Emily Bearn offers a selection of the best children's books and young adult fiction of the year. From rollicking adventures to charming picture-books, these are sure to keep even the most restless kids entertained
Frostfire by Jamie Smith ★★★★☆
Jamie Smith's debut Frostfire is described as a "survival fantasy" – but don't expect to find anything so commonplace as an elf. As Smith complained in a recent blog, fantasy has too many of them, and too many "farm boys with destinies and inherited swords". But all the best fantasy novels contain at least some familiar tropes – and what is missing here in swords is made up in snowstorms, which strike in the first sentence: "The mountain had murder in mind. That was the only explanation for the howling wind, the savage pinpricks of hail and the shifting snow overfoot."
The heroine is Sabira, a 13-year-old girl living in an icebound city, crested by a magical glacier. She has been chosen by the city's frost-clerics to join a pilgrimage up the mountain to collect one of the glacier's coveted and all-powerful fragments, or "frostsilvers": "She had to be careful - touching the glacier with exposed skin could be deadly. The frost-clerics chose their candidates carefully, but even so the bonding didn't always take." When an avalanche destroys the pass, she finds herself stranded, reliant (like many a farm boy before her) on wit and magic to survive: "She turned to face the last stretch of the path, the glacier clouded by fog... This was where she followed in the footsteps of every Aderasti that had come before."
Smith unravels a dense plot in fewer than 300 pages, and never lets the pace slacken. The story is aimed at readers of nine-plus, and the combination of bullet-like prose and relentless cliffhangers will enthral even the reluctant readers. ("The ice snapped under her glove, and suddenly nothing was holding her. Sabira dropped into the crevasse, a torrent of snow pursuing her" is a typical chapter ending.) Smith says he has a library full of unpublished fantasy novels. Let us hope someone publishes another soon.
Famous Family Trees by Kari Hauge, illustrated by Vivien Mildenberger ★★★★★
Since the release of the 1901 census nearly 20 years ago, genealogy has become the country's number one retirement hobby. It might not have caught on in quite the same way among the under-12s, but this sumptuous trove of a book is likely to enthuse them. It consists of 25 family trees of people living from 100 BC to 2013.
Some of the entries are curriculum favourites: Julius Caesar is here, as are Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Others are more eclectic. There is an entry for the Australian bandit Ned Kelly, and for Annie "Get Your Gun" Oakley, who hails through her maternal line from German Baptists in Pennsylvania.
"Family history is also world history," Kari Hauge's introduction explains. "It tells of connections and beginnings." Many of the beginnings are tantalisingly vague: "Cleopatra may have descended from Ptolemy IX, or from his brother, Ptolemy X." But the speculation is part of the fun. He "performed with the King's Men [and was] most noted for playing the character Falstaff", reads the entry for Shakespeare's nephew, William Hart. "He never married, but a leading actor of the restoration period, Charles Hart, may be his son."
Hauge has spent more than 30 years in libraries, fine-tuning her genealogy skills in her spare time. This is her first book for children and, despite the cosy illustrations, it is deceptively thorough. In a tree for Lorenzo de' Medici, we weave from Giovanni di Bicci (1360-1429), the founder of the dynasty, to Philip II of Spain.
Hauge's enthusiasm sings from every page. Genealogy might be a retirement sport, but it takes a young mind to decode entries such as that for Shakespeare's grandmother, Mary Webb Arden: "Abigail's sister married Robert Arden of Wilmcote, whose father was her mother's first cousin."
Clownfish by Alan Durant ★★★★★
Given that he has written 100-odd children's books and won any number of prizes, it is surprising that Alan Durant is not better known. His picture stories such as Dear Tooth Fairy and Burger Boy, about a child who eats so many burgers that he turns into one, remain library favourites, but his bestselling teenage novels of the Nineties (A Short Stay in Purgatory, Publish or Die) have largely been forgotten. If you have not yet read him, now is the time. His latest novel, Clownfish, is an autumnal gem.
The hero of the story is 12-year-old Dak, whom we meet a few days after his father has suffered a fatal heart attack. "He was dead. Gone... Or so it seemed." But when Dak visits his local aquarium, he discovers that his father has returned in the form of a talking clownfish: "Dad, is that you?" The clownfish swished itself one way, then the other. "Of course it's me," it said, laughing. "Who did you think it was... a fish?"
