Children’s book reviews: a round-up of some great reads
Prose, rhyming verse and the Rock, Paper, Scissors characters will delight this summer
An illustration from “The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors” by kidlit powerhouses Drew Daywalt and Adam Rex
Adults without small children in their lives at a given time often forget how sad and melancholic picture books can be. Simon Puttock and Daniel Egnéus’s The Thing (Egmont, £6.99) at first seems simply quirky and delightful. A brightly-coloured “Thing” brings four strangers together, eventually leading to a funfair being set up around it and international debates about whether “the Thing” should stay or go.
Beautiful, smudgy illustrations and variations in text size enrich this account of a mysterious object which invites questions about what belongs where, and how meaning is made. But the bittersweet finale – in which the newfound friends go their separate ways – does make this adult reader yearn for another “Thing” to bring them back together again.
Also from Egmont is The Night Box by Louise Greig and Ashling Lindsay (£6.99), a rhyming-verse account of how night takes over from day and what it does. “Night turns tiny sounds up LOUD. Just a plink! That’s all. Just a drip, not a waterfall.” Night seems both magical and comforting, and the image of night as “kind”, “silent and strong all night long, to hold in its arms a bear and a boy” is sure to soothe any young listeners anxious about the dark.
Sam Bishop and Fiona Lunders’s I Like Bees, I Don’t Like Honey! (Faber & Faber, £6.99) is far more of a daytime read. Interactive rather than narrative, it features a diverse range of children and what they do like – and don’t. At various points the reader is asked what they like and dislike, with space at the end for them to fill in their own speech bubbles. It is most emphatically a useful classroom tool rather than a great work of children’s literature, but certainly one for teachers to keep in mind for the new school year.
Kidlit powerhouses Drew Daywalt and Adam Rex team up for The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors (HarperCollins, £12.99), in which the origins of the game – or battle – are revealed in zany prose and dramatic illustrations that explode over the page. Rock, Paper and Scissors have emerged from various realms – Paper hails from Desk Mountain, for example – to find worthy opponents.
Along the way each has defeated various foes, complete with witty banter: “Let us do battle, you tacky and vaguely round monstrosity!” Scissors declares to a roll of sticky-tape, who responds with, “I will battle you, and I will leave you beaten and confused with my adhesive and tangling powers!” Picture books are often viewed as the domain of the very young only, but this holds up as a most pleasing read for ages five to nine as well.
For older readers, the reigning queen of British children’s fiction, Jacqueline Wilson, turns to the second World War with Wave Me Goodbye (Doubleday, £12.99), a depiction of being evacuated to the countryside told from the point of view of bookworm and dreamer Shirley. Complete with illustrations by Nick Sharratt, the story handles the balance of big worries – the war – with the smaller details of what it means to be separated from one’s family while life still goes on.
Horrors of war
As with most of Wilson’s heroines, Shirley is imperfect but very believable and endearing. “I liked the idea of being sensitive,” she muses at one point. “It made me sound interesting and intelligent and special.” She imagines herself comforting the smaller evacuees, or dancing ballet expertly like her fictional idols, but the reality proves quite different. Taking place before the worst horrors of the war, this novel is mostly a hopeful one.
AP Winter’s The Boy Who Went Magic (Chicken House, £6.99) offers up an intriguing premise – a steampunk world without magic (and where “going magic” is an insult), or at least according to the official accounts, and a small boy who gets caught up in the middle of it all. Alas, Bert, the hero, is not as engaging as he might be, and despite a neat twist about one of the characters, many of the fantasy tropes here have not had an interesting slant put on them. The end result feels cliched – not least because (whether fair or not) having any redeemed villain declare to an orphan hero, “You have your mother’s eyes”, immediately calls JK Rowling to mind.
A more vivid and original voice for the 9-12s can be found in Jacob Sager Weinstein’s The City of Secret Rivers (Walker, £9.99), in which Hyacinth Hayward moves to England and discovers the secret world of London’s sewers. Despite the many fantastic elements, Hyacinth immediately feels real, observing both small differences between British and American culture (“The whole country is lying to me,” she decides when hearing that the “first floor” and “ground floor” are different things) and issues pertaining to bigger, chaotic magical matters.
Grief and loss
Finally, Ali Standish’s The Ethan I Was Before (Orchard, £6.99) offers up pure reality for the nine-plus crew, even though at times it seems there may be a ghost. But from very early on we learn that the narrator, Ethan, is far more haunted by an incident that harmed his best friend than anything supernatural. Moving to a new town with his family, he quickly befriends Coralee, whose exciting stories pull him in – but are they really hers?
The portrayal of children dealing with grief and loss is subtle and believable, with classroom politics portrayed painfully accurately. Touches of wry humour throughout, as well as Coralee’s energetic and often self-dramatising dialogue (“Everyone needs a friend, new kid,” she declares. “Even weirdos like you.”), keep the novel from getting overly maudlin. Not too grim for a summer read, after all.
Claire Hennessy’s latest young adult novel is Like Other Girls (Hot Key Books)