Safa, the eponymous “new girl” in Sinéad Moriarty’s first book for young readers, is a Syrian refugee, “from one of those mad countries that people have to run away from”, as her new Irish classmates put it.
Some of them are ignorant; they don’t know where Syria is, they don’t understand her religious rituals. Others are intolerant, using her difference as a tool to bolster their own faltering confidence. Safa’s new friend, Ruby, understands how hard Safa must find her new life in Ireland. She too is weighed down by difficult circumstances: her brother’s disability, her parents’ exhaustion, her sister’s defensive nastiness. As they get to know each other, their friendship becomes a boon to them both.
Moriarty's story is both educational and empathetic, creating cultural awareness of the global refugee crisis, as well as providing a solid story of friendship that is anchored by a believable and urgent plot. The different characters' feelings of exclusion will also resonate authentically for young readers questioning their own difference, both in classrooms and at home. The New Girl (Gill, 8+, €12.99) is a hopeful tale of how kindness, in such difficult circumstances, is its own validation.
There is a Dahlesque flavour to Alexander's book, which delights in direct reader address, corrupt adults and wordplay
Eliza, the heroine of Sarah Webb's historical novel The Little Bee Charmer of Henrietta Street (O'Brien Press, 8+, €12.99), is also struggling to adjust to changing circumstances. Following the death of her mother and the sudden debility of her father, Eliza has moved from leafy Rathmines to the top floor of a tenement on Henrietta Street. Suddenly she is the cook, the cleaner, the wage-earner for the family, but this is turn-of-the-century Dublin, and on Henrietta Street Eliza is surrounded by children who also need to work.
Webb writes assuredly about the time period, and the book is rich in historical detail, from the architectural features of the tenement to the surrounding cityscape, from the studied art of illumination to the care and training of bees. However, authenticity is never at the expense of action. Eliza’s rascally brother Jonty makes sure of that, as does the arrival of the Zozimus Wilde Travelling Circus to Dublin, with its trained animals and its bewitching bee-charmer, who casts a spell upon Eliza.
For extra interest, each chapter is headed by a sweet bee fact, and the scattered illustrations from Rachel Corcoran provide a visual dimension to Webb’s winsome, heart-tugging tale.
It is the richly imagined world that makes John Hearne's book such a memorable read, from the aptly gloomy place names... to the subversive celebrations of misery on Ingratitude Day
George, the hero of Freddy Alexander's comic adventure novel Mr Spicebag (Harper Collins, 8+, £12.99), is not impoverished, but he might as well be. His parents, like all the people in George's town, spend all the family's money on spice bags. George prefers to eat vegetables, which immediately marks him out as "a pip-squeak", a "runt" and a "little twerp", if you take his parents' word for it. George realises that people are actually under the spell of what must possibly be the most ridiculous supervillain in children's literature, the "impossibly tall and bony Mr Spicebag".
There is a Dahlesque flavour to Alexander’s book, which delights in direct reader address, corrupt adults and wordplay. This latter quality is particularly effective in the descriptions of what actually goes into Mr Spicebag’s infamous meals. From its unlikely starting premise, Alexander lets the story slip into a joyfully surreal fantasia, involving shapeshifting species, giant vegetables and a flying greenhouse.
There might be a message about healthy eating in there somewhere, but young readers will be having too much fun to notice.
Bhreathnach provides a well-paced, expressive telling that is full of suspense, which will appeal to older, independent Irish-language readers
Poor Indigo McCloud. The villains terrorising his hometown of Blunt are his four sisters: Root, Berry, Tsunami (Su) and, the worst of them all, the eldest, Peaches. After an especially spiteful incident involving his bird-fearing neighbour Lucy, Indigo finds the sisters’ secret lair in the basement of the family’s rickety house on Adenoid Street, and decides that he must stop them. His feline stealthiness helps, as does the assistance of his best friend Polly, whose literality proves extremely useful in planning revenge, as well as in calming Indigo down.
It is the richly imagined world that makes John Hearne's book such a memorable read, from the aptly gloomy place names (the town's most prominent landmark is Crappy Tower) to the subversive celebrations of misery on Ingratitude Day. The Very Dangerous Sisters of Indigo McCloud (Little Island, 10+, £6.99) is an exciting and original debut.
Bridget Bhreathnach's Cluasa Capaill ar an Rí (Futa Fata, 5+, €14.99) is a long-form picture book version of a much-loved folk tale. Bhreathnach provides a well-paced, expressive telling that is full of suspense, and will appeal to older, independent Irish-language readers as well as younger children drawn to the visuals. Meanwhile, the sumptuous otherworldly illustrations by Shona Shirley Macdonald are reproduced in glossy full colour by Futa Fata, make this a showstopper of a picture book.