Children’s book reviews: Exotic pets and beating gender stereotypes
New middle-grade offerings particularly strong, including Katherine Rundell’s new release
“There’s no room for anyone else – except for my human.” Leonie Lord’s Sofa Dog (Scholastic, £6.99) is not a fan of sharing his space with anyone other than Sophie, but the arrival of the cats from next door, a box of rabbits and an orangutan oompah band means that poor Sofa Dog ends up out in the rain. The increasingly absurd visitors combined with Lord’s endearing charcoal and chalk illustrations make for a gently amusing picture book that will particularly appeal to dog lovers.
Michelle Robinson and Claire Powell describe life with a more exotic pet in Have You Seen My Giraffe? (Simon & Schuster, £6.99), lamenting the fact that fairgrounds no longer give away goldfish. These days it’s giraffes, and parents are sure to object to keeping one of those – unless you can identify a good hiding place. Passing the giraffe off as “a very spotty lamp” is among the saner suggestions in this delightfully weird and uplifting picture book for young readers.
Fiction for the six-plus crew is often highly gendered, so Elisabeth Brami and Estelle Billon-Spagnol’s non-fiction manifesto, Declaration of the Rights of Boys and Girls (Little Island, £12.99) is incredibly welcome as a title that draws attention to gender stereotyping. Originally published as two separate titles in French – one for girls, one for boys – this volume brings them together in flipbook format, with readers able to choose which side (and way up) they read first.
Seeing the material presented this way feels like a natural fit; it removes the sense of parents or other well-intentioned relatives wondering if a young boy will read “a girl book”, for a start. It also encourages readers to remember that gender stereotypes affect everyone; that just as girls should have the right to have any job they like and stand up for themselves, boys too must have “the right to cry and to be hugged” and “the right not to be a superhero every day”. And both are reminded they have the right “to fall in love with anyone they like”, regardless of gender. The vibrant and funny illustrations take the potentially preachy edge off this important book for the under-10s.
Prove their resilience
The middle-grade offerings are particularly strong this month. Award-winning author Katherine Rundell’s much-anticipated The Explorer (Bloomsbury, £12.99) introduces us to Fred, who inside is “hunger and hope and wire. It was just that there had never yet been a chance to prove it”. Yet when a tiny plane crashes in the Amazon jungle, he and the three other surviving children are given many opportunities to prove their resilience and resourcefulness as they attempt to survive.
The vagueness around the historical setting – it is not until nearly a hundred pages in that the 1920s are specifically mentioned – may frustrate readers who prefer such things to be tied down. There is also something a little too convenient about having not only an aspiring explorer who has read many books on the topic (Fred) but also a girl with a photographic memory among this impromptu expedition. These children should be dead long before they meet the titular Explorer.
This strange man living alone in a hidden city within the jungle, determined to keep it safe from the rest of the world, seems to initially loathe children, but even at his grumpiest his pithy dialogue provides much humour (“You have vulture poo in your hair, which dents your gravitas”). His appearance nudges the novel from being a straightforward adventure tale into fable territory, where it sits much more comfortably.
The Guggenheim Mystery by Robin Stevens (Puffin, £9.99) is the second novel to come from “an idea by Siobhan Dowd”, after Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. Stevens is best known for her Murder Most Unladylike series, and is a natural fit for this sequel to Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery, which explores what happens when a painting is stolen from the Guggenheim museum and a beloved family member appears to have been framed.
Ted Spark is known for a brain that doesn’t quite work like everyone else’s. This is his take on a sunset: “I noticed that the tilt of the Earth and the position of the sun meant that its light was passing through more air to reach ground level in New York. Each air molecule it bumped against made it scatter more and more, so that by the time it reached our eyes it was red and yellow instead of blue.” Stevens manages to balance his often stilted and formal way of viewing the world with real emotion, offering up a mystery that is both technically satisfying and personally resonant for its unusual narrator.
Finally, this year’s thoroughly-deserving winner of the prestigious Newbery Medal is Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank The Moon (Piccadilly, £6.99). “There is a witch in the woods. There has always been a witch,” a mother tells her curious daughter. Each year a baby is sacrificed to the witch so that the people of the Protectorate may be safe. The Elders know the truth: there is no witch, but this lie ensures obedience. Or rather, the Elders believe they know the truth. For there really is a witch, one who rescues the infants.
Then one year, she accidentally “enmagicks” a baby. It is the beginning of the cracks in the careful web of lies that has sustained a community for hundreds of years. This is a beautifully written fairytale with delicate weirdness woven into it at every available opportunity, and a sophisticated exploration of propaganda and control. It feels both timeless and fresh, like the best poetry. One for young readers to drink up.
Claire Hennessy’s latest YA novel is “Like Other Girls”