Children's books round-up: sky-high adventures and spidery tales
Sara Keating selects the best new books for children
The Weaver by Quian Shi is a story about a spider called Stanley and his quest to weave a web he can call home
If you are seeking to break the monotony of mid-winter, why not look to the sky for inspiration. This is what Magpie, the pickpocket protagonist of Emma Carroll’s thrilling adventure novel Sky Chasers (Chicken House, £6.99, 9+) does when a robbery goes wrong. Knocked to the ground by the villainous Madame Verte, she looks up and sees a boy adrift in the air, clinging to a strange kite-like structure. It is a prototype for a flying machine, and as Magpie sprints to save him, her life takes a new direction. With her faithful cockerel Coco by her side, Magpie joins Pierre and his father in their quest to invent the first hot air balloon.
Set in 18th-century France, Sky Chasers wears its historical setting lightly. Carroll gives a real sense of location and history unfolding, including gently rendered science lessons and encounters with historical figures. However it is Magpie’s heavenly aspirations that will draw the reader in, as Carroll expertly navigates the emotional and physical terrain of her extraordinary transformation from urchin to aeronautical hero. For Magpie, who has “envied pigeons pecking in the gutter for being able, with a flap of their wings, to escape the filthy street”, flying offers the opportunity for self-realisation. Up in the air, she is “not cold or hungry” but “brave and strong and alive”.
Abi Elphinstone’s Sky Song (Simon and Schuster, £6.99, 9+) is a fantasy that creates its own celestial mythology. Set in the snowy kingdom of Erkenwald, where wild animals roam the glaciers looking for prey, Elphinstone crafts a timeless fairytale that is anchored by its heroine’s encounters with the natural world. Erkenwald is in thrall to the magic of a wicked Ice Queen, who is staging a battle against the Sky Gods. When a girl called Eska escapes from her Arctic palace, a hunt that pits darkness against light begins. Eska has no memories, only instincts, but she slowly learns how to survive, and thrive, in the wild. With the help of the industrious Flint and the great eagle Balapan, Eska unites the tribes against the Queen’s insidious forces. Sky Song is a stirring fable about difference, grounded by an intriguing and inspiring heroine: the landscape may be magical but the themes will resonate effectively with young readers trying to navigate the often-sectarian schoolyard.
In Star in the Jar by Sam Hay (Egmont, £6.99, 3+) the sky also carries messages that only those with special gifts can hear. The little brother of the narrator is one such child, adept at finding “tickly treasure, glittery treasure...even litter-bin treasure”. When he finds a glowing star he looks in vain for its owner before putting it in a jar, but soon its lustre begins to wane and he realises he must look to the sky to get it home. Hay’s story unfolds with a gentle pace that recalls Oliver Jeffers’ classic How to Catch a Star, and Sarah Massini’s illustrations are both earthly and magical. The combination makes for a soul-stirring bedtime story.
Brought to life
The Chinese Zodiac may have astral origins, but in Christopher Corr’s picturebook The Great Race (Frances Lincoln, £11.99. 3+) it is the fable underlying the astrological calendar that is brought to vivid life. The competition between the animals provides a natural pace and drama, but Corr uses amusing dialogue to further enliven the characters. The bright, naïf illustrations are presented in unusual circular frames that echo the circularity of the zodiac, which, as the Emperor Jade reminds us, was really a way of measuring time. The Great Race offers a perfect frame for beginning a cultural conversation about the forthcoming Chinese New Year with young readers.
Chinese illustrator Qian Shi makes her picturebook debut with The Weaver (Andersen Press, £10.99, 2+), a story about a spider called Stanley and his quest to weave a web he can call home. Shi integrates facts about the natural world with this unusual arachnid adventure to great effect, underscoring the fragility of life and habitats in the natural world. She also has great fun animating the simple spider shapes with hilarious expressions and unusual poses. Who knew a spider could look so like an octopus?
The Chinese revolutionary and poet Qui Jin is just one of the heroines featured in Kate Pankhurst’s Fantastically Great Women Who Made History (Bloomsbury, £6.99, 6+). From Pocahontas to Hatshepsut, Mary Wollstonecraft to Mary Shelley, the book offers role models that cross cultures and disciplines, illuminating history, science and the arts from a female perspective. The pages are busy with cartoonish illustrations, speech bubbles, and comic strip panels, which enliven factual details with a highly visual frame. Pankhurst also parses the historical record for quirky details that young readers will latch on to.
Rocking the System: Fearless and Amazing Irish Women Who Made History (Little Island, 10+, €15) takes a slightly more academic approach. Siobhan Parkinson’s short essays introduce a variety of well and lesser-known Irish women, from Queen Maeve to Mary Robinson. Laid out in chronological order, with short contextual panels, the subjects are as varied as the heroines, encompassing the world of sports and social justice, politics and theatre. Rocking the System illuminates the history of feminism in Ireland, but it also shows women as a match for men in various fields, from medicine to the material arts. It is essential reading for young history buffs.