Chapter and verse


From toddlers to teenagers: the year's picks for young people

Poetry and rhymes

ARGUABLY the greatest gift that Christmas offers us is the season’s deep affinity with stories. Of all the holidays in our calendar, none is so marked by its tendency to stimulate more and yet more narratives. Perhaps it’s the engrossing and moving nature of the core Christmas story: a miraculous birth in the dead of winter in a dilapidated cattle shed, attended by star-led shepherds and gift-bearing eastern kings. Removed from its sometimes doctrinal and institutional contexts, it is a fairy story that captivates through its juxtaposition of life and death, purity and cruelty, deprivation and abundance. No wonder this story continues to inspire narratives and poetry that offer curiously powerful encounters with the frankly incredible, from Dickens’s life-affirming A Christmas Carolto the sparse beauty of In the Bleak Midwinter.

Given this bond between Christmas and stories, there is surely no present more suited to the season than a book. British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s Another Night Before Christmas(illustrated by Rob Ryan, Picador, £4.99) reminds us of another of the many Christmas narratives, and of course the variation in her title highlights that this will be a distinctive retelling of the traditional narrative. The contemporary feel of Duffy’s treatment – homelessness, crass consumerism and the lidless media gaze – will strike a chord with younger readers.

The heart of Duffy’s account resides in a child’s faith in Santa Claus, despite every trap that society can lay to rob her of belief. At one point a satellite in space, signalling our “advanced” scientific society, sees in its “eye’s empty socket” only “famine and greed” – an act of looking that seems to confirm or create ills rather than simply register them. It “cannot see Santa Claus on Christmas Eve”, the narrator tells us, though Rob Ryan’s illustration at this point records what Nasa would surely log as a near collision with Santa’s reindeer-powered sleigh.

Ryan’s woodcut-type illustrations offer the perfect accompaniment to Duffy’s text, invariably depicting characters such as Santa and the girl in silhouette. The girl’s last view of Santa is “as the moon showed him in silhouette”, and yet her faith allows her to see into this dark mystery – unlike the satellite. The illustration of Santa as seen by the girl breaks the silhouette with one important feature: his smile. As the poem says at this point, “the best gift of all is to truly believe”. Duffy’s credent girl brings us closer to the Christmas miracle.

Also from Carol Ann Duffy is the volume New & Collected Poems for Children(illustrated by Alice Stevenson, Faber, £9.99). Although not a Christmas collection, it would make a wonderful present for a young teenager with an ear for poetry’s rhythms and rhyme. Many of these poems have an engaging and often humorous fantasy element; Cucumberscreates in miniature a society where the new form of currency is the eponymous vegetable. It’s fun, but it also implicitly invites its young reader to interrogate society’s construction of value and wealth. And the poem Irish Rats Rhymed to Deathshould be compulsory reading for some of our political and financial “masters”.

Two collections offer interestingly contrasting interpretations of classic nursery rhymes: T he Orchard Book of Nursery Rhymes for Your Baby, illustrated by Penny Dann (Orchard Books, £12.99), and Nursery Rhymes, illustrated by Paula Rego (Thames Hudson, £14.95). As the text of nursery rhymes such as Jack and Jill and Mary, Mary, Quite Contraryis well established, these are books with the focus very much on the illustrator’s creative response. Penny Dann’s work constantly proclaims freshness – both in her vibrant, sunshiny colours and in her contemporary take on established classics. In London Bridge Is Falling Downa double-decker bus trundles through a modern, rather than medieval, cityscape. And the animal workers who are cheerfully repairing the bridge suggest that it won’t fall down after all. Learning these rhymes as a child entails acquiring a kind of archetypal or incantatory language of poetic utterance – one’s earliest experience of the locking into place of rhythm and rhyme. Penny Dann provides in her illustrations a beautiful and memorable accompaniment to this experience.

Paula Rego’s illustrations cover many of the same nursery rhymes, yet the contrast could hardly be greater – or more interesting. Gone is the optimistic world created by Dann, and in its place are monochromatic pen-and-ink drawings of compelling darkness. Whereas The Orchard Booksoftens the potentially sinister elements of the rhymes – Dann’s three blind mice wear blindfolds, with their tails intact – Rego’s illustration for this same rhyme does not flinch from depicting mice whose physical blindness is registered in milky eyes, and whose tails have indeed been cut. With Rego we feel closer to the potentially medieval origins of a number of these rhymes – the world of leering gargoyles and grotesque carved heads in an old cathedral. Baa Baa Black Sheeppresents a sinister gargantuan sheep, apparently holding the child captive; the garden of “contrary Mary” has ominous totemic topiary figures of women, seemingly dancing around her. If your child is a budding goth, or if her/his creativity is drawn towards the dark, macabre or sinister (which is no bad thing), then this book has the potential to ignite the imagination further – and lead the way into future reading in the now-popular realms of wizards and vampires.

