Children’s book reviews: From picturebook heaven to a subversive universe
There are no parents in ‘The Wonderling’, a stand-out debut by Mira Bartok
From ‘The Worms that Saved the World’ by Kevin Doyle and Spark Deeley
Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett are a match made in picturebook heaven. They share an appreciation of the classic quest structure and a surreal sense of humour. This year sees the release of two new projects from the pair. Triangle (Walker Books, 2+, £12.99) features two shapely characters, Triangle and Square, who play sneaky tricks on each other. The resulting adventure is a thoroughly original introduction to ideas of scale for young readers, who will also appreciate the sturdiness of the board book format. The Wolf, The Duck and The Mouse (Walker Books, 4+, £12.99) is for slightly older readers. It turns the familiar fairy-tale narrative of a predatory wolf on its head to uproarious effect. Set inside the wolf’s stomach, where a duck and mouse have set up home, it brilliantly champions the idea of the underdog: “I may have been swallowed,” said the duck, “but I have no intention of being eaten.” In both books, Klassen’s distinctive muted style and limited colour palette complement the deadpan humour of Barnett’s text. A treat for adults and children alike.
Tatyana Feeney’s Socks for Mr Wolf (O’Brien, 3+, €14.99) also neutralises the traditional fairy-tale baddie, conjuring a colourful, cosy, sock-wearing wolf, whose unravelling footwear bring him on an adventure around Ireland, touching base at some lesser-known local landmarks, including Avoca Woollen Mills. Feeney’s blend of block printing and line drawing creates a lovely layered texture to the illustrations, while the simple journey-structure also offers an environmental tale of origins. Want to know where wool comes from? Sheep, of course!
The Worms that Saved the World by Kevin Doyle and Spark Deeley (Chispa, 3+, £10) also anchors an environmental theme with a local story. Set on the Old Head of Kinsale, it gives voice to the area’s underground inhabitants, who join together to protest against the privatisation of the scenic landmark as a golf-club. Despite being chronically weakened by pesticides and chemicals, they stage a protest that literally recolonises the land, driving the dirty developers away. Adults will find the denouement more idealistic than realistic. However, the two test readers in this house had no such qualms, and particularly enjoyed Deeley’s watercolour illustrations.
In Bí ag Spraoi Liom (Futa Fata, 4+, £9.95), Sadbdh Devlin and Tarsila Kruse offer a story that any child will easily identify with. Little Lúna has made a time-machine but Mamaí is too busy to play with her. As Lúna tries to busy herself, she come across an album full of her mum’s childhood photographs: her time machine enables them to travel back there together, and, finally, play. Devlin taps into the inventiveness of children forced to use their own resources without an adult to entertain them. Kruse, meanwhile, relishes the opportunity to flesh out the story with visual detail. The “photograph” spreads will provide a great talking point for children and their adult reader.
There are no parents in The Wonderling, a stand-out debut by Mira Bartok (Candlewick Press, 8+, £14.99). In this animal-themed version of Oliver Twist, the novel’s hero is an orphan called No 13/Arthur, a fox-like “groundling” destined for greatness, just like the mythic hero after whom he is renamed. The Dickensian atmosphere of the orphanage he eventually escapes from is cut with the magical whimsy of Bartok’s strange universe: its fantastic creatures, secret hideaways and the characters’ extraordinary gifts. Bartok relishes in descriptive minutiae, which she complements with delightful pencil sketches that give a tantalising glimpse of what the inevitable film adaptation will look like.
The Dollmaker of Krakow by RM Romero (Candlewick Press, 10+, £14.99) is another remarkable debut with transformation at its heart. Ex-soldier Cyryl is a Polish toymaker who survived the first World War and has since dedicated his life to bringing joy to children’s lives. With the rise of the Nazi regime in neighbouring Germany, he realises he has the power to bring his creations to life for the greater good of mankind (and, more specifically, some local Jewish children). The fabulous fable is interwoven with the story of Karolina, a living doll who has escaped a similar war raging in the Land of the Dolls, and whose friendship and fate sustains Cyryl, while underscoring the novel’s historical themes. The book is beautifully produced in hardback form, with Hans Christian Andersen-style silhouette paper cut-outs lining each page.
For children looking for a seasonal Halloween-themed read, two new spooky series fill a nice niche for newly independent readers. Master of Gothic mystery Chris Priestley launches Maudlin Towers: Curse of the Werewolf Boy (Bloomsbury, 8+, £6.99) in which two reluctant boarders at a gloom-laden school become detectives, determined to solve the case of the Missing Spoon. Priestley’s cast of characters provide endlessly entertaining wordplay and there is as much comedy as danger in the denouement. Amelia Fang and the Barbaric Ball by Laura Ellen Anderson (Egmont, 8+, £6.99) presents a similarly subversive universe in the first in a series of books following the everyday life of a vampire. Set in the kingdom of Nocturnia, Anderson presents themes that young readers will identify with – bullying, generational conflict – in a fantastical comic package that interweaves image and text. As Amelia embarks upon a quest to save her pet pumpkin from the clutches of Prince Tangine, she proves herself as interesting and wily a heroine as Lemony Snicket’s Violet Baudelaire. Plenty of inspiration, then, for dressing up at Halloween.