Children’s books round-up: Shane Hegarty’s Boot has something for adults too
A celebration of the natural world from Nicola Skinner and delightful illustrations by Angela Brooksbank
Author Shane Hegarty. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
In High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson (Knights Of, £6.99, 10+) a black detective duo from a tough housing estate in England attempt to solve the mysterious murder of their art teacher, Hugo Knightley-Webb. 11-year-old Nik and her 13-year-old sister Norva, aka The Nut and the Gut, live on The Tri, a working-class estate built in the brutalist fashion.
They may be “partners in (solving) crime” but they have very different approaches to life. Nik looks at the world with scientific clarity, using her journals, which she calls The Tri-Files, to document daily happenings. Norva is guided more by instinct; when she isn’t being distracted by her teen crushes, of course. When they discover the body of Hugo in a skip, however, they have to put their differences aside, particularly when all evidence points towards their father; they need to clear his name.
Jackson uses short sentences and bullet points to create a sense of breathless urgency to the voices of her central characters, which adds momentum to the unfolding plot as well. The terse style and street slang, crucially, make the book easy to read, something that struggling readers will find particularly welcome.
There is another mystery to be solved in Nicola Skinner’s Bloom (Harper Collins, £13.99, 10+). Sorrell Fallowfield is a good girl. She is so “good at being good” that her nickname at school was ‘Good Girl Sorrell’, until the posh school bully starts calling her ‘Suck-up Sorrell’ instead. They mean the same thing, anyway, right? When Sorrell finds a packet of Surprising Seeds, however, her life and her reputation are turned upside down. The seeds take root in human flesh rather than the earth, and soon the “gloomy glumness”, “grumpy grimness”, and “grimy greyness” of life in her concrete town of Little Sterilis will be changed forever. Skinner’s premise is completely bonkers, and the story takes several turns that the reader will never expect. Underpinning the bizarre plot, however, is a passionate celebration of the natural world and a reminder of the vital role it (should) play in the life of the child.
Boot by Shane Hegarty (Hodder, £6.99, 8+) also has some stark reminders about the importance of stepping away from modern conveniences and pursuing traditional values like friendship and kindness instead. Set in a familiar near-future where “people are far more interested in talking to their robots than to other people”, it features a robot as a central character.
Boot is a standard Funtime robot, who wakes up in a scrapyard with a bad case of The Wipes. All his memories have disappeared but his emotions haven’t. He can still register happiness, fear, panic, embarrassment, love, and also loneliness. Boot yearns to be reunited with his owner, Beth, and Hegarty’s adventure story takes Boot through funfairs, video game emporiums and dying department stores in an attempt to find her.
Boot is accompanied by some brilliantly engaging characters, in particular, Noke, an old-school, streetwise, straight-talking robot who is “tough and rough and made to last forever” but is running out of battery. The writing is funny too, casting a sardonic eye upon contemporary childhood (Dr Twitchy’s Emporium of Amusements) and ageing (the nursing home where humans go “when their batteries run out”) that adult readers will find affecting in a different way than their children.
The title heroine embarks on an equally memorable odyssey in Willow Moss and the Lost Day (Harper Collins, 8+, £8.99), the debut novel from Dominique Valente. Willow is “the youngest and, alas, least powerful member of the Moss family.” The whole family have magical powers, but Willow’s gift is a “a little more magical scrapyard than magical feast.” She is a finder of lost things, and despite her own low opinion of herself is much in demand in Starfell. Indeed, Willow’s gift is so unique that the infamous witch Moreg Vaine seeks her out for a vital mission, to find last Tuesday, which has disappeared, with potentially grave consequences for the future of everyone in Starfell. At the heart of Valente’s magical story are real lessons about self-confidence, resilience and an openness to difference. Willow is forced to confront her own prejudices (who knew trolls could be female, friendly and feminist?), as well as her sisters, to whom she finally gets to prove her worth as more than just a “magical bloodhound.”
The heroine of Once Upon a Unicorn Horn by Beatrice Blue (Frances Lincoln, £12.99, 3+) also has magical powers, of a kind. June knows the secrets of the forest: which trees hide castles, which bushes hold magic wands, where tiny flying horses like to spread their wings. One day she encounters a horse who hasn’t yet managed to take flight, so she tries everything to she can think of to help him. In a fittingly barmy finale, which rationalises the myth of unicorns, ice cream holds the answer. Blue’s illustrations are laden with magical detail - glowing stars and toadstools and fairy-dust rainbows - and the message is clear: find your own magic within.
Finally, a wily baby is the star of B is for Baby, a delightful play on alphabet books by Atinuke, with illustrations by Angela Brooksbank (Walker Books, £11.99, 2+). When Baby falls into a basket of bananas, her brother unwittingly brings her on a bicycle journey across the b-laden landscape of rural Africa to deliver the load to their grandfather, Baba. Brooksbank’s joyful illustrations are expressive of so much life, from Baby’s cheeky, open face as she enjoys her adventure to her brother’s concentrated focus as he carries his heavier than usual load. Atinuke keeps the text tight, providing just enough verbal detail to guide the adult reader, but leaving enough room for the child to create the story themselves. It is an absolute delight.