Finally, two more collections of poems for children. Allan Ahlberg’s and Bruce Ingram’s Everybody Was a Baby Once(Walker, £9.99) takes traditional figures from nursery rhymes and fairy stories – Cinderella, Little Jack Horner, Little Bo Peep – and puts them in contemporary and accessible contexts: in this case a football team. These poems are full of infectious, song-like qualities, and they will provide young readers and listeners with access to archetypal characters – the witch, the naughty boy, monsters – in humorous and often quirky contexts.

Kit Wright’s The Magic Box(illustrated by Peter Bailey, Macmillan Children’s Books, £10.99) is a collection of previously published poems for young teenagers, drawn from the author’s earlier collections, with some new poems too. These poems invariably delight. T he Publishing Puffintakes the publishing house Puffin Books and imagines this nomenclature in terms of an actual puffin performing the act of publishing. The rhyme in this poem is brilliantly achieved, and its humour and fantasy are nicely offset by a poem such a s All of Us,which offers a more serious and gently didactic response to young adolescent concerns.

Overall, there’s a cornucopia – or at least a stuffed stocking – here. It is immensely encouraging, in this age of tweeting, to think that these poems both old and new could find their place within a budding mind. Leanne O’Sullivan

Leanne O’Sullivan has published two collections with Bloodaxe Books , Waiting for My Clothes (2004) and Cailleach: The Hag of Beara(2009). Last year she was awarded the Ireland Chair of Poetry bursary by Michael Longley. She is this year’s winner of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature

Robert Dunbar's favourite books for children of 2010

In Over the Rainbowby EY Harburg, illustrated by Eric Puybaret (Macmillan, £10.99), the classic song from The Wizard of Ozis given a delightfully fresh interpretation in Puybarets dream-like illustrations – and in Judy Collins’s evocative vocal version on an accompanying CD. All ages

A Bit Lostby Chris Haughton (Walker, £11.99) Illustrations, text and layout combine magnificently in this engaging, and humorous story of a baby owl’s separation from its mother. Age: four.

A Web of Airby Philip Reeve (Scholastic, £6.99) Details of yesterday’s past and today’s present mischievously come together in 16-year-old Fever’s attempt “to make her own life and her own discoveries”. An inventive tour de force. Age: 12.

Cave Babyby Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Emily Gravett (Macmillan, £10.99) When a Stone Age baby becomes a cave painter chaos threatens; words and pictures are equally diverting. Age: four.

Dancing in the Darkby PR Prendergast (O’Brien, €7.99) Teenager James returns from his grave to haunt his sister and, in the process, helps her in coping with her grief. Age: 12

Eric byShaun Tan (Templar, £4.99) A foreign-exchange student finds that settling in with his host family raises complex issues of cultural difference. The pencil drawings are superb. All ages.

Firebrandby Gillian Philip (Strident, £7.99) Seth McGregor, 16-year-old member of the Scottish fairy Sidhe community, is at the centre of an amazingly rich historical fantasy, packed with family feuds and colourful adventures. Age: 15.

Fugitives!by Aubrey Flegg (O’Brien, €7.99) The allegiances of 17th-century Ireland come vividly to life in a well-paced story – complete with lively heroine – of the Flight of the Earls. Age: 12.

Lobby Linda Newbery, illustrated by Pam Smy (David Fickling, £10.99) Lucy, her grandfather and his mysterious gardening assistant, Lob, establish rich intergenerational links in this gently entertaining story. Age: eight.

Luka and the Fire of Lifeby Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) In this busy and bustling narrative, featuring a large and exotic cast of characters, elements of traditional fairy tale magically join forces with clever allusions to today’s popular culture. Age: 12.

Monsters of Menby Patrick Ness (Walker, £7.99) The manner in which “war makes monsters of men” is powerfully dissected in this final adventure of teenagers Todd and Viola. Age: 14.

My Name Is Minaby David Almond (Hodder, £12.99) Fatherless Mina, fascinated by the writings of William Blake, tells a story of loss, of love and of the wonderful possibilities of the imagination. Age: 10.

