Children’s books: what were the standout titles of the year?
Peter Donnelly’s ‘The President’s Cat’, Louise O’Neill’s ‘The Surface Breaks’ and more
The Surface Breaks author Louise O’Neill. Her new book takes the darkness and misogyny of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid and brings it to the surface
It says something about President Michael D Higgins that he’s inspired not one but two successful picture books. Following the enormously popular The President’s Glasses, Peter Donnelly’s equally appealing (and Irish Book Award-winning) The President’s Cat (Gill, 14.99) sees our head of state returning from a holiday in Kerry to discover he’s left his cat behind. But with the help of people all over Ireland, the feisty feline makes its way back to Dublin, seeing some famous sights on the way. Like its predecessor, this is a particularly nice book to get for kids of Irish parents who live outside the country.
I’m generally wary of children’s books by celebrities but Niall “Bressie” Breslin’s picture book The Magic Moment (Gill, €16.99), charmingly illustrated by Sheena Dempsey, is the sort of book that could be genuinely helpful to an anxious child. Young Freddie is scared of the swimming pool, until his nana teaches him a way of calming himself down with a simple mindfulness technique. It’s a relatable story, well-told, and the “Magic Moment Trick” is easy for any child to learn.
The legendary writer and illustrator Shirley Hughes returns with Ruby in the Ruins (Walker Books, £12.99), set in rubble-filled 1945 London. When Ruby’s father returns from the war, he feels like a stranger – until an adventure in a bomb site reminds her how much she needs him. Aimed at a slightly older readership than that of the average picture book, this is a warm-hearted family story and a fascinating depiction of a post-war world.
I was introduced to Andy Riley’s hilarious King Flashypants series by my six-year-old nephew Eli McGurk, who loves the adventures of young King Edwin so much that he insisted on lending me one of the books so I could share the joy. The latest is King Flashypants and the Snowball of Doom (Hodder Children’s Books, £6.99), in which Edwin and the long-suffering grown-up Minister Jill have to thwart Evil Emperor Nurbison’s most dastardly, wintery scheme yet. “I like it because the king is a little boy and it’s really funny,” says Eli. “This one was good because it had ice monsters coming alive and a giant snowball.” Like the other books in the series, this is the perfect bedtime story for slightly younger readers, while kids of seven and up will enjoy reading it solo.
Knights Of is a new children’s publishing house co-founded by Aimée Felone and Irish kid-lit veteran David Stevens. It aims to showcase a diverse range of characters and authors, and it’s off to a fantastic start with the hugely entertaining Knights and Bikes by Gabrielle Kent (Knights Of, £6.99). When her family’s home is threatened, nine-year-old Demelza and her charismatic new best friend Nessa go on a quest to find the famous – and cursed – Treasure of the Penfurzy Knights. But both danger and magic await. Filled with delightful illustrations by Rex Crowle and Luke Newell, Knights and Bikes is both exciting and very funny- and if you know a reluctant reader who might need an extra incentive to pick up a book, there’s also a tie-in video game (which I genuinely want to try now).
My other exception to the no-celebs-books rule is Julian Clary’s The Bolds series, in which a loving family of hyenas don clothes and masquerade as suburban humans (Mr Bold, as befits a laughing hyena, writes Christmas cracker jokes for a living, while Mrs Bold creates fabulous hats). In their latest hilarious adventure, The Bolds in Trouble (Andersen Press, £12.99), the Bolds’s domestic idyll is threatened by the arrival of a tough and threatening bully, who happens to be a fox. As ever, David Roberts’s wonderful illustrations are a perfect match for Clary’s wry wit.
The much-loved Judi Curtin returns with a new novel about Molly and Beth, two friends who find a way of travelling through time. In You’ve Got A Friend (O’Brien Press, €12.99), they head back to 1975, the era of Chopper bikes, bad boy bands, and open sexism, in an attempt to figure out why Molly’s dad doesn’t get on with his brother. It’s an exciting adventure, and as ever Curtin writes about complex family issues with empathy and warmth. A perfect book for curling up with on St Stephen’s Day.
There’s a reason Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes is still in print and attracting young readers after 80 years – its magical but unsentimental depiction of children training for the stage still rings true. Virago Modern Classics have just started reissuing some of her lesser known titles (including Apple Bough, the story of siblings whose brother is a musical prodigy) and now they’ve released the wonderful Noel Streatfeild’s Christmas Stories(Virago Modern Classics, £12.99), which collects, for the first time in one volume, nine festive stories originally written for annuals and magazines in the 1940s and 1950s. The post-war world of pantomime auditions and food shortages may feel remote at first, but as ever, Streatfeild’s children always feel utterly real and relatable. A beautifully produced treat.
There are theatrical adventures of a very different kind in Death in the Spotlight (Puffin, £6.99), the latest in Robin Steven’s deservedly popular Wells & Wong series. Set in the 1930s, the books combine elements of classic murder mysteries and classic boarding school stories (proving there’s still a big appetite for both). Death in the Spotlight sees teenage detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong swapping school for the London stage as they try to find the killer of an unpopular leading lady. Like its predecessors, Death in the Spotlight manages to feel both authentic to the period while acknowledging aspects of 1930s Britain that writers of the time generally ignored or left out. Existing fans won’t be disappointed by this new adventure, and newcomers will be compelled to binge on the entire series.
What better way to celebrate the centenary of (some) Irish women getting the vote than giving writer Sarah Webb and illustrator Lauren O’Neill’s wonderful Blazing A Trail: Irish Women Who Changed The World (O’Brien Press, €16.99) Gorgeously designed and illustrated, this celebration of Mná na hEireann from the well-known (Countess Markievicz, Maria Edgeworth) to the less famous (aviator Lady Mary Heath) will inspire children and teenagers – and adults too.
It’s not easy to write a book for young people about depression and self-harm without being too bleak or too preachy, but in his excellent debut novel Tuesdays Are Just As Bad (Mercier Press, €12.99), Cethan Leahy manages to explore dark issues with great sensitivity and, crucially, a sense of humour. After teenager Adam tries to kill himself, he finds himself accompanied by what is essentially his own ghost, who narrates the novel. As Adam attends therapy and starts to make friends, he starts to feel better, but will he be tied to the ghost forever? On the surface it doesn’t sound Christmassy, but this is ultimately a book about hope.
Folk-horror is seeing a bit of a revival at the moment, with even teen-focused shows such as Netflix’s new Chilling Adventures of Sabrina featuring dark woodland rites. Young fantasy fans who appreciate more traditional spookiness will be inspired by Between Worlds: Folktales of Britain and Ireland by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Walker, £15), in which the Carnegie medal-winning author and folklore expert recounts old tales, from the famous to the obscure. Illustrated with suitably stark, folk art-ish images by Frances Castle, this is a pleasingly strange, magical book.
For a more modern take on fairy tales, there’s Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks (Scholastic, £10.99), which takes the darkness and misogyny of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid and brings it to, well, the surface. It’s the story of Gaia, a young mermaid living off the Irish coast, who exchanges one patriarchal system for another when she attains dry land. Give it to a 16-year-old along with a copy of Angela Carter’s classic The Bloody Chamber and blow her mind.
Even teenagers who aren’t already fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking, Pulitzer-winning hip-hop musical Hamilton will appreciate Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks For Me and You (Headline, £14.99). Miranda started tweeting tiny poems and aphorisms every morning and evening, based, he says, on what he himself really needed to hear that day. Now he’s gathered these cheering words in this sweet, funny book, wittily illustrated by Jonny Sun, that will amuse and encourage even the grumpiest teenager. And if you’re feeling frazzled after a hectic Christmas, you can always dip into it yourself.
Anna Carey’s latest novel about would-be teenage suffragette Mollie Carberry is Mollie on the March, published by the O’Brien Press.