The best new children’s books: Scary sea monsters and school creeps
Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea by Ben Clanton, Thomas Taylor’s Malamander, Abi Elphinstone’s Rumblestar and A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths
Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea provides an imaginative model for friendship and celebrating difference
All sorts of strange sea creatures abound as summer slides in. In Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea (Egmont, £5.99, 6+) Ben Clanton forges an unlikely friendship between an awesome narwhal and a grumpy jellyfish, who Narwhal isn’t quite sure actually exists. They bond over waffles and an “imagination book”, whose blank pages allow them to make up their own story. The unlikely friends are joined by a supporting cast that includes a “tentacular octopus”, a gnarly” shark, and a “turtley turtle”, all willing to help Narwhal feel like part of a gang, by wearing tooth-tusks, for example, and joining his pod. Clayton provides an imaginative model for friendship and celebrating difference, while offering plenty of unusual facts about his sea-creature characters too. With its cartoon panels and large spare conversational text, Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea is the perfect book for early readers transitioning to chapter books. They will be eager to get their hands on the next parts in the series, which, luckily, have been published simultaneously. A perfect reading project for the summer holidays.
In Thomas Taylor’s Malamander (Walker Books, £6.99, 9+) that which lurks in the deep is far more sinister. Herbert Lemon (12) is chief Lost and Founder at the Grand Hotel Nautilus in Eerie-On-Sea, a place where “sea mist drifts up the streets like vast ghostly tentacles” and “even the locals keep off the beach when darkness falls and the wind howls around Maw Rocks and the wreck of the battleship Leviathan, where even now some swear they have seen the unctuous malamander creep”. When Herbert finds a girl hiding among the unclaimed paraphernalia of his basement headquarters, he reluctantly becomes embroiled in a decade-old mystery involving Violet’s missing parents and some convincing evidence that the legendary fish-man, the malamander, is real. There is so much delightfully weird detail to the uncanny universe that Taylor creates, and the suspense-soaked mystery is anchored by brilliantly strange characters like Mrs Fossil, the local beachcomber, bookshop owner Jenny Hanniver and her mechanical fortune telling monkey, the ghostly Boathook Man, and Mrs Kraken, the reclusive hotel proprietress who keeps watch over the town with her camerluna. Malamander is a thrilling and memorable story that will add gothic intrigue to sunny summer holidays spent near the sea.
The hero of Abi Elphinstone’s latest fantasy, Rumblestar (Simon and Schuster, £6.99, 10+), is another reluctant detective. Casper is a student at Little Wallops Boarding School, where his parents are teachers. As the book opens, he is hiding from the school bullies in a grandfather clock, but his sanctuary reveals itself as the Neverlate Tree, portal to the Unmapped Kingdoms. There, unusual creatures, like Utterly Thankless and her pet dragon Arlo, are battling against the nefarious forces of an evil sorcerer called Morg. Casper soon finds out that the future of his world, as well as this odd other universe, is at stake. Despite the fantastical representation, Elphinstone creates an imaginative alternative origin myth around which contemporary issues of climate change resonate. The first of a four-part series, Rumblestar is one of those books that immerses you so fully in its own unique landscape that it will be hard to readjust to the dull facts of conventional geography afterwards.
A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths (Quercus, £6.99, 9+) is also set in an inhospitable boarding school: Highbury House, “a looming black shape with towers at its corners... built by someone who wanted to make a point: School is not fun. School is serious. School is actually very much like prison.” When homeschooled Justice Jones arrives there after the death of her crime writer mother, she instantly observes that the boarding school also holds “the potential for murder”. Indeed, Justice soon has two mysterious deaths to deal with. However, she soon discovers that meddling with the school’s social and historical hierarchy is not the best way to make friends. Griffiths is best known as creator of the Ruth Galloway crime series for adult readers and A Girl Called Justice is her first book for children. However, she navigates the transition with ease, perfectly capturing the oppressive social microcosm of the boarding school setting and the toxic tendencies of the intense relationships formed there. Justice is a pioneering protagonist, but while her family background gives her an authority over detection, Griffiths ensures she is still vulnerable to grief, loneliness and a desire to fit in. Justice’s instincts may be right, but she is still capable of being blinded by her own emotions, and that’s where the real drama of this terrific adventure novel lies. Justice does most of her detective work at night, when the school corridors are teeming with potential suspects: why else would they be up after lights-out?
In The Night Bear (Penguin, £12.99, 3+) by Ana and Thiago De Moraes there are dozens of dangerous characters stalking the streets after sunset. Luckily, the Night Bear is there to take care of them. Despite his growly demeanour, he is a good guy, ready to gobble up the type of things that give children nightmares: “Monsters with hideous eyes taste like burgers and fries. Scary pirates being mean taste like strawberries and cream.” The rhyming text moves the story swiftly along, while the crepuscular illustrations add visual texture to the transformation of scary subjects into something more benign. The Night Bear is a quirky picture-book that will give children the tools to compartmentalise their worries before bedtime.