Children’s books round-up: Animals rule in the world of fiction

Owls, frogs and bears feature in the latest kids’ books for all ages

Sabina Redeva’s illustrated version of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

Animals abound as we usher April in, with a variety of fiction and non-fiction titles illuminating creatures of the natural world. In This is Owl, a flapping, tapping, clapping interactive book from Libby Walden and Jacqui Lee (Little Tiger Press, £11.99, all ages), we meet a nocturnal hooter who seems a bit shy upon first introduction. That's because it's daytime, of course, and he needs your help calling the moon so he can say hello properly. He also needs your help building his nest, hatching his eggs, catching a worm, and flying. Luckily, young readers are a most obliging sort when it comes to sourcing a happy ending. Walden's concept is startlingly effective in its simplicity. Using tablet entertainment for toddlers as an inspiration, she creates an interactive text that calls for much swiping and tapping, but produces far more imaginative results. Slide the book this way and Lee's illustrations will follow suit. Hoot aloud and Owl and Other Owl will appear. The age guideline suggested by the publishers is 2-4, but even older, more sophisticated readers (and computer users) will be charmed by this innovative, old-school approach to storytelling.

A frog needs help in Frann Preston-Gannon's gentle rhyming fable In the Swamp by the Light of the Moon (Templar, £6.99, 3+). The adventurous amphibian is a musical sort, who loves to sing and play guitar. However, poor frog thinks it is no fun making music alone, so he sets off on a quest to "find someone else to join his song to make it sound just right". He meets a friendly crocodile "drumming and humming in time", some "LA DE DA" mice playing a miniature gong, a school of fish singing "OH OH OH!" and a shy little bug who wants to join in but is afraid her voice is too small. The lyrical rhythm has a hypnotic Edward Lear-like allure, while the uplifting end offers a welcome celebration of the introvert. The appeal of the green and blue-hued illustrations is enhanced by the characters' gigantic black pupils, which animate each animal we meet by the light of Preston-Gannon's generous moon.

In Dan Smith's brilliant new novel She Wolf(Chicken House, 10+, £6.99), 12 year-old Ylva is also feeling lonely, left alone in a country hostile to her and her kind. Set in Northumbria in 866, Ylva is a Viking, and everybody knows those Danish warriors are to be feared, even when you are one of them. When Ylva's mother is murdered by a mysterious three-fingered Giant, she embarks upon quest for revenge through an ice-laden landscape that is as treacherous as the people she encounters. However, her mother's mantra – "survival always comes first" – rings in her mind as she tries to decide who she can trust and who has darker interests. Smith brings to life the inner workings of Ylva's mind through silent conversations with Geri, her lupine companion, who has kept her safe since she was a baby. Geri becomes a surrogate mother, as well as her conscience, reminding Ylva of her duty to keep safe above all else. The original premise and the slick pacing makes this a gripping read, but it is Smith's writing which really grabs the reader. From quick sharp detail – the "Shhhhhhk" of a knife unsheathed – to a more elaborate evocative metaphor – "the shrill and demonic sound that ripped through Ylva like a blunt toothed saw – She Wolf is defined by its masterly prose as much as by its thrilling story.

The same can be said of Journey of the Pale Bear by Susan Fletcher (McElderry Books, £12.99, 8+). The hero of this exhilarating adventure story is Arthur, a 12 year-old "starveling waif" who has been struggling to adjust to life in Norway after his father's death. A chance encounter with a polar bear in a warehouse beside the docks gives him an unexpected opportunity to return to his homeland and his father's kin. Arthur gets passage as keeper of the bear on a ship bound for England. As he journeys across the sea, he must keep the bear safe from various threats: enemies on board, a disastrous shipwreck, poachers, and, eventually, the King of England, who hopes to keep the bear as a pet. Fletcher's story, like Smith's, expresses its young hero through his relationship with an animal friend, who becomes a family of sorts for this friendless boy on the cusp of adolescence. Despite the pre-modern setting, The Journey of the Pale Bear is a coming-of-age story that will resonate with sensitive readers.


How did Arthur's bear become a bear? Sabina Redeva's illustrated version of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (Puffin, 5+, £12.99) will answer that question. Redeva presents evolutionary theory as part of a trajectory of intellectual development, from the early musings of George's-Louis Leclerc de Buffon and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck to Darwin's early grasping for explanations about how different species came to be. The scientific ideas are delivered in accessible language, but words like variation, progeny, embryo, and, of course, evolution are also explained in an age-appropriate way. The chalky illustrations, defined in ink, are wonderful, and the idea of variation allows Redeva to indulge in wonderful detail. And she doesn't shy away from fantastical representation either: "oh dear, perhaps two heads aren't always better than one". Some of the most glorious illustrations, meanwhile, provide a frame for Darwin's words, and this intermingling of direct quotation and accessible representation adds extra depth to a book that curious animal lovers will read again and again.