Children’s books: five great titles to start the new year
Selection includes fun, silly stories and the 2016 Printz Award-winning YA book
Also An Octopus: readers are taken through the process of creating a story – beginning with nothing, and then a character – a girl or maybe even the ukulele-playing octopus that “needs to want something”
Anyone who’s ever tried telling a story to young children will be familiar with how easily it can get derailed. Jodie Parachini and Daniel Rieley’s This is a Serious Book (Faber & Faber, £6.99) takes this one step further by including their own interruptions in what begins as a “thoughtful, proper, respectable” book.
There are no silly things allowed in this book – no backflips, for example. And certainly no “bottom parps”. But the donkey protagonist is quickly joined by a zebra (after all, serious books must take place “in black and white”), a snake, and a penguin. When the monkeys arrive, it’s all over.
The images grow more colourful and fill more of the page as the silliness increases, leading to a gorgeously vibrant portrayal of animal fun and creativity by the end.
Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Benji Davies’s Also An Octopus (Walker, £11.99) has a similar “silly” feel about it, though in this case the nature of storytelling is explored in a way that will appeal to slightly older picture book readers.
We are taken through the process of creating a story – beginning with nothing, and then a character – a girl, or perhaps “an adorable bunny”, or maybe even the ukulele-playing octopus that “needs to want something”.
What the octopus wants, as it turns out, is a “totally awesome shining purple spaceship capable of intergalactic travel”, but the narrator informs us that octopus can’t get this easily – that’d make for a rather dull story, after all.
The attempt to build the spaceship doesn’t go terribly well, leaving the octopus heartbroken (“The word you’re looking for is despondent”) but still capable of playing music – which might just solve the problem.
This is a smart and uplifting look at how stories work and the power of imagination – paired with bright colours and a very cuddly octopus in a cosy red hat. One for the creative kids out there (which is to say, all of them).
For older readers, Francesca Simon – best known for her Horrid Henry series – ventures into Norse mythology for the third time with The Monstrous Child (Faber & Faber, £7.99). Her middle-grade books The Sleeping Army and The Lost Gods explored an alternate Britain where the gods were still worshipped, and her latest – aimed for young teenagers – offering is part of this same canon, although stands alone beautifully.
Simon typically uses a third-person narrative, but Hel demands her own voice. She’s a cranky teenager, the daughter of a giantess and a god (the trickster Loki), who’s been banished to the underworld. All right, so she’s the queen of it, but even so. Does she get any credit for it?
“Don’t think I haven’t heard my kingdom described as riches and glittering treasures surrounded by foulness, horror, decay, phantoms, mud, filth, stench and squalor. That I am nothing but the queen of a great pestilent burial mound.
That’s a bit harsh. A bit ungrateful.”
Hel is most unimpressed with her assignment, and yearns for the god she loves. This is an endearing and amusing take on mythology, and has deservedly been short-listed for a variety of awards. An additional bonus: each chapter is accompanied by stunning illustrations by Olivia Lomenech Gill.
For a more traditional – though certainly not predictable – take on family dynamics and teen relationships, try Katherine Webber’s debut Wing Jones (Walker, £7.99). Originally from California, Webber has worked for BookTrust in the United Kingdom and is known as a great YA supporter, so her first novel has been greatly anticipated.
Fifteen-year-old Wing lives in the shadow of her older brother, Marcus, who fits in at school in a way she’s sure she never will. Half-black, half-Chinese, she reflects on how there’s no table in the cafeteria for her, no obvious group to join. The cool girls at school are more than willing to remind her that she’s a “freak”, and she’s inclined to agree.
When a car crash leaves Marcus in a coma, all Wing can do is run – and run. Her newfound commitment to athletics – as the 1996 Atlanta Olympics approach – saves her in the months to come, even as it threatens her embryonic romance with Marcus’s best friend.
Despite the slightly awkward magical realism element – Wing is protected by two guardians, a dragon and a lioness (representing her Chinese and Ghanaian heritage) – this is a compelling and heartwarming account of finding hope even in the bleakest of circumstances. And while American reviewers are likely to praise the title for its racial diversity, it should also be commended for its sympathetic portrayal of a working-class family and the terrifying burden of medical expenses in a pre-Obamacare society.
Another American title making its way to our shores is the 2016 Printz winner (the US equivalent of the prestigious Carnegie Medal), Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap (Faber & Faber, £7.99). Ruby ventures into magical realism in this account of a strange small town: “. . . we don’t have your typical gaps around here. Not gaps made of rocks or mountains. We have gaps in the world. In the space of things. So many places to lose yourself, if you believe that they’re there. You can slip into the gap and never find your way out.”
From the opening – “The corn was talking to him again” – we are drawn to the strange quasi-orphan Finn, who desperately misses the beautiful Roza and is slowly falling for Petey, the beekeeper’s “ugly” daughter. What is the cost of beauty – and what does it mean to be really seen by someone who loves you?
At times painfully real and at others gorgeously dreamy, this is an absolute stunner of a book.
Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor and creative writing facilitator.