Children’s books round-up: X-ray specs, trips, frailty, spies and a wall

Inese Zandere, David LaRochelle, Karen McCrombie, Lucy Stranger and Jon Agee

Winter colds don’t stand a chance against Inese Zandere’s delightful poems in All Better (Little Island, £7.99, 3+), a joyful collection which has been reimagined for this English translation by Catherine Anne Cullen. Zandere turns germs into Jellylegs, temperatures into cheeky red imps and all the tools a doctor pokes and prods you with into instruments that are far more interesting than scary. Who could resist the X-ray specs of Ultan Ulrich, the “Secret Agent Ultrasound” who “went to a special school for spies – all that stuff beneath your skin [he] can visualise”, or Eliza Analyser with her “magic goggle eyes, The doctors collect samples for her to analyse”? Zandere’s rich reframing of illness, from the common cold to more serious, hospital-worthy woes, should force a smile from the most miserable patient, while Reinis Petersons’s illustrations will also gladden the heart.

Dreamy tale

If it is the winter blues that ail you, meanwhile, why not take a trip to the Isle of You (Walker, £11.99, 2+), where writer David LaRochelle and illustrator Jaime Kim implore you to "step right up and leave all your worries in this basket. Shake them out of your pockets and brush them off your shoulders . . . You won't need to bring them along." This dreamy tale suggests all sorts of wondrous activities to lighten your mental load: there are giant eagles, roller-skating polar bears, a Hall of Costumes filled with every kind of disguise, and starfish who have the power to grant wishes. LaRochelle's text unfolds with the illusive quality of a dream, eschewing rhyme for a soft, slow lullaby rhythm, which holds even at a cake-laden feasting table. Despite the mawkish title, reading the book aloud reinforces a slightly subversive tone to the story, while Kim's pictures have soft watercolour edges that further blur the boundaries of this journey of the imagination. Isle of You is a bedtime gem.

Scottish island

A special island is also at the heart of Little Bird Flies (Nosy Crow,£6.99, 10+), a new historical novel from Karen McCrombie. It is set on the remote Scottish island of Tornish in 1861, and its protagonist is a sparky heroine who is determined to escape her social limitations and family obligations by leaving Tornish for more prosperous shores. Bridie, or Little Bird as she is fondly known, was blighted by a bad limp and a twisted arm when she was born, but she has refused to let her physical frailty dampen her high spirits. If she is not out climbing the Crags, she is letting her curiosity get the better of her – and get her into trouble. Bridie loves the island, but she fantasises about the glamour of far-off places: "marvels like sky-high bridges made of iron, or curiosities like Irish pedlars selling arrays of wares". When a new Laird takes over the island, however, Little Bird finds herself forced to leave, though she does not have to leave her family behind and the journey is far more dangerous than she could ever have imagined. McCrombie marries her depiction of a primitive, pre-modern life with a thrilling plot that gives page-turning urgency to the book. Superstitions suffuse the story, but the family's fate is determined not by fairies but by the villainous Laird.

Devon lighthouse

In Lucy Stranger's Our Castle By the Sea (Chicken House, £6.99, 10+) another family is set apart in a remote location. The Zimmerman Smiths live in a lighthouse on the coast of Devon, and life takes on new urgency for them when the second World War breaks out. The job of lighthouse keeper is a reserved occupation, so 12-year-old Petra's father can't be drafted to the front. However, her German mother is in immediate danger from the suspicions of local villagers, who believe that she is a spy. Their accusations, it turns out, are not unfounded. Someone at the lighthouse is, indeed, spying: Petra is certain of that. However, will she find out the truth without endangering her family? Strange weaves historical fact easily into the narrative, providing glimpses of the twin absurdity and awfulness of war from a child's perspective: from the sinister glassy goggle-eyes of gas masks to the thrill of sunken enemy vessels. She also uses a mythical frame to provide a metaphorical exploration of fear, which again rings true to a child's understanding of external events. Although Petra and her family are far from the front, the threat of danger and the sense of dread is very real.


Happy knight

Jon Agee's The Wall in the Middle of the Book (Scallywag Press, £12.99, 3+) is a humorous exploration of fear. The armoured knight who leads us through the book is a happy-go-lucky character. Of course he is! He is on the right side of the wall that run downs the middle of the book (a quite brilliant use of the gutter). The knight loves the wall. It keeps him safe from the other side of the book, which is, apparently, quite dangerous: full of wild, savage animals, and ruled over by a fearsome ogre. However, the knight is so busy protecting himself from the other side, that he fails to notice the dangers encroaching behind him. It transpires, thankfully, that the ogre on the other side is friendlier than he could ever have imagined. The contemporary political undertones of Brexit and US borders make The Wall in the Middle of the Book a very timely publication, but Agee's illustration and his spare, unembellished text gives it an instantly classic feel. It is one of the first books from new publishing house Scallywag Press, and a promise of fine things to come in 2019.