New Town Soulby Dermot Bolger (Little Island, €8.99) The Dublin suburb of Blackrock, in both its contemporary and its historical guise, serves as backdrop for an excellent, totally absorbing thriller. Age: 14.

Noah Barleywater Runs Awayby John Boyne, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (David Fickling, £10.99) A boy’s encounters with some strange beings provides the plot for an enchanting tale of loss and recovery. Age: 10.

Nobody’s Horseby Jane Smiley (Faber, £6.99) Twelve-year-old Abby learns to cope with her fundamentalist father, his horses, her less-than-friendly classmates – and herself. Age: 10.

On the Road with Mavis and Margeby Niamh Sharkey (Walker, £11.99) A cow and a chicken hilariously share a red bicycle en route to north Antrim, the Antarctic and outer space. Age: four.

Paper Townsby John Green (Bloomsbury, £6.99) Cheated on by one young man, Margo persuades another to help her carry out a brilliantly devised plan of revenge: a fascinating insight into adolescence. Age: 15.

Prim Improperby Deirdre Sullivan (Little Island, €7.99)Primrose, aged 13 and very definitely her own young woman, records with wit and style the highs and lows of her complex existence. Age: 12.

Skulduggery Pleasant: Mortal Coilby Derek Landy (HarperCollins, £12.99) The fifth outing for Landy’s redoubtable skeletal detective finds Dublin’s magic community, the Sanctuary, under threat: can Skulduggery and sidekick Stephanie be of help? Age: 10.

Sparks by Ally Kennen(Scholastic, £6.99) Carla’s determination to give her Grandpa, as he had requested, “a Viking funeral” supplies the theme of this often humorous and often heart-warming story. Age: 10.

Taking Flightby Sheena Wilkinson (Little Island, €9.99) Vicky and Declan, Ulster cousins separated by social class, eventually discover a shared passion. A highly impressive debut novel. Age: 14.

The Boy Who Climbed into the Moonby David Almond, illustrated by Polly Dunbar (Walker, £9.99) This touching story of Paul, who sees the moon as a hole in the sky, marvellously celebrates freedom and friendship. Age: six.

The Double Life of Cassiel Roadnightby Jenny Valentine (HarperCollins, £5.99) A chap called Chap decides to accept that he is the Cassiel of the title. An enthralling variation on the “Who am I?” theme. Age: 14.

The Heart and the Bottleby Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins, £10.99) The most memorable picture book of the year poignantly relates what happens when a little girl’s father is no longer in his chair. Age: eight.

The Midnight Zooby Sonya Hartnett, illustrated by Jonathan McNaught (Walker, £8.99) Two brothers and their baby sister, tramping across a ravaged countryside, encounter a zoo. An exquisitely written, illustrated and produced novel. Age: 12.

The Ogre of Oglefortby Eva Ibbotson (Macmillan, £9.99) The peculiar inmates of a London boarding house pit their wits against an even odder ogre. Age: eight.

Tiny Little Flyby Michael Rosen, illustrated by Kevin Waldron (Walker, £11.99) An elephant, a tiger, a hippo – and a little fly. Their relationships, in word and picture, constitute a stunning picture book. Age: four.

Up and Downby Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins, £10.99) The evolving friendship between a boy and a penguin proceeds smoothly – until the penguin wants to fly: will the friendship survive? Age: four.

Vamoose!by Meg Rosoff (Puffin, £3.99) When a young couple’s expected baby turns out to be a moose, the consequences are simultaneously disconcerting and hilarious: a witty, clever (and thought-provoking) story. Age: 14.

Where I Belongby Gillian Cross (Oxford, £6.99) Three interlinking stories narrated from the perspectives of three interlinked voices move between today’s Somalia and today’s Britain. Age: 12.

White Crowby Marcus Sedgwick (Orion, £9.99) A hot summer holiday for Rebecca and her father takes unexpected turns when she encounters a distinctly strange young woman called Ferelith. Age: 14.

Robert Dunbar is a commentator on childrens books and reading

No 'Twilight' turgidity: vampires of a distinctly superior sort

YOUNG ADULT FICTION:WHENEVER I SEE a young person who’s hooked on the turgid Twilight saga I feel the urge to tell them about all the other vastly superior paranormal books aimed at teenagers. Along with Rachel Caine’s fantastic Morganville series and LJ Smith’s Vampire Diaries books, I’d happily recommend Maggie Stiefvater’s new novel, Linger (Scholastic, £7.99), the second part in a trilogy that began with Shiver. It’s set in Mercy Falls, a small Minnesota town surrounded by woods in which live some unusual wolves. The wolves are only lupine for the winter months: when summer comes and the temperature rises, they turn back into the humans they used to be.

