The Ice Sea Pirates and other children’s books review

Frida Nilsson’s great Arctic tale unfolds packed ice and inky skies

Frida Nilsson’s “The Ice Sea Pirates” is set on a series of imaginary islands in the Arctic. Its heroine is 10-year-old Siri, a storyteller supreme. Photograph: Cory Glencross/iStock/Getty

Frida Nilsson’s “The Ice Sea Pirates” is set on a series of imaginary islands in the Arctic. Its heroine is 10-year-old Siri, a storyteller supreme. Photograph: Cory Glencross/iStock/Getty

 

There is a chill in the air as the new year begins, bringing with it a beguiling collection of books from the northern climes of Scandinavia. The Ice Sea Pirates by Frida Nilsson (Gecko Press, €10.99, 8+) is set on a series of imaginary islands in the Arctic sea. Its heroine is 10-year-old Siri, storyteller supreme and the primary carer of her seven-year-old sister, Miki. When Miki goes missing from the coast of Iron Apple, Siri sets off to rescue her from the clutches of Captain Whitehead, a fearsome pirate who kidnaps kiddies to work in his mine. On the way she encounters wolf hunters, mer-creatures, and plenty of pirates who would surely take her to their leader, if they could only get their hands on her.

In this translation from the Swedish original, Nilsson creates a richly imagined landscape of endless whiteness, packed ice and inky skies. It is beautiful but far from benign, and Siri suffers several near-death experiences at its hands, although the wonderful illustrations from David Barrow offer a soft counterpoint to the geological harshness. Nilsson brings her characters to life with vibrant, original metaphors: Siri’s father is called Little Stick by his children “because he always said that if Miki and I left him, he would snap in half like a little stick”; her sidekick, Fredrik, “could peel half a hundredweight of swedes with a smile on his face”. As Siri struggles to free Miki from the dark underworld of Whitehead’s mine, Nilsson extends the dramatic conflict to create a powerful moral message about nature and nurture, and the importance of treating all living things well

Astrid the Unstoppable

Astrid the Unstoppable (Walker Books, £6.99, 8+) adds another Scandinavian heroine to the contemporary canon. Maria Parr’s joyful 10-year-old Astrid, known to everyone as “the thunderbolt of Glimmerdal”, is the only child in the village. She spends her days coursing through the countryside on her skis, chatting with Gunvald, the grumpy old man who is her best friend, and tormenting her arch-enemy, Klaus Hagen, who refuses to let children stay at his hotel. When he finally relents, and a family comes to visit the village, Astrid has a chance to play with peers at long last, but the two boys aren’t exactly the kind of companions that she hoped for.

Translated from Norwegian, Parr brings touches of classic literature to her telling. The feisty heroine is part-Pippi Longstocking, part-Heidi, full of verve and unafraid of adult imperatives. Astrid’s dilemmas and emotions are relatable, but the landscape, which Astrid speeds through with thrilling fearlessness, provides an exotic edge that English language readers will find it difficult not to fall for.

My Sweet Orange Tree

My Sweet Orange Tree by Jose Mauro de Vasconcelos (Pushkin Press, £10.99, 10+) evokes a childhood in warmer climes. Set in a scorched shanty town in Rio de Janeiro, it introduces us to five-year-old Zeze, terror of the neighbourhood and tender-hearted friend. Precocious and imaginative, he cannot seem to keep himself out of trouble. Indeed, his family says he has the devil in him and sometimes even Zeze agrees. The sweet orange tree of the title is Pinkie, his only pal, whose strong branches bring him on adventures that his cowboy heroes would envy. However, when Zeze meets Portuga, an old man who is one of the victims of his pranks, he begins to understand the real meaning of friendship.

Written with immense tenderness, My Sweet Orange Tree eschews simple nostalgia for a deeper, unsentimental portrait of childhood. Zeze’s thirst for life and knowledge is infectious and endearing, and the beatings that he suffers at the hands of his parents and siblings make for occasionally difficult moments of reading. The final 30 pages of the book, meanwhile, are so sad it would be a hard-hearted reader who doesn’t shed a tear. Originally published in 1967, this first English translation of de Vasconcelos’ autobiographical novel will appeal to adult readers as much as – perhaps even more than – any older child.

Bad Dad

Two new offerings from David Walliams offer light relief after Zeze’s’s minor tragedies. Yes, so prolific is Walliams these days, that he is currently publishing books for younger and older readers in tandem. Bad Dad (Harper Collins, £10.99, 9+) is a standalone subversive family drama with echoes of Awful Auntie and Gangsta Granny. When Frank’s heroic dad is injured in a car crash, the family’s life is turned upside down. Mum leaves and Frank is sent to stay with Aunty Flip, so his dad can be a driver for a local crime gang. The storyline sings with Walliams’s usual humour, although the writing itself is occasionally cliched. The text, meanwhile, is cut through with supersize and shrunken font for dramatic effect. Crucially, it makes the book less intimidating for struggling readers, who will certainly be carried along by the zany, pacey plot.

Boogie Bear

Boogie Bear (Harper Collins, 3+, £12.99), created with Walliams’ regular picture-book collaborator, Tony Ross, is a story about the acceptance of difference. It is laid out in a similar fashion to Bad Dad, with comic book-style verbal explosions puncturing the text on every page. It tells the story of a polar bear who drifts away from the Arctic on a sliver of an iceberg, only to find herself lost among a pack of grizzlies. As the brown bears get used to their white cousin, an unlikely love story unfolds. Ross provides a limitless range of ursine expression that young readers will love following across the pages: “Wait! where’s the one with the ‘biggest, wettest nose’?”

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