Great reads for the under-10s
From an Oliver Jeffers book that’s full of heart to the inventiveness of Niamh Sharkey’s new tale, ROBERT DUNBARrounds up some recent picture books while ANNA CAREYpicks fiction for seven- to nine-year-olds, including Kate Thompson’s exciting ‘Wanted!’
IN THE WORLD of picture-book art the lightest of minimalist touches often carries much more weight than the heaviest of brush strokes. This has already been demonstrated in several of the earlier books of Oliver Jeffers, and now comes his Up and Down(HarperCollins, £10.99), where, once again, the strength of the undertaking lies in its obliqueness rather than its directness. At its heart – and this is a book full of heart – is the by-now-familiar Jeffers boy, anonymous, waif-like, with matchstick legs and barely a facial feature other than the trademark dotted eyes. The spareness of illustration is skilfully matched by the stylistic economy of the story.
The narrative focuses on the evolving friendship between the boy and a penguin, all apparently proceeding smoothly (complete with occasional backgammon) until the penguin expresses a desire to fly. This dream and its consequences for the friendship allow Jeffers, with the most subtle and extremely touching of nuances, to explore the essence of childhood longing, loss and, eventually, fulfilment: the final page, which sees the friends reunited over their beloved backgammon board, is a masterly expression of quiet happiness.
With an epigraph quotation from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – “Thus we never see the true state of our condition till it is illustrated to us by its contraries” – Chris Haughton’s A Bit Lost(Walker, £11.99) also explores the themes of separation and return, the narrative here relating the consequences of a baby owl’s temporary loss of its mother, the ensuing search for her and, eventually, the restoration of familial togetherness, even if, on Haughton’s final page, there is a mischievous hint that the restoration may not be wholly permanent. The stylised, computer-assisted artwork, bold in its rich colours (the green and the orange are particularly striking), tellingly conveys the little owl’s diminutive size pitched against the enormousness of the forest where the story is set. This is a picture book in which text, illustration, layout, typography and overall design creatively inter-relate to provide a stunning literary and visual achievement.
Start with a situation where a cat, a dog and a mouse are harmoniously living together by the seaside and develop a storyline that involves the arrival of a foxy stranger, carrying a briefcase which bears the insignia of the Winds of Change Trading Company. From these basic details Mini Grey’s Three by the Seaside(Jonathan Cape, £10.99) fashions a humorously quirky story that examines the nature of friendship, especially when it is confronted by the possibility of dissension: can it withstand the “winds of change”? The lives of the three friends are given such reality in Grey’s artwork that the reader is immediately seduced into total acceptance of their existences. The “stranger”, portrayed as an enigmatic, slightly sinister character, gives the narrative a teasing ambivalence, a note reinforced in the wide range of his facial expressions.
A child’s first day at school has served as starting point for numerous works of picture-book fiction, but not many have the sheer joie de vivre of Melanie Williamson’s Cactus Annie(Hodder, £10.99). Here the heroine finds herself reluctantly making her debut at Cowgirl School and, as the day progresses, making very heavy weather of her lessons, including lasso practice, cactus-pie cooking and barn dancing; worst of all, however, is the threat posed by a marauding horde of cattle-rustling rats, mounted on their tricycles. It is a totally zany narrative, the joy of which is undiminished by the fact that, for those readers who want or need it, there is a “message” about the need for confidence- building and self-belief. Appropriately spiky in style and punctuated by the occasional “Yee-haa!”, Williamson’s artwork matches her text in its madcap exuberance. All that is needed is a soundtrack by, say, Dolly Parton.
Once we had Thelma and Louise. Now, with Niamh Sharkey’s On the Road with Mavis and Marge(Walker, £11.99), comes another couple of lively ladies in search of life and adventure. But this Mavis is a cow, this Marge is a chicken and their chosen mode of transport is a red bicycle – all very fine until their first puncture and their first encounter with a sequence of other creatures who assist them on their way. A map incorporated at one point into the text seems to suggest that their travels begin in north Antrim – this might well explain their permanently excitable state – before taking in the Antarctic and outer space. But home (and a surprise) await. This is the Sharkey of The Ravenous Beast and I’m a Happy Hugglewug, pictorial inventiveness bursting out of every page. Watch out especially for Albert, the perkiest of all bespectacled penguins.