Dak decides not to tell his grieving mother ("It would have to be my secret until she was stronger"), and visits the clownfish every day. But when the aquarium is threatened with closure, Dak fears he will lose his father all over again.
Durant writes in the first person and, after a 30-year career, still seems enviably at home in the mind of a 12-year-old child. Grief is a theme to which he has often returned, even in his picture books. (One of his most popular, Always and Forever, is about animals coming to terms with the death of their friend, Fox.)
This novel, which he wrote around the time of his own father's death, seems to have a particular pertinence. But it is a sign of Durant's supreme confidence as a storyteller that he can make the saddest stories the vehicles for his wildest ideas.
Snowglobe by Amy Wilson ★★★★★
Amy Wilson is the rising star of children's fantasy. But in a Wilson novel, stars don't just rise. They "wink overhead between smoky, shifting clouds", peering down on "swashing tides of bright whirling snow". The same might be said for Wilson's prose, which is so silky that one reads it almost in a trance-like state.
The heroine of her latest novel is Clementine, a dreamy 12 year-old who is bullied at school, and whose mother has mysteriously vanished: "I already know she was no ordinary person. Pa rarely speaks about her, and when he does, it's always from so far away." One day, Clementine discovers a house in her town that she has never seen before, and enters to find it full of snowglobes, each with someone trapped inside: "The air moves; it sings with the song of a thousand worlds: with snowglobes, each one churned up as if it's just been shaken... each with its own tiny human figure."
Among those trapped is Dylan, a former school adversary, who relies on her to use her newly discovered magic to set him free. As she sets out to release the prisoners, Clementine finds herself caught between warring factions, and pitted against the terrifying spirit Ganymede, who rules over the globes: "The air around her vibrates, as though she's in the centre of a heat haze ... 'Who are you?' I whisper ... 'Who am I?' she shrieks. 'Who are you?' Run, run, run, RUN!"
Wilson feels at home in fairytale landscapes. Her first novel, A Girl Called Owl, was about a child using magic to find her father; A Far Away Magic told the story of a boy living in an enchanted house. Snowglobe is more ambitious but, by the end of this satisfying story, Wilson has left every thread of the narrative neatly tied. And her prose, like the star-studded landscape, never loses its shine.
Mr Tiger, Betsy and the Blue Moon by Sally Gardner (Zephyr) ★★★★★
Sally Gardner's life reads like one of her own fairy tales. At school her dyslexia went undiagnosed, and she was classified as "unteachable". But she is one of our most prolific children's authors, whose novel Maggot Moon (2012) won both the Costa and the Carnegie.
Though she has tackled uneasy themes (Maggot Moon was set in an alternative Fifties Britain), Gardner remains the patron saint of the reluctant reader. Her sentences are short, her vocabulary simple and her chapters sometimes only a few paragraphs long. Her latest novel is printed in Dyslexie, a font designed to make reading easier - but the plot is one of her most ambitious. The heroine is Betsy K Glory, who lives on an island "that has been left off the map of the world", where her mother is a mermaid, and her father is famed for his wondrous ice creams. "His crackle-galore flavours, his Chocolate Cream Wizards, his Ribble Raspberry Wonder, were the stuff of dreams." Betsy meets a toad who turns out to be a princess living under the spell of her evil half-sister, Princess Olaf, who wants to rule Gongalong Island. Betsy must feed her ice cream made of Gongalong berries. These grow only when the moon is blue - which happens "sometime never". To her aid come Mr Tiger and his circus of acrobats - but will they reverse the spell before it is too late?
This is an enchanting story, in which elements of traditional fairy tale verge on the surreal (in what must count as one of literature's more eccentric frame narrations, the story is told by "all the letters of the alphabet" who live on the island). But Gardner's skill is to contain even her wildest ideas within a meticulous plot. "You and I have many more adventures ahead of us," Mr Tiger tells Betsy at the end of the story – which is good news for Gardner's fans.
