If your new year’s resolution is to get your younglings reading more, 2019 opens with a swell of enticing new reads for all ages. If your tricky middle-grade reader has already abandoned books for video games, Mossbelly MacFearsome and the Dwarves of Doom (Andersen Press, £6.99, 10+) might be just the fantasy adventure story to lure her back to the printed word.
Alex Gardiner’s story casts ordinary schoolboy Roger Paxton as Destroyer, warrior sidekick to Captain Mossbelly MacFearsome, “the great dwarf champion”, and defender of the future of planet Earth. Roger is something of a reluctant warrior: “I wasn’t chosen, I was forced into this,” he explains to Witchwatcher Lady Goodroom, who serves as a conduit between the inner realm, where ogres are waiting for their chance to rise against ugly humans, and the outer realm, where ugly stupid humans are destroying the planet.
Despite the underlying environmental themes, Gardiner’s book is a fast-paced comic read. Fans of classic old-world builders like Tolkien will appreciate the gentle satirisation of tropes, while readers fresh to fantasy will be drawn by the rollicking rambunctious plot and realistic characters, like the refreshingly ordinary Roger, and Maddie, Witchwatcher in training and karate expert, who is happy to embrace danger when Roger shirks it.
Most pleasing of all is Gardiner’s inventive prose, which plays on the Scottish setting to coin joyous new adjectives that express the personality of his crumpsy dwarven hero, as well as elaborate upon his meaning.
The hero of Sam Copeland's debut novel Charlie Changes Into a Chicken (Puffin, £6.99, 8+) is also an ordinary boy thrust into an adventure of fantastical proportions. Charles McGuffin "is just like you", the narrator informs us, except "for one MAJORLY HUGE, MASSIVE difference. He can change into animals. As in, one minute he's a normal boy, the next minute he's a wolf." Charlie's friends don't really believe him, but the school bully, Dylan, bore witness to him changing from pigeon to boy and he thinks it is really cool. Charlie isn't so sure: "Not exactly a superhero, am I?"
As Charlie tries to figure out why these transformations are happening to him, Copeland creates an accessible portrait of childhood anxiety. Stress has physical effects, and Charlie’s transformations are all preceded by the more predictable markers of a panic attack. However, by pushing the physical effects to extremes, Copeland creates a situation where the reader’s own anxieties seem surmountable.
Sarah Horne's lively pencil sketches leap off the page, punctuating Copeland's prose with punchy visual depictions of Charlie's transformations. The intrusive narrative voice – which sees fit to point out readers' "numptihead"-edness, and adds clever-clever footnotes at every opportunity – won't be for everyone, but Charlie Changes Into a Chicken is a comic novel to which fans of that thoroughly ordinary superhero Kid Normal will flock.
Strange creatures also abound in Pamela Butchart's There's a Yeti in the Playground (Nosy Crow, €6.99, 6+). Izzy and her friends find themselves in the unusual position of being snowed in at school. The 'Beast from the East' is raging across the schoolyard, cutting them off from their far more inviting homes. Izzy is known for having a wild imagination. Her mum thinks so anyway, and is constantly telling her off for exaggerating about how dangerous her school is (previous Izzy adventures include fending off Demon Dinner Ladies and a Phantom Lollipop Man). But Izzy – who speaks in CAPITAL LETTERS to emphasise just how COMPLETELY OPPOSITE OF FINE life at her school can be – is absolutely certain that the metaphorical beast raging outside the windows has physical substance, and, with the help of her friends – survival expert, Jodi, the unflappable Zach, and cottonwool-wrapped, Maisie – she is determined to prove it. Butchart's comic flair and dynamic plot offers a quick page-turner for newly confident readers, with Thomas Flintham's scattered illustration and innovative page design providing welcome pause for visual reflection.
Life of a princess
Lily, the heroine of Royal Rebel by Carina Axelsson (Usbourne, £6.99, 10+) can only dream of such madcap adventures. She has the misfortune to be born a princess, which wouldn't be so bad if she didn't always have to do what she was told, ie what's good for the queendom. The book opens as Lily is about to start Princess Class under the watchful eye of Alice, Mistress of the Robes. In six months, on her 14th birthday, she will officially come of age and assume her royal duties. However, while Lily is learning to curtsey and make polite small talk with visiting dignitaries, in the privacy of her own bedroom suite she has been making Vlogs with her beloved dog Coco, under the pseudonym Tiara Girl.
The internet is the perfect place to hide if you are a princess who wants to be a regular girl. Until, of course, it isn’t. With a sparkly cover, some tween appropriate social-media networking and tips on wearing your hair and tiara just so, Royal Rebel is the perfect read for pre-teens who thinks books are, like, so boring.
Finally, why not begin the year with Joseph Coelho's A Year of Nature Poems (Wide Eyed, £11.99, all ages), which opens with a poem dedicated to the legend of starlings warring in "the January nip" of a Cork city sky in the 1600s. With a poem for each month of the year, Coelho finds wonder in the natural world, from February's "frog baby creche" to the "newly emerged stubble" of budding grass in May. Kelly Louise Judd's illustrations lend a winsome wraparound vision of the changing seasons, from spring's first awakening to December's gently falling snow.