Children’s books: New picture books and novels for the pre-teenager

Summer yields a treasure trove of magical and miraculous stories to keep kids happy

The Derry of 1689, a city of “fighting rats, quarrelling cats and enraged dogs”, provides the setting for Nicola Pierces’s excellent historical novel Behind the Walls

The Derry of 1689, a city of “fighting rats, quarrelling cats and enraged dogs”, provides the setting for Nicola Pierces’s excellent historical novel Behind the Walls

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The children’s and young-adult books published in summer are piling up and in their profusion and variety filling our bookshop shelves, catering for all ages and tastes. In a future column I hope to concentrate on current teenage and young-adult fiction but the focus here is on some of the most attractive recent picture books and on a selection of novels likely to appeal to the pre-teenage reader.

The world of the wordless picture book has been remarkably enriched with the arrival from Canada of JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith’s Footpath Flowers (Walker Books, £11.99). As a father and daughter traverse a dull urban landscape the little girl picks flowers from where she can and bestows them on various recipients, in the process demonstrating how her gestures of generosity can transform lives. The story that develops as the reader absorbs the illustrations is rich and fulfilling.

Flowers feature significantly also in Emily Hughes’s The Little Gardener (Flying Eye Books, £14.50), in which a small boy comes to appreciate the eventual rewards of persistence and effort. Effective as Hughes’s minimalist text is, it takes second place to the riotously colourful artwork on display in page after page of her depiction of the child’s garden, particularly once it has undergone its makeover. These are pictures to pore over, their texture and detail imbued with suggestions of the magical and miraculous.

From Hughes’s multicoloured garden we move, in Silvia Borando’s Black Cat, White Cat (Walker Books, £9.99) to the starkly black-and-white domains suggested by its title – except, that is, for its mischievous final double-page spread. Be prepared! Black and white are rarely juxtaposed with the skill in evidence here, in a book that magnificently combines visual composition and verbal playfulness. It is simply purr-fect.

Borando’s The White Book (Walker Books, £9.99), a wordless text, provides further example of her innovative techniques.

A young reader whose interest in art has been stimulated by a familiarity with picture books should find much that is entertaining and informative in Bruce Ingman’s Henry Tate (Tate Publishing, £11.99).

The cartoon-style illustrations, complemented by a chatty, informal text, present the story of the origins of the sugar-baron’s “Henry’s gallery”, blending the narrative with photographic reproductions of some of the Tate’s modernist treasures. A fold-out triptych provides for the young reader what may well be first glimpses of, among others, Dali, Warhol and Lichtenstein.

A book such as Astrid Desbordes’s Travels of an Extraordinary Hamster, illustrated by Pauline Martin (Gecko Press, £7.99), serves as an excellent bridge between the picture book and a first novel. The relationship between the curmudgeonly “extraordinary” hero – if that, indeed, is what he is – and his fellow creatures is played out with a delightful sense of irony and whimsicality, seen at their surreal best on their shared trip to the North Pole. Martin’s droll comic-book illustrations are an appropriate match for the text.

First published in 1987 and now given a welcome reissue, Helen Cresswell’s Moondial (Faber & Faber, £6.99) remains a superb example of those children’s novels where a contemporary child becomes drawn into experiences set in the recent or distant past. Cresswell’s greatest achievements lie in her creation of Minty Cane, her young heroine, of a memorable, haunting atmosphere and of the sundial/moondial of her title. Warmly recommended, as are the reproduced original black-and-white illustrations by a young PJ Lynch.

Martial arts

Three young people from diverse backgrounds – Rio de Janeiro, Ballyhook in Ireland and New York – find themselves members of the Black Lotus, a ninja resistance group pitting its strengths against the power-crazy Lord Goda. This is the basic premise of Kieran Fanning’s The Black Lotus (Chicken House, £6.99), a confident and lively novel which moves easily across various settings and time zones, providing some excellently conceived scenes of high drama en route. Ninja fans and aficionados of martial arts are in for a treat here.

The Derry of 1689, a city of “fighting rats, quarrelling cats and enraged dogs”, provides the setting for Nicola Pierce’s excellent historical novel Behind the Walls (O’Brien Press, €7.99). Her portrayal of a city under siege, typified by clashing loyalties and the gruesome horrors of starvation, is superb in its detail and in its incorporation of real-life and fictional characters. The research behind such a novel has been exemplary but textbook fact is never allowed to drown the story’s human dimension.

Ideas for anthologies are rarely as inventive as those that lie behind In their Shoes: Fairy Tales and Folktales, a collection of nine stories selected by Julia Nicholson and Anne-Laure Mercier (Pushkin Children’s Books, £6.90). Starting with The Story of Yexian, the earliest version of the Cinderella story, and continuing with contributions from such fairy tale giants as Perrault, the Grimms and Andersen, this elegant book (evocatively illustrated by Lucie Arnoux) celebrates footwear and its significance in its wearers’ lives.

At just under 700 pages and with a cast of more than 70 characters, Roland Evans’s The Marshlander Chronicles (self-published, €15) is, in more than one sense, a good read. A futuristic fantasy with strong contemporary resonance, this is an absorbing novel, packed with environmental concerns, in which we follow a battle, often quite violent, between those who wish to preserve the beauty of a marshland and those who wish to exploit it for commercial gain. Vivid characterisation and a sensuous depiction of the natural world create some vivid writing.

Robert Dunbar is a commentator on children’s books

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