Teenager Sam was once a werewolf, but thanks to a mysterious cure he’s now able to stay human all year around and can finally imagine a future with his girlfriend, Grace. She, however, is starting to suffer from odd fevers – and is beginning to realise that something very strange is happening to her. The book’s werewolf mythology is coherent and original, and we discover that what Sam views as a curse is seen by others as an escape from their troubled human selves. The characters are complex and convincing, and the story is utterly compelling. Strongly recommended.

There are more mysterious creatures in Lucy Christopher’s beautifully written Flyaway (Chicken House, £6.99). Isla has always shared her father’s passion for the wild swans that fly near their home. But when her father has a heart attack and is rushed to hospital Isla feels utterly alone – her best friend recently moved to another town and her brother is occupied with his own friends. But then she meets Harry, a boy who is a patient at the same hospital as her dad. When she and Harry see a lone wild swan on the lake near the hospital, the bird becomes a symbol of hope – for Harry, for Isla’s father, and for all the lost swans. A melancholy, moving book.

Outside fantasy and heroic adventure, teenage boys can be overlooked in the world of teen fiction. The ordinary lives of boys in the real world is seldom the focus of novels, so Malorie Blackman’s excellent new book, Boys Don’t Cry (Doubleday, £12.99), is very welcome. It’s the story of Dante, an academically gifted and ambitious teenager whose life is transformed when Melissa, with whom he had a drunken one-night stand nearly two years ago, appears on his doorstep and hands him a baby that she says is his daughter. Melissa then vanishes, leaving a stunned Dante holding the baby and wondering what this means for his plans for university.

Teenage pregnancy is often seen as being a female problem, but Boys Don’t Cry is an important reminder that this is an issue that involves boys, too. Blackman explores what it means to be a father with insight and skill, examining not only Dante’s slow acceptance of his new responsibilities but also his relationship with his own widowed father, who has also had to struggle with the challenges of single parenthood. Dante’s relationship with his happily gay brother, Adam, who becomes the target of some hypocritical homophobes, is also sensitively drawn, and by the end of this surprisingly moving and ultimately optimistic book, readers will be hoping that everyone works out well for this likeable family.

Oscar Banks, the hero of Pam Bachorz’s debut novel, Candor (Egmont, £6.99), is also a model student, but his choices are even more limited than Dante’s. Oscar lives in Candor, a picture-perfect gated community in Florida that was founded by his father. Everyone behaves beautifully in Candor, especially the teenagers, who all dress conservatively, eat healthily, work hard at school and obey their parents.

Why is everyone in Candor so squeaky clean? Because of the “messages”, subliminal commands broadcast all over town. Parents of troubled teenagers are drawn to Candor, knowing it’ll curb their children’s wild behaviour. But Oscar has figured out how to make countermessages that prevent the brainwashing, and he’s set up a secret business that enables the more resistant (and rich) newcomers to escape the town. Then he meets skateboarding newcomer Nia, and realises he’ll do anything to stop her becoming another Candor kid. Although her writing can be a little flat at times, Bachorz knows how to tell a gripping story, and the claustrophobic, unsettlingly perfect town of Candor – a clever version of a standard science-fiction trope – is brilliantly realised. Oscar himself is an interesting hero, if not always a likeable one, and his ultimate fate will linger long in the reader’s memory.

There’s fantasy of a very different kind in Celine Kiernan’s The Rebel Prince (O’Brien, €10.99), the final part of her Moorehawke trilogy. If you haven’t read the first installments (I hadn’t) you might be initially confused, but Kiernan’s fans will appreciate the immediate plunge into the action. Set in an alternate medieval Europe, this is classic high fantasy with some innovative twists, as Wynter Moorehawke hopes to keep the peace between the various factions that threaten to tear apart the kingdom. It’s a stirring, dramatic story – just right for this dark and wild time of year. Anna Carey

Anna Carey’s first book for young readers, The Real Rebecca, will be published by the O’Brien Press in February

Picture perfect scenes

COMIC AND GRAPHIC BOOKS:ONE OF THE most popular Christmas books ever published is a graphic novel. The Snowman,by Raymond Briggs, tells its haunting and magical story through pictures alone. Storytelling through pictures is considered more acceptable for young readers, and there’s a fuzzy boundary between children’s picture books and comics – kids, unlike many adults, don’t expect words and pictures to stay neatly separated and love to see them combined in fun, creative ways.

