Children’s books round-up: A great fantasy story to distract from Covid

Plus new titles from Eve McDonnell, Carlie Sorosiak and Sophy Henn

As we face into a long winter and children of all ages head back to school, it is worth considering how best to equip them for the uncertainty and challenges of the months ahead. That is what the collective authors behind Happy Healthy Minds (School of Life, 8+, £18) have tried to do with their practical (and beautiful) guide to emotional wellbeing for children.

Short chapters bring a variety of issues – from parental relationships, screen-time, anxiety, and the body – into sharp, clear focus, providing philosophical starting points for exploration as well as practical tools (self-evaluation questionnaires, the nicely titled Inner Idiot Exercise) for objective self-analysis.

There are a few workbook pages for children to consider their own responses, and Lizzie Stewart’s illustrations, complete with thought-clouds, provide a visual complement that will appeal to pre-teens in particular. Happy Healthy Minds is designed to be read independently by children, but it would be really worthwhile for parents to read alongside them; you may even pick up some tips for coping with your own adult anxieties along the way.

Of course, escaping into fantasy is a proven strategy for stress relief. In Patricia Forde's To the Island (Little Island, 3+, €17.99), Fia finds herself flying out of her cottage window to Hy Brasil, a "mysterious island" that "sounded like an ancient spell", where mountains crouch like giants, and fairies dance, and her familiar world appears in a different shape before her. Nicola Bernardelli's illustrations are suffused with light and glimmering tendrils of magic, which spin through a blushing twilight sky. However, they also provide us with a bird's eye view of Galway city as Fia flies above it, her long red hair trailing in the wind. The city's natives and visitors alike will enjoy identifying landmarks as much as learning of the local legend.


If Fia has access to a mythical dimension, Needle, the hero of Eve McDonnell's Elsetime (Everything With Words, 10+, £8.99) has an even greater power: he can travel through time. Needle is a mudlark, a Victorian scavenger, whose found treasures offer him a literal glimpse into the past. When he realises that they can also, occasionally, give him a glimpse of the future, Needle can't help meddling, in the hopes of preventing a future tragedy.

Needle’s good intentions spark a friendship with Gloria Bobbin, a 12-year-old from the 1920s, who sees a greater future than that predicted for her by her gender, disability and social status. McDonnell skilfully weaves together the two historical worlds through the unlikely friendship between Needle and Glory, as they set about reshaping their fate. Rich with historical detail – technological and architectural advances, in particular, are precise and evocative – Elsetime is both classic in tone and original in vision.

The protagonist of Carlie Sorosiak's My Life as a Cat (Nosy Crow, 9+, £6.99), meanwhile, has access to intergalactic dimensions. Leonard is an alien life force who has travelled through space to occupy human form and learn about "the most magnificent creature on Earth". He cannot wait to speak, make jokes, be useful. Something goes wrong, however, and he transforms into feline form, where a young girl scout adopts him.

Life on Earth is not what Leonard imagines, and he has no idea how to be a cat, but his relationship with Olive teaches him all he needs to know about human relationships and love. It takes a while to get fully acclimatised to the weird point of view of My Life as a Cat, but the tension keeps you reading, and persistence will repay the reader in abundance, with Sorosiak giving you an objective analysis on elements of life that are easily taken for granted.

Speaking of cats, did you know that cats spend about two-thirds of every day asleep, or that you would be put to death for killing a cat in Ancient Egypt? These are just some of thousands of facts compiled by Sarah Webb and Alan Nolan for Animal Crackers (O'Brien, 6+, £11.99), which takes an engaging and wide-ranging approach to the animal world, providing a potted history of evolution, a guide to habitats, and practical suggestions for how young animal lovers can help endangered species.

The graphic presentational style is very appealing, while the puzzles and draw-along sections provide an encouraging interactive engagement with the facts. Animal Crackers is funny too and works as a brilliant conversation starter with trivia-lovers.

Picturebook maker Sophy Henn expands her target demographic with Pizazz (Simon & Schuster, 6+, £6.99), a middle-grade reader that combines cartoon panels and text to great effect. Poor Pizazz! She may be a superhero but being super is not as much fun as you might think, especially when your baby sister seems to have a monopoly on saving the world. However, Henn's moody heroine has more than enough "normal" problems for young readers to identify with: an annoyingly weird family, an attention-grabbing sister, a new school, no friends.

The story itself has a topical environmental through line but the plot has a unique inner tension, as Pizazz struggles to keep the true nature of her secret superpower from us. Henn withholds revealing the finer details until the final moments of the book, an effective strategy for ensuring engagement until the end (and its peculiarity is genuinely hilarious too). But it is the stylish design of Pizazz, with its shiny silver-embossed cover and pixelated illustrations, that make it so memorable.