What’s Irish for ‘Billionaire Boy’? David Walliams as Gaeilge
The best new books for children and young adults
Billionaire Boy: Beag Tony Ross’s illustrations are on hand in An Billiúnaí Beag to help any readers whose Irish may be a bit wobbly
Chocolate lovers beware: the Chunk is on the loose. Pip Jones and Laura Hughes team up in The Chocolate Monster (Faber & Faber, £6.99), a rhyming picture book that warns young readers about the dangers of the “mighty tricky, sticky thief” who steals everyone’s sweets. Bright, cheerful and playful, this is a visual and verbal treat.
The picture-book superstars Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen kick off their latest collaboration with the first in the Shapes trilogy, Triangle (Walker Books, £12.99). Triangle intends to “play a sneaky trick on Square”, but it’s not going nearly as well as he imagined. The images are deceptively simple; the characters inhabit a world of triangles, squares and the “shapes with no names”. Each is rendered beautifully. As with Klassen’s solo work, the eyes reveal everything about the characters, bringing two basic shapes-on-legs to life. At times, though, Barnett’s dialogue seems a tad formal, with the final address to the reader verging on twee; this detracts from the wry humour that is the duo’s hallmark.
Closer to home, the Irish-language publishers Futa Fata has Bliain na nÁmhrán (€16.95), by its director Tadhg Mac Dhonnagáin, a year of song divided into four seasons, with art by four illustrators (Christina O’Donovan, Brian Fitzgerald, Tarsila Kruse and Jennifer Farley). A CD of the music is included, and the focus on nature makes this one that teachers are likely to bring into the classroom. Despite this, one of the funniest songs focuses on a lament about the end of the summer and having to go back to school – because you’re the teacher.
Futa Fata has also been shrewd in its translations of English-language bestsellers for over-eights. Its latest is Máirín Ní Mhárta’s translation of David Walliams. An Billiúnaí Beag (€9.95) depicts the life of 12-year-old Joe Práta (Joe Spud), who is fabulously wealthy but has no friends. The humorous, conversational tone of the original shines through, with Tony Ross’s illustrations on hand to assist any readers whose Irish may be a bit wobbly.
“I was a water baby, a bath baby, a slithery pink thing. The sea is in my blood.” Chloe Daykin’s debut novel, Fish Boy (Faber & Faber, £9.99), invites us to the world of 12-year-old Billy Shiels, better known as Fish Boy. His twin obsessions – the sea and “unexplained mysteries” – mask his loneliness as a bullied kid at school and his fears about his mother’s chronic illness. The arrival of a potential new friend widens his horizons, but the fish still call to him in their strange language, and escaping with the shoal remains tempting.
The touch of magic realism blends easily with the real-world concerns of family life and schoolyard bullying, and Billy’s voice is distinctive and authentic from the first page. The novel has already been praised by David Almond – whose influence is felt throughout – and much more is doubtlessly on the way.
While Billy gathers tales of inexplicable events in the Bermuda Triangle, Petula, the teenage protagonist of Susin Nielsen’s Optimists Die First (Andersen Press, £12.99) keeps a scrapbook of unforeseeable disasters. Asked why she’s a pessimist, Petula has a compelling answer: “It’s just common sense. You’ve heard about Darwin’s theory of evolution? Survival of the fittest? The pessimists were the fittest. They were the ones who were wary of neighbouring tribes, or cute little lion cubs.”
Soon we learn that her grey-tinted take on life is the result of her baby sister’s accidental death, which Petula is convinced is her fault. The ways in which her parents have dealt with – or avoided dealing with – the tragedy is handled with a light touch; her mother’s obsessive adoption of stray cats is entertaining but also poignant, and the slight absurdities take the edge off the serious subject matter.
This being a young-adult novel, of course there is romance; Petula’s art-therapy group features the charming Jacob, who invents various stories to explain his prosthetic arm. The set-up is perhaps a little too close to John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars for some readers, and at times Jacob veers too close to being a knight-in-shining-armour cliche.
Nevertheless, their mutual attraction is believable, and as Petula learns to worry a little less it offers her the opportunity to remind us of the dangers of allowing optimism “to creep in”: “Optimists live in a rainbow-coloured, sugar-coated land of denial. Optimists miss warning signs.” Overcoming anxiety need not mean turning into a Pollyanna.
After all, bad things do still happen in the world. Six years ago two girls disappeared from a small Oregon town. On the day Mary G Thompson’s Amy Chelsea Stacie Dee (Chicken House, £7.99) begins, one of them returns home. Amy arrives on her mother’s doorstep at the age of 16 unable to even identify herself. “I choke on the name. It won’t come out.” For years she has been Chelsea, a toy to be played with, held captive by a man with an unsettling obsession with dolls.
Her cousin and best friend, Dee, was the main target. Shaped into Stacie, she was the one who suffered most at the hands of their kidnapper. And she is the one whose whereabouts everyone demands of Amy after her solo return to the normal world, albeit a world fractured for the two families.
Survivor guilt and trauma are sensitively handled; Amy’s flashback-induced blackouts offer insights into the missing six years of her life, which she’s unwilling to talk about with her family or therapist. Her protective instincts towards others make this a more nuanced story than a straightforward account of Stockholm syndrome, and a moving if sometimes distressing read for older teens.
Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor and creative-writing facilitator