New children's books cover terrors and tickling
One new title is an instant classic from two giants of the genre
‘There’s a Walrus in My Bed’ by Ciara Flood looks at many toddlers’ fear of sleeping alone
The Giant Jumperee (Puffin, £12.99, 2+) is a new picture book from two of the most prolific talents working in children’s books today. With an original story by Julia Donaldson (62 picture books and counting) and illustrations by Helen Oxenbury (who can boast a 50-year career), even on first reading it has the feel of an instant classic.
Donaldson sets aside her trademark singsong rhyme for a more subtle scheme structured around a disarming catchphrase – “I’m the Giant Jumperee” – which comes echoing from the hollow of Rabbit’s burrow, terrifying its resident and a succession of bigger, bolder animals.
It takes the intervention of Mummy Frog to put them at their ease, and they all realise how silly it is to be scared of invisible monsters. Donaldson’s story will work particularly well for a very young readership, but Oxenbury’s anthropomorphic illustrations will have a broader appeal. With their near-human stance and wide-eyed expressiveness, they are characters to identify with; nevermore than in the final pages when they realise their folly and can relax with giggling relief.
There’s a Walrus in My Bed by Ciara Flood (Andersen Press, £11.99, 3+) also tackles a specific toddler fear: sleeping on one’s own. Flynn’s mum and dad have just, optimistically, bought him a new bed, but they had not anticipated that it would come with a resident walrus.
Flynn tries his best to squeeze in beside it, but the walrus is as restless as he is: it is hungry, thirsty, a little bit cold, and needs just one more song. Flood, who trained at DIT, ensures that the walrus is as benign as he is beastly, and the night-time setting allows her to play with light and shade in a rich and realistic setting.
The final pages, where Flynn sleeps soundly and Mum and Dad finally meet the walrus in the flesh, will add an extra layer of recognition for adult readers, exasperated by similar struggles with their own children.
Kathryn White and Adrian Reynolds’s The Tickle Test (Andersen Press, £11.99, 2+) provides just the antidote to all those anxieties. Two scientist mice perform a tickling experiment upon a menagerie of animals, including a gurgling giraffe, a jiggling bear, and a sneezing tiger.
Some, however, are more receptive than others. Gorillas, rhinos and crocodiles threaten to tickle them back, or worse. White’s simple plot uses a predictable rhyming scheme that will lull young readers into the singsong story.
Meanwhile, the mice’s thoughts, printed in smaller text, enrich the rhyming scheme with an optional extra line, providing an edge for older readers. Reynolds’s vividly coloured, cartoonish characters leap from the pages; in particular the final page, where the scientists train their eyes on the reader. If you haven’t yet started tickling the child on your lap, you will now.
Keepsake by Paula Leyden (Little Island, €8.99, 8+) also features an animal prominently in its story. Eleven-year-old Ella is seeking sanctuary for the summer at her grandmother’s house in the countryside after the recent separation of her parents. She becomes drawn to a stallion that grazes in a nearby field, and it is while tending to it one afternoon that she meets Johnny, the young Traveller boy who owns him.
When Storm is taken by “the pound man”, Ella and Johnny embark on a mission to save him. Leyden captures Ella’s emotional life with great conviction as she struggles to deal with her fraught family life. Although Ella has a unique gift – she can see the thoughts of those close to her – Leyden ensures she remains grounded and empathetic.
The story has a familiar, traditional feel, but Leyden’s use of technology (from Granny’s rules about dinner-table etiquette to Ella’s phone recording device) gives Keepsake an up-to-date feel that is never forced. The prejudice that drives the plot, meanwhile, is subtly introduced and resolved with great compassion.
Like Ella, Denizen Hardwick has extraordinary powers, although his have a magical rather than an intuitive capacity. We meet Denizen in The Forever Court (Puffin, £6.99, 11+), the second book in Dave Rudden’s acclaimed Knights of the Borrowed Dark series.
Now 13 and a legend among the Knights, he is committed to the struggle against the dark and dangerous Tenebrous, but there are personal issues to be dealt with too: the ego and authority of his stony, vengeful mother, Vivian, who he long believed was dead; and the affections of Mercy, daughter of the Endless King, who is quite probably more interested in killing than kissing him, though he holds out hope for a snog.
Rudden is an accomplished world-builder, but he also wields a creative literary touch that makes every page a pleasure to read. Like Denizen, Rudden is “a stickler for accuracy even in his complementary metaphors”. From the “Prayers” offered up by the Knights (their individual fashioning of their light-based weapons) to the “Cants” they use to summon their special powers, Rudden’s prose is full of striking imagery that feels original even when some of the ideas are not.
This literary quality, married with the complexity of characterisation, pushes Rudden’s work above the parapet in a crowded arena. The Forever Court ends with a tantalising glimpse of Denizen’s future; fans will have to wait until next year, however, for the series finale.
Highly recommended for readers who are too young for issue-based YA books, but who want to get their teeth into a novel that offers a more sophisticated plot and writing style than the usual middle-grade reader.