Children’s books round-up: Sam McBratney’s last book reminds us of his best qualities
Also new titles from Paddy Donnelly, Barry Falls, Sam Thompson, Amy Bond and Anna McQuinn
The classic children’s author, Sam McBratney.
Last year Ireland lost one of its classic children’s authors, the Belfast-born Sam McBratney, whose 1994 collaboration with Anita Jeram on Guess How Much I Love You became one of the bestselling picturebooks of all time.
The posthumous publication of Mindi and the Goose No One Else Could See (Walker, 3+, €12.99) reminds us of his best qualities as a writer: gentle wisdom and animals with unforgettable personalities. Mindi is “afraid of something that no one else could see”, a big goose that looms large in her bedroom at night and won’t be moved, despite her mummy and daddy’s best efforts. With the help of a wise old farmer called Austen, however, Mindi manages to banish her goose and acquire a real (and friendly) goat instead.
Linda Ólafsdóttir’s soft watercolour illustrations match the tenderness of McBratney’s tale, which sees Mindi find solace and strength in unexpected places.
Paddy Donnelly’s The Vanishing Lake (Yeehoo Press, 3+, £11.99) also centres on multigenerational relationships. When Meara visits her grandfather, she notices that nearby Lake Loughareema keeps disappearing. Her grandfather gives her all sorts of magical reasons for the odd phenomenon. Sheep: “They go swimming when it’s hot and their wool soaks up all the water.” Mermaids: “They took out the plug again!” Narwhals: “They poke holes in the lake bed with their horns” when they do headstands.
Donnelly’s digital illustrations have a painterly texture that captures the strange beauty of the landscape and the fantasies it inspires. An afterword explains the geographic miracle and the particular Northern Irish location that inspired The Vanishing Lake. However, it is Grandfather’s stories that will really capture the imagination of young readers.
“This is my hill, said Billy McGill, and I live here alone. Always have. Always will.” This is the mantra that sustains the antisocial hero of Barry Falls’ Alone (Pavilion Books, 3+, £6.99), a debut picturebook that both celebrates and challenges introversion. When wilderness-dwelling Billy McGill finds himself inundated with visitors he doesn’t know what to do, except find another hill to call his own. Eventually, though, he comes to accept that, despite the unpredictable chaos that visiting creatures bring, it can be useful (and occasionally fun) to have company.
The rhyming text rollicks along with the conviction and pace of Julia Donaldson, while the busy illustrations offer a wealth of detail to attract the eye. Alone is a great book for encouraging friendships and introducing the idea of personal boundaries. More importantly, it is ridiculously fun.
Silas, the hero of Sam Thompson’s Wolfstongue (Little Island, 8+, €8.99), also likes his own company. He has difficulty expressing himself in words, but finds friendship in nature when he helps an injured animal and gets drawn into a life-or-death battle between foxes and wolves. Thompson brings Silas to life with great sensitivity as well as complexity. His retreat into the natural world offers no easy cure for his real-life problems, and yet the fight that defines the animals in their crumbling underground kingdom is the same as his own: language.
Anna Tomop’s dark and dense pencil sketches offer glimpses of Silas and his wolf friend, Isengrim, in action, as they work together to overthrow the cunning Reynard. Wolfstongue is a hugely original tale with classic influences and infrastructure, and an assured children’s debut from Thompson, whose adult novels display the same thoughtful compassion.
In Amy Bond’s Morgana Mage in the Robotic Age (Chicken House, 8+, £6.99), the young magical protagonist is also, like Silas, ostracised by her peers. Morgana is not a very good witch and would rather work on inventions with her mechanical familiar, Kitty, than cast spells or conjure potions. Still, she must persevere with her training, and on a trip to the city with her father, discovers that the ancient antipathy between witches and robots, tradition and invention, is coming to a head.
Bond invests a standard witch’s coming-of-age story with a futuristic sci-fi frisson that adds an extra layer of excitement to the book, and the feisty Morgana’s quest to find her own magic is a memorable one.
Zeki Loves Daddy (Alanna Max, 0+, €9.45) is the latest in Anna McQuinn’s Zeki and Lulu series, in which the siblings encounter a variety of real-life situations, from going to the doctor to getting a pet. The gentle, well-paced stories reflect the simplicity of young readers’ lives, and Ruth Hearson’s warm, brightly patterned illustrations are a further complement.
In Zeki Loves Daddy, we follow the baby and his daddy on a journey through their day: making pancakes, dancing, cycling to the park, bathing, reading, and, of course, on the final pages, snuggling down to sleep. Zeki Loves Daddy would make a great addition to a bookshelf crammed with animal board books, showing the world of the child through child-friendly eyes.