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Children’s reads: From superbly conceived non-fiction to a fitting capstone for a wonderful career

Timely offerings from Jen Breach, Sarah Webb, the late Kate Saunders, Sarah Bowie, Erika McGann and Atinuke

A detail from the cover of Solstice: The Longest, Shortest Day by Jen Breach

The summer solstice approaches, June 21st, the longest day of the year. In Ireland anyway. What’s happening in the rest of the world? Solstice: The Longest, Shortest Day by Jen Breach, illustrated by 14 global artists (What on Earth Books, £15.99, 5+) has the answer, with a unique day-in-the-life study of different places across the world, from the South Pole Research Station, where the sun doesn’t rise at all, to Svalbard in Norway, where the sun doesn’t set.

The book presents each discrete study through a child’s-eye view, providing a fictional story that is rich with cultural and scientific detail, from languages spoken by the different children, to traditions observed by their culture, to facts about the sun’s movement around the world. Visually imagined by a variety of illustrators from each country represented, the book also includes pictographs that mark out each country’s global position, hours of sunlight and average temperature, lending more rich detail to this superbly conceived non-fiction text.

With 14 different examples – from Beijing to Britain, Nigeria to Nepal – there is just enough time to read one story a night in anticipation of our own forthcoming midsummer solstice.

What the sun is doing at any given time has a significant impact on how we live, both now and historically, as does the weather. This is the premise for Sarah Webb’s new historical fiction novel The Weather Girls (O’Brien Press, €8.99, 10+). Set in 1944, against the heightened backdrop of the second World War, Webb’s story unfolds at the weather station in Blacksod Lighthouse. Ireland may be politically neutral, but that doesn’t mean that the Devine family have not been feeling its effects, and a German warplane has just crashed nearby. In fact, when the Met Office in London gets in touch to request weather reports, it turns out Grace’s actions can impact the outcome of the war. Female friendship, zippy prose and the historical hindsight of this true-life tale propel Webb’s story along.


June’s YA fiction: magical realism grounded by sharp observations about teenage social dynamicsOpens in new window ]

Kate Saunders, the British writer who died last year, was widely celebrated for her oeuvre of historical fiction for children. A Drop of Golden Sun (Faber, £7.99, 8+) is a wonderful reminder of her talents. It is set in 1973 behind the scenes of a second World War-based musical film. It’s not actually the one you are thinking of, but it might be. Jenny, aged 12, is one of its child stars, and when she joins the crew for the shoot in the French Alps, she has to find a way to negotiate with the tempestuous lead actor. There is blockbusting drama inbuilt in the plot, but there are also resonant themes about cultural healing and mental health in a postwar context. A Drop of Golden Sun is a fitting capstone to a wonderful career cut short.

Nina Peanut is the lead character in her own life, and in her YouTube channel. If only other people (Ms Popular Megan Dunne) would give her some credit. Sarah Bowie’s debut middle-grade graphic novel, Nina Peanut is Amazing (Scholastic, £8.99, 8+) is both a colourful comic, and a comic exploration of what it feels like to not fit in and desperately want to. Of course, Nina’s quirkiness is actually much more compelling than Megan’s preened-and-polished presentation to the world. Who would you prefer as your sidekick: an animated potato or a highly-strung pampered poodle?

And would you prefer to watch a mysterious disappearing village from your bedroom window, or to head out into the summer to investigate? This is a question Senan must consider in Erika McGann’s quirky novel for newly independent readers, Chasing the Shy Town (Little Island, £7.99, 6+). Structured by short chapters and clear prose in large font, with lively pencil sketches from Toni Galmes, McGann’s story is set over three days, as Senan, his fearless neighbour Joshua and his feisty Gran embark upon on expedition across the local park to find the elusive Shy Town. They are joined along the way by Paper Boy and Pearl, an oversized talking beetle. Absurdist scenarios and vivid characters propel the story along, as Senan – a shy boy himself if he’s being honest – learns to challenge himself and trust his friends and their appetite for fun.

Beti doesn’t have to go far to find fun. She just steps out into the forest clearing, where she lives with her Mam, Tad, and the goat she gets for her birthday. Inspired by Atinuke’s own life living in a roundhouse in Wales, Beti and the Little Round House (Walker Books, £12.99, 5+) is a celebration of simple living. Four short chapters follow the seasons, as Beti and her family accommodate themselves to the rhythms of the natural world. There is gentle learning here (what plants might be good for a salad, how to keep milk cool without a fridge), enviable family freedoms, and Emily Hughes’ drawings present all the curious comforts of this unusual domestic setting snugly within a bucolic idyll.

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer