Children’s fiction: a round-up of the latest books
Gay dads, blended families, dealing with grief, a family of puffins and sibling dynamics
Where Are You, Puffling? by Erika McGann and illustrated by Gerry Daly. A family of puffins gets a fright.
There is nothing more compelling for readers of all ages than a family drama, where relationships on the page, in all their complexity, help us navigate difficult situations in our own lives. To Night Owl From Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer (Egmont, £6.99, 10+) presents us with a thoroughly modern family drama: a newly blended unit headed by two gay dads, whose two daughters are not happy about the new domestic arrangements. Bett (aka Dogfish) and Avery (aka Night Owl) couldn’t be more different. California surfer-girl Bett is an “impressive rebel” who loves the outdoors and animals. Avery is an anxious New Yorker with allergies who wants to be a writer. They are both used to being “the one” in their fathers’ eyes, but now their dads are in love, they are afraid that they will be displaced. Indeed, when they are sent to a summer camp for eight weeks, they vow never to speak to each other. Goldberg Sloan and Wolitzer use this a stylistic challenge, and the book begins as a series of emails between the girls, which creates an innovative structure for the co-writers to play with. As the girls inevitably become friends, however, the recipient list expands and the characters update us on their adventures in letters to their parents and friends as well, whose responses give us an added perspective on events. Bett and Avery’s equally unconventional backgrounds, meanwhile, allow Goldberg Sloan and Wolitzer to represent various types of families for readers to identify with, exploring issues of surrogacy, estrangement, and single parenting, as well as same-sex relationships, within the context of a convincing middle-grade scenario.
Another pair of contrasting personalities are thrust together in the name of blended families in Jennifer Killick’s Mo, Lottie and the Junkers (Firefly, £6.99, 9+). Mo is a “hashtag ‘sensitive boy’”, Lottie is a “girlwind” with “interesting hair”, and their parents have just moved in together, despite the protests of their children. When the pair begin working together on a science project for Discovery Week, they become embroiled in a strange mystery involving junk – which Mo loves collecting – a strange new boy called Jax, who befriends Mo at school, and the disappearance of Mo’s scientist dad many years ago. Soon, they find themselves battling against the Junkers, “kidnappers-for-hire” with the ability to “time jump”, who have their eye on Lottie and Mo with a view for using them for spare parts. The first half of the book unfolds as a straightforward family drama, with Killick enlivening the traditional plot with her presentation of the material as a narrated v-log. We are treated to amusing snippets of the children bickering as they try to get the technology to work or disagree over how much to reveal to their viewers. The sci-fi thrust that takes over as the plot unfolds, meanwhile, is full of original ideas and surprising twists. Killick writes with a keen understanding of characterisation too, creating compelling portraits of children struggling to adjust to difficult family circumstances. Lottie’s little sister, Sadie, who speaks in her own special language, makes a particularly penetrating example. As Lottie informs Mo, “she’s saving all her other words for when mum comes back”.
There is more family drama afoot in Pog by Pádraig Kenny (Chicken House, £6.99, 10+). Pog is a small furry creature who lives in the attic of Daniel and Penny’s grandparents’ summer house. When their mother dies, their father brings them to live there, hoping that they will find a way to preserve her memory in a less painful fashion. However, the forest that abuts the rambling property is not entirely benign. Pog, a Lumpkin of the First Folk, sets out to protect the children from the dark forces of the Necessary, just as he did their mother many years before. In his two central characters, Kenny paints an affecting portrait of grief and how a family can be driven apart by their singular emotional experiences. Memories, Kenny shows us, are vital for preserving a personal connection to lost loved ones: the painful, as well as the pleasant ones. The most memorable character, however, is surely Pog. With his Gollum-like speech and noble purpose, he guides the children away from danger and helps them find a safe place for their family to heal.
A family of puffins gets a fright in Where Are You, Puffling? by Erika McGann and Gerry Daly (O’Brien Press, £12.99, 2+). The fluffy heroine is an adventurous puffling, who sets off from her burrow to explore her home of Skellig Michael. Luckily, there are a variety of other island creatures to keep an eye on her: gannets, rabbits, kittiwake chicks, dolphins and seals. Little Puffling has helped them on her adventure, so they commit to helping her reach home. McGann uses an outsider’s eye to tell the story. Just like the puffin parent’s, the reader is following Puffling’s adventures through the stories of those she met along the way. Daly’s pictures, meanwhile, animate island life with expressive portraits of its inhabitants, not least of all fuzzy, downy Puffling herself, with her curious, direct gaze.
Finally, sibling relationships are under the spotlight in Rose Robbin’s Me and My Sister (Scallywag Press, £11.99, 3+). “Me and my sister are very different,” the narrator, a small yellow dog, tells us. She “doesn’t use words”, goes to “a different school”, “likes to watch TV by herself “and is “sometimes rude to Nanna”. However, the pair also have a lot in common, and through a shared love of play they remember that they “love each other just the same”. Robbins creates a sensitive portrait of accommodating different needs within a family unit. The pictures provide an empathic illustration of the brother’s frustrations, as well as a sensitive portrait of his autistic sister’s struggle to fit in.