The Skylarks' War by Hilary McKay ★★★★★
The centenary of the First World War has inspired a dizzying amount of new historical children's fiction to choose from - but this glorious and glutinously scenic novel by Hilary McKay is one nobody should miss. It begins in 1902, "in the time of gas lamps and candlelight", and follows the fortunes of Clarry and Peter, two motherless children brought up by their housekeeper and grieving father in a thin, cheerless house in Plymouth.
Escape comes every summer when they are dispatched to their grandparents in Cornwall, and allowed to run amok with their glamorous cousin Rupert. "Rupert had a curving smile and lazy green-gold eyes... His jokes were the best, his tennis balls flew the highest, his stories charmed the most listeners." Rupert's dispatch to the Western Front casts a dark cloud over their idyllic summers.
McKay pays tribute to Things a Bright Girl Can Do, Sally Nicholls's coming-of-age novel about three teenage suffragettes - and, as with Nicholls, McKay's book has a clear feminist theme. Clarry has been brought up to believe that boys know best - "It was fact. It was life. It was natural history" - but, encouraged by Peter, she infuriates her father by getting a place at a grammar school, then a scholarship to Oxford.
Even when McKay is writing about war, her prose always feels like a feather duvet. She can eke romance out of everything from the "gold-and-purple moor" of Cornwall to the contents of a farmhouse larder: "apple dumplings, brown eggs, saffron cake and raspberry tart". Any new story by Hilary McKay comes with high expectations. Her first novel, The Exiles (1991) won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize; Saffy's Angel (2002) won the Whitbread. But this dense, beautifully unravelled family saga may be her best book yet.
A First Book of the Sea by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emma Sutton ★★★★★
With a trove of classic picture books about the sea still in print, from Kermit the Hermit (Bill Peet) to Lucy and Tom at the Seaside (Shirley Hughes), it is easy for parents to ignore new titles. But this summer has washed up a particularly delightful anthology of poems by Nicola Davies, which embrace seaside nostalgia while sounding a gentle warning about our toll on the environment.
It is fair to say that none of the 50-odd poems here are on a par with "Dover Beach", but each captures beautifully one of the timeless excitements of a seaside holiday. "Who will be first to see the sea?" asks the opening verse. "Who will be first to feel their heart/ fly up, and cry, 'There! Oh, there!/ There's the sea!'" Some of the poems are lyrical; some, such as "On the Pier", are humorous. "At last the holidays are here/ And we go straight down to the pier! Sister tries to strike a pose,/ There's ice cream on the baby's nose." There is a poem about a lighthouse, a poem about a puffin, and a poem about the giant squid: "It swallows ships in just one bite/ You'd look at it and die of fright!"
It is only towards the end of the book that Davies discreetly slips in her warning shot about litter, telling readers that the "deadliest of all" things in the sea is "the plastic we throw away". The languid illustrations by Emily Sutton lend the whole book an enchanting, dream-like quality. If you take only one picture book away this summer, make it this.
The Secret Deep by Lindsay Galvin ★★★★★
August is a quiet month in children's publishing – a time when debut authors can stumble into the limelight. This year, it's the turn of Lindsay Galvin, a science teacher from Sussex, who had "no aspirations to be an author" until the idea suddenly came to her for this lyrical seaside adventure.
The Secret Deep is narrated by 14-year-old Aster, who has just been orphaned after her mother's death from cancer. When the story begins, she and her younger sister Poppy are travelling to New Zealand to live with their aunt, who is reputedly researching cancer treatments. But on their arrival, Aster and Poppy are spirited away to a remote ecovillage by the sea, where their aunt's research takes sinister turns. When a "perfectly safe" boat trip turns out to be anything but, Aster wakes to find herself stranded on a tropical island, fearing her sister is dead: "Poppy! My throat is raw, my voice hoarse The mist cold in my tight around her; I would never have let her go."
Galvin is a thrilling storyteller, untangling a dense plot in brief, suspenseful chapters, her prose almost trance-like: "The sand is softer, pristine, the colours too vivid I remember now, we were on a boat, a snorkelling trip. It was dawn." But Galvin allows every character time to unravel. She is particularly good on the relationship between the two orphaned sisters