Odd things afoot in children’s fiction
Mythical beasts lurking in the ocean; an anxious panda bear; a lone wolf on the run; raggedy witches rustling through the trees; and mankind’s mechanical future
There are odd things afoot in children’s fiction this February: mythical beasts lurking in the ocean and raggedy witches rustling through the trees. In The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart (Stripes, £6.99, 9+) the strangeness starts in the creaky old house that Emmeline Widget calls home. Widget Manor is booby-trapped by age and dereliction, and Emmeline needs a satchel full of improvised tools to make her daily life less dangerous. Growing up in such an inhospitable environment, however, has “bestowed upon her some remarkable talents, including the ability to walk as silently as a fly and hold her breath far longer than a respectable young lady should”. So, Emmeline is well prepared to defend herself when her parents disappear and she becomes embroiled in a dangerous plot involving a monster from the deep, who may hold the secret for eternal life in its tentacles.
In this proficient debut, O’Hart writes with a mischievous arch tone that fans of Lemony Snicket will warm to, and Emmeline is every bit as inventive as Violet Baudelaire. Her whooping sidekick Thing – a grubby, Cockney who calls to mind Dickens’ Artful Dodger – is an able guide for Emmeline as she trudges through the Arctic landscape looking for her parents. With its quirky characters and breakneck pace, The Eye of the North is a rollicking, thrilling and timeless adventure story.
Erik, the lupine hero of Sarah Finan’s picturebook Erik The Lone Wolf (Lincoln First Editions, £11.99, 3+), inhabits a similarly wintry world. He is desperate to shake the shadow of the wolf pack that follows him everywhere. “The mountains are full of danger,” his father cautions. “That’s why the pack always sticks together.” But Erik hates the family’s silly rules. When he decides to embark upon a solo journey, however, disaster strikes, and Erik learns the hard way about the importance of co-operation and community support. Finan’s watercolour illustrations are soft around the edges, creating a wonderfully friendly pack of wolves, individuated by size and expression. The central theme of the book, meanwhile, will resonate with young introverts attempting to accommodate solitary impulses with the social demands of family life and pre-school.
Anxious panda bear
Emily MacKenzie’s picture-book Eric Makes a Splash (Bloomsbury, £6.99, 2+) features another animal hero with a problem. Eric is an anxious sort of panda bear. He worries about noises in the night, and finding spiders in his welly boots, but, most of all, he worries about trying new things. However, Eric is lucky enough to have a fearless friend, Flora, who finds lots of creative ways to reassure him. When they set off on a trip to the swimming pool, Eric is predictably terrified, but he is rewarded for his bravery with a reversal of roles that enables him to become a hero. Eric Makes a Splash is a wholesome tale that offers a really useful way to discuss anxiety with a young child.
Polly Dunbar’s A Lion is a Lion (Walker, £11.99, 3+) also has anxiety at the core of its simple story. A specific anxiety: fear of lions. But, Dunbar asks, “Is a lion still a lion if . . . he wears a hat?” Or “skips down the street singing ‘Hoobie-doobie-do’?” After neutralising the lion’s natural threat with silliness, Dunbar turns the plot on its head with a brilliant scare-tactic, before giving the children of the tale the upper-hand. The Tiger Who Came to Tea will be an obvious point of comparison, but Dunbar’s inimitable watercolour style and her unexpected sense of humour make A Lion is a Lion every bit as original as Judith Kerr’s classic.
The opening pages of Celine Kiernan’s Begone the Raggedy Witches (Walker, 9+, £6.99) are possibly scarier than the average book your 9-year-old child might pick up. As Mup drives home from her dying aunt’s house, she realises witches are tracking her car. “Sometimes she’d see them cross the gaps between trees . . . their billowing clothes and pale features sharp against the sky. But mostly they raced through the shadows, hard to see, harder still to believe in.” This is seriously creepy stuff from the Irish Queen of Young Adult fantasy.
However, the promise of a happy ending should persuade a younger demographic to conquer any fear, and if they do they will be rewarded with a journey into a magical realm that is not so distant from reality, where a young girl has the power to take on a tyrannical queen. With laws governing speech – this is a rhyme-only universe – and shapeshifting characters, the prose and characters sing with strange beauty and creativity. However, it is the emotional charge of Mup’s quest to find her father and rescue her bewitched mother that creates the real drive of Kiernan’s book. Begone the Raggedy Witches is Part One of the Wild Magic Trilogy. I cannot wait to see where life and magic take Mup next.
Tin (Chicken House), the debut novel from Pádraig Kenny, also unfolds in a fantasy world not so different from our own. The book’s hero, Christopher, is “Proper”, a rare, real boy in a world of sentient mechanicals. His employer and guardian is Mr Gregory Absalom “the greatest engineer in all of Britain”, who fashions figures from junk and breathes life into them using the “principles of basic propulsion and the mechanism of glyphs”. When Christopher risks his own safety to save one of his friends, he discovers that the fundamentals of his own life are more complex than he had imagined. Now that his very existence is deemed illegal, he goes on the run with his motley crew of mechanical companions. If the abrupt plot shifts and clunky dialogue occasionally hinder the pace, the unique patchwork characters more than compensate, and the combination of machine and human life is also entirely believable. This is a thought-provoking book that begs the questions: is this the future of humanity?