Children’s and YA fiction: a bumper crop for the ‘middle grade’
Reviews of titles by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, Siobhán Parkinson, Judi Curtin, Paul Gamble and Peter Bunzl, plus Harry Potter ebooks from JK Rowling
Paul Gamble: new book features time travel in which ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ is a scientific principle
“Secrets in a family can make you feel a bit like there’s someone inside your head in a big rage, throwing heavy things around.” Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s third novel for younger readers, A Very Good Chance (Orion, £5.99), following Back to Blackbrick and The Apple-Tart of Hope, introduces us to another protagonist beginning to realise that the world is unfair.
Minty’s parents are fighting all the time and keeping secrets from one another – and from her. The conflict prompts Minty to move out of her comfort zone and befriend rule-breaking Ned, who lives in a caravan with his grandmother and whose passion for horse racing is infectious. Fitzgerald carefully balances authenticity with optimism in this sensitive read for the nine-plus age group.
That nine-to-12 section of the bookshop (“middle grade” in publisher-speak, an awkward term imported from the US) is having a bumper crop this autumn as far as Irish authors are concerned. Former laureate na nÓg Siobhán Parkinson, whose strongest work has always been for this age group, returns with Miraculous Miranda (Hodder Children’s, £6.99).
“My life is not all that very great right now as a matter of fact,” Miranda informs us, and, as a protagonist, she is most matter-of-fact about how things are. Despite loving to write and make up stories, Miranda is also a practical sort: when she learns about “miracles” and thinks she may be causing them, she creates a chart to see if she can really help her older sister – chronically ill with cystic fibrosis – recover from an infection.
The prose is occasionally a little old-fashioned, but Miranda is such a vibrant heroine that her use of certain phrases seems endearing and slightly pompous, in that way bright children can be. And there is no shortage of empathy here; Parkinson writes to rather than at children, alongside rather than for them.
Judi Curtin, best known for the Alice and Megan series, is another writer who understands what makes her young readers tick. Time After Time (O’Brien, €12.99) begins with what might seem like a dream come true: what if your best friend in the whole world became your sister?
Molly’s mum and Beth’s dad have just moved in together, though it is far from smooth sailing. But when the girls follow a mysterious entrance into the past, they learn more about their parents and themselves. The most poignant element is Beth hunting down her teenage mum in 1984 – the mum who died when she was a baby, leaving her with only a photo to remember her by. But there is also plenty of humour as the pair deal with a pre-smartphone world.
Paul Gamble’s The Ministry of Strange, Unusual and Impossible Things (Little Island, £7.99) features a different kind of time travel, in which “time flies when you’re having fun” is a noted scientific principle. It also has pirates, bears, the Tooth Fairy, sinister bureaucrats, dinosaurs and many, many footnotes. Think Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, set in and around the Ulster Museum.
Twelve-year-old Jack is curious, a quality that leads him to find the Ministry of SUITs and uncover a conspiracy that could (literally) shake the foundations of all Northern Ireland. Although it’s a rather long read for this age group and some of the humour feels as if it’s more for the parents than for young readers – particularly asides concerning bankers and Tom Jones – it is still very, very, very funny.
Those expecting a typical fantasy quest will be most disappointed – after all, Jack still has parents, who “would never have let him use a pointed sword for a start. And it’s almost impossible to kill a maniacal pirate with a pair of safety scissors.” (An excerpt from the ministry’s handbook elaborates upon how one might go about this.)
He is not a hero, but that’s quite acceptable: the ministry has no interest in heroes (who get eaten by lions and run up large laundry bills) but instead “wants people who stay alive long enough to find out what’s wrong and fix the problem”. Fans of the weird and the zany will devour this novel.
For something completely different, Peter Bunzl’s Cogheart (Usborne, £6.99) is the debut novel from a London-based animator. Lily, attending a posh girls’ boarding school when we first meet her, “didn’t want the life of a well-bred Victorian lady, she wanted the life of an air-pirate”. This steampunk adventure kicks off when Lily’s father – a well-known inventor of “mechanicals” – disappears, and silver-eyed men begin following her, convinced she knows where a secret invention of her father’s is hidden.
Accompanied by the local clockmaker’s son and a mechanical fox, she tries to uncover the truth about the night seven years ago when her mother was killed. The musings on souls and artificial intelligence never get in the way of the gripping story. A sequel is expected next year.
Finally, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter universe continues to expand with the release of three short ebooks: Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide, Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies, and Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics and Pesky Poltergeists (Pottermore Presents, £1.99 each).
Consisting of content originally featured on the Pottermore website, the material mostly serves as a guide or behind-the-scenes look at the series, with Rowling offering up character notes or reflecting on why she made particular choicess. Few of the “short stories” included really work as such, and mostly read as biographical summaries, but the exploration of certain characters – Minerva McGonagall, Remus Lupin and Dolores Umbridge – redeems these short volumes. To pre-empt any potential disappointment, they add up to even less of a “new Potter novel” than the Cursed Child rehearsal script, but they are a small treat for devoted fans.
Claire Hennessy’s latest YA novel is Nothing Tastes as Good. She also works as an editor and creative writing facilitator