cast of picaresque characters, human and otherwise, and unlimited storytelling inventiveness, this, one feels, is an undertaking of which Swift himself would have approved. Pete Williamson’s black-and-white illustrations, an attractive blend of the macabre and the mischievous, provide a suitably atmospheric addition to the text.
The separateness of island life and the behaviour and attitudes that it may engender are tellingly explored in Tim Bowler’s Sea of Whispers (Oxford University Press, £12.99), a young-adult novel that mixes the realistic, the mystical and the poetic. Its teenage heroine, Hetty, growing up on the remote island of Mora, has to contend with the blinkered visions of the elders of her community, visions that stand in marked contrast to the change-embracing nature of her own.

The arrival on Mora of a mysterious old woman, Hetty’s response to her and a perilous boat journey on which they embark provide a plot in which the elemental forces of sea and storm become dynamic symbols for the intensity of human emotions displayed by the islanders. As in some earlier Bowler novels, there is here a delicate balancing act between natural and supernatural worlds, both portrayed as significant dimensions of everyday Mora existence.

From the fictional Mora we move, in Ali Sparkes’s Unleashed: Mind Over Matter (Oxford University Press, £6.99), to the factual Isle of Wight, a location that becomes, as one of the characters expresses it, “some kind of parallel universe of dead bodies, lost friends, panicky scrambles”. Here is an island of action-packed dramas, focusing on two brothers, Gideon and Luke, teenagers endowed with telekinetic powers, as they confront the skulduggeries of some rather sinister adult villains. Young readers happy to suspend their occasional disbelief will probably enjoy the novel’s lively pace and its strong contemporary resonance; what it will do for the island’s tourist industry is altogether more uncertain.

“There is a scary noise coming from the middle of our island.” It could well be a sentence from Sparkes’s novel, but in fact it comes from Chris Judge’s delightful picture book The Brave Beast (Andersen Press, £5.99), where the title character agrees, with some reluctance, to rid an unnamed island of an apparent monster. The verbal extravagance of Judge’s text is well matched in the exuberance of his artwork, an undisciplined riot of primary colours. It all amounts to a perfect book for reading aloud, complete with many opportunities for sound effects.

Judge, incidentally, is one of 21 children’s book illustrators whose work is included in a travelling exhibition of Irish picture-book art visiting Austria, Italy and Belgium before returning in the autumn to venues in Blanchardstown, Galway and Dublin. The exhibition, curated by the children’s laureate, Niamh Sharkey, also features work by such well-established names as PJ Lynch, Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick and Oliver Jeffers, in addition to newer talents such as Chris Haughton, Kevin Waldron and Olwyn Whelan. That it is possible to assemble such an exhibition is striking proof of the richness and variety of contemporary Irish illustration.

Robert Dunbar is a commentator on children’s books.