Slog’s Dad(Walker Books, £8.99), a tale of loss written by David Almond (author of Skellig) with art by the comics veteran Dave McKean, is a fine example. The sad, evocative story is mostly told through Almond’s prose, but McKean’s pictures don’t just illustrate the events in the story. Rather, they amplify and add to them, bringing an extra dimension of meaning to a story already packed with emotion.

The Easter Rising(Gill & Macmillan, €18.99) makes the events of Easter 1916 vivid and alive by showing them through the eyes of a young boy and illustrating them not just with photographs of the participants and the buildings but with pop-up re-creations of battle scenes.

This respectful treatment of history is completely absent from Dav Pilkey’s Ook & Gluk: Kung Fu Cavemen from the Future(Scholastic, £8.99), which throws history, science and common sense out of the window in favour of telling a fun story. The anarchic joy of Ook & Gluklies not just in the wacky adventures of the two heroes but also in the simplicity of the drawing style (complete with deliberate misspellings). As well as being a fun read, Ook & Glukis the kind of book that might make children say to themselves, “I could do that!” and start drawing comics of their own.

More time-bending adventure can be found in the delightful romp Polly and the Pirates(Oni Press, $11.95), by Ted Naifeh. Set in a kind of alternate 19th century, in which some historical events have gone differently (such as the US being ruled by an emperor), it follows Polly, a proper young lady who has no thoughts of leaving her boarding school until she is swept away by pirates into a world of duels and sea battles, where she struggles to maintain her respectability while holding her own in a fight. Polly and the Piratesis perfectly executed, with an intelligent core that keeps it from feeling insubstantial.

On a more thoughtful note, Joann Sfar’s adaptation of The Little Prince(Walker Books, £15.99 ) is now available in English. Sfar is a legend on the French comics scene, and only an artist of his stature and calibre could adapt the equally legendary Saint-Exupéry classic. This simple tale of a prince from the stars who falls to Earth has moved and enchanted generations of children. Sfar’s art is bright and full of life, simple and occasionally grotesque when Saint-Exupéry’s allegory calls for it. This adaptation is a fine way to revitalise the magic and wisdom of the little prince.

In recent years, vampires have been huge in young adult fiction. Matsuri Hino, creator of Vampire Knight(Viz, £6.99), is Japanese, but her vampires are straight out of the European tradition, via Bram Stoker: they’re gorgeous, seductive and haunted. The story centres on Yuki Cross, a student in the “Day Class” at Cross Academy who is charged with guarding the school’s dark secret: the glamorous “Night Class” are all vampires. Vampire Knight is more in the vein (no pun intended) of Twilightthan Cirque du Freak– more a dark romance than a horror story. It’s lush, intense and melodramatic, a feast for vampire-lovers.

By contrast Natsume’s Book of Friends(Viz, £6.99), by Yuki Midorikawa, is a gently episodic fantasy deeply rooted in Japanese mythology. Takashi Natsume can see yokai – Japanese spirits, much like fairies. His grandmother left behind a strange legacy: during her life she enslaved many yokai by writing their names in a magical book. Now Takashi must free the yokai by giving them back their names, which is easier said than done: some of them are angry, some are fading away and all are different enough from humans to make communication difficult. Natsume’s Book of Friendsis compelling; you want to keep turning the page so as to stay enfolded in its world.

In a similar vein, Foiled, by the award-winning young adult author Jane Yolen and the artist Mark Cavallaro (First Second, $15.99 ), is about a magical world that lies just past the edge of vision, and about what happens when one girl finds a way to see what lies beyond that edge. The heroine, Aliera Carstairs, is a little crotchety, a little eccentric, a little lonely, but entirely brave and more wise and compassionate than average.

And, saving the best for last: Mercury, by Hope Larson (Atheneum, $9.99), is not only one of the best graphic novels for young people to come out in 2010, but one of the best graphic novels for any age group to come out in years. It concerns two girls named Fraser living in rural Nova Scotia: Josey Fraser, who falls in love with an itinerant gold prospector in 1859, and her descendent Tara, who is linked to Josey through a mercury pendant and an otherworldly gift the two girls share. In its weaving together of past and present, of Josey’s world and Tara’s, and in its keen observation of the unavoidable constraints of their lives, Mercuryis exquisite. Katherine Farmar

Katherine Farmar is a freelance writer and editor