Robert Dunbar is a commentator on children’s books and reading
AGES SEVEN TO NINE
WHEN IT COMES to children’s books, the under-10s are at an awkward stage. Many children who are just starting to read on their own are too old (or so they may think) for picture books but too young for the big names in children’s literature. Plenty of gems have always been aimed at this age group, however, and some of the best have looked at the relationships between sisters; think of Beverly Cleary’s books about Ramona Quimby and her big sister, Beezus, or Dorothy Edwards’s wonderful tales of her naughty little sister, perfectly illustrated by Shirley Hughes.
Both of these authors are still in print; now a new pair of sisters has joined theirs. Jenny Valentine’s Iggy and Me on Holiday(Harper Collins, £4.99) is the third book about Flo and her little sister, Iggy. Like the My Naughty Little Sisterbooks, the story is told by the older sister, but the younger sibling is the star. Iggy isn’t looking forward to the long summer holiday (she thinks she’ll be bored) until her teacher gives her a camera and a bear called Barnaby, a sort of classroom mascot, to look after for the summer. Her challenge is to photograph Barnaby having adventures. Suddenly the summer doesn’t seem as though it’ll be quite so boring after all.
The family head off in a camper van to the seaside, where Iggy makes a new friend, discovers the joy of building sandcastles and finds a fun way to spend a rainy day. Iggy is a totally convincing little girl, and the family dynamic is funny and sweet – the girls’ dad is particularly amusing. The book’s chapters work as stand-alone stories, but they also work together to make a coherent and hugely likeable book. I suspect this will become a firm favourite in many households.
There are more complicated sibling dynamics in John Newman’s Mimi(Walker Books, £4.99). It’s several months since Mimi’s mum was knocked off her bike and killed, and her family are falling apart. Her dad spends his days staring into space, and Mimi and her brother, Conor, and sister, Sally, have had nothing but pizza for dinner for months; despite the efforts of their loving extended family, the children are increasingly neglected.
The book is beautifully written and utterly convincing, but the realism does mean that, despite flashes of humour, it’s pretty upsetting. Of course, plenty of children relish tales of extreme woe, as anyone who grew up with comics such as Mandy and Bunty will remember. But there’s a sense of real, scary chaos in Mimi’s home, and although the story has a happy ending some children may still find it all too distressing. Nevertheless, Mimi is a powerful novel that’s well worth reading. And it’s nice to see a novel whose heroine is adopted (Mimi was born in China) in which this aspect is just taken for granted.
There’s drama of a different kind in Kate Thompson’s exciting Wanted!(Bodley Head, £7.99), set in ancient Rome. Marcus is an ordinary boy from a family of bakers, but his life is changed forever when he accidentally finds himself taking care of a very beautiful lost horse. The elegant beast turns out to be Incitatus, the horse so beloved by the crazed emperor known as Littleboots (Caligula in Latin) that it has been made a consul. Now Marcus and his family are in great danger.
Despite the rumours the real Caligula never actually made Incitatus a consul, as Thompson explains at the back of the book, but it’s still a great hook for a story, and Thompson brings Caligula’s Rome to thrilling life.
Children interested in life long ago will also enjoy the impressively titled The Time Travelling Catand the Great Victorian Stink, by Julia Jarman (Anderson Press, £4.99). Topher has a mysterious cat called Ka, who regularly travels back in time, leaving a statue of herself behind. Every so often Topher can follow her into the past, where he essentially becomes a person from that time, forgetting his 21st-century life. In this entertaining adventure he arrives in Victorian London and uncovers a plot to kill the great engineer Joseph Bazalgette, who designed London’s first modern sewage system and literally cleaned up the stinking city.
And Ka isn’t the only unusual feline in this season’s books. Jane Simmons’s Ship’s Cat Doris(Orchard Books, £9.99) tells the story of a kitten that is adopted by a kindly couple who live on a houseboat with two dogs and a chicken. The little cat is named Doris, and by the time its new owners discover that he’s actually a boy the name has stuck. The writing is a bit clunky at times, with characters introduced confusingly abruptly, but the atmosphere of life aboard is very appealing.
Anna Carey is a freelance journalist. Her first book for young readers, The Real Rebecca, will be published by the O’Brien Press in February 2011