Chimney sweeps, princesses, Cinderfella, hairdos and medieval details
Children’s fiction from Auxier, Burton, Doyle, Martin and Chambers
Jonathan Auxier’s “Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster” tells of a feisty child, Nan Sparrow, indentured to a vile master sweep.
Jonathan Auxier’s brilliant new novel Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster (Amulet Books, £13.99, 8+) will give you pause for thought as you set the first fires of autumn burning. Set in Victorian London, it tells the story of a feisty child, Nan Sparrow. Indentured to vile master sweep Wilkie Crudd, Nan sees herself as “grimy and tough as stone”. When she is brought back to life by a soot golem, whom she nurtures and calls Charlie, she finds within herself a capacity for love that will transform life, not just for her, but for all the climbers in London.
Auxier happily weaves his many influences into the story. Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies lends a fantastical, transformative vision to the fables of The Girl and her Sweep, which punctuate the narrative of adventure. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience provide a structural device for the book, while they also offer a key plot point. However, Auxier’s vivid evocation of Nan’s emotional life and daily duties, and the relationship between the two, are entirely his own. “So much of Nan’s life involved forgetting,” he writes with a poetic empathy that is evident throughout the book. “She lived with the grime by forgetting what it was to be clean. She scaled heights by forgetting to look down. . . She lived with loneliness by forgetting what it is to love.” Nan Sparrow herself, however, is a heroine you won’t forget in a hurry.
Frida, the key character in The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton (Bloomsbury, £14.99, 8+) is another remarkable heroine, especially when you consider she is a princess, and bound to obey the stifling social codes of the kingdom. She would prefer to be a pilot, but her father has locked her and her 11 sisters in a room in the palace after their mother’s death in a motorcycle accident. “Every one of you is a stick of dynamite!” he bellows at them. “You’ll explode me, and this kingdom - BOOM! . . . I won’t have it.” The girls defeat their father’s expectations in every way. They are wily enough to escape detection too, even when their father sends suitors to stand sentry in their room at night. In a brilliant twist of fate, their saviour is an unexpectedly familiar face. With their adventurous spirits and restless imaginations, the girls soon find a way of escaping incarceration, descending into a magic realm every evening to dance until the soles of their shoes are worn through.
Burton, who has written two award-winning historical novels for adults, fleshes out this traditional fairytale with personality. Each of the princesses has a name and an occupation, from Ariosta the painter, to Vita “the luckiest, the quickest at jokes”. Angela Barrett’s illustrations, meanwhile, add an exotic visual richness to Burton’s painterly descriptions of the princesses’ enchanted underworld.
Malachy Doyle’s Cinderfella (Walker Books, 3+, £6.99) also turns a traditional story on its head. The eponymous hero of this modern fairytale is the put-upon younger brother of bossy twins, Gareth and Gus. He’s “Cinder-do-every-job-in-the-house-fella”: he has to finish their homework, shine their scooters, even charge their phones. When they are all invited to a fancy dress party at Kayleigh, the local karate champ’s, house, Cinderfella, in costume, gets to show everyone that he is more than a skivvy with his funky monkey dance moves. Matt Hunt’s illustrations bring a riot of style and sparkle to Doyle’s fun modern twist on a well-known princess story, never more so than in the double-page dance spread.
There is also some subtle gender reversal in Francis Martin’s Daddy Hairdo (Simon and Schuster, £6.99, 2+), where a balding father comes up with a confection of crazy coiffures to deal with his daughter’s unmanageable mane. Amy’s tangled tresses get her in so much trouble that her dad is forced to come up with an innovative solution: hairstyles that double as sculptural spectacles. There’s “The Ice Cream Cone”, “The Rings of Saturn”, “The Castle in the Clouds” and, his personal favourite, “The Triple Beehive”.” Amy is a sensation, the talk of the town, but sadly her life is not any easier, so she eventually succumbs to a traditional snip. Claire Powell’s illustrations are a visual treat, rich in texture and detail; even the animals have spanky fur-dos. The humorous premise of Daddy Hairdo will resonate with any follicly-challenged fathers, while the theme offers a reflective treat for young scissors-shirkers. It is a delightfully bonkers picture book.
In Mucking About (Little Island, £7.99, 8+), a new middle-grade novel from John Chambers, the hero, Manchán, is also trying to defy convention. He would like to spend his days fishing, hurling or singing, but his parents want him to “bring honour to the family” by becoming a monk, like his fearful uncle, Brother Abstemius. The problem is, Manchán and his pet pig, Muck, just can’t keep out of trouble. Chambers fills his medieval world with authentic detail, which is buoyed by the structural precis at the start of each chapter and the hilarious glossary at the the end. While traditional belief systems bring a surreal edge to Manchán’s adventures (fairies and demons make more than one appearance), the family dynamic will be recognisable to anyone who has been pulled from playing by a parent to finish their homework or complete their chores. Chambers’s maps and scattered illustrations help flesh out Manchán’s world: here be rich potential for more exciting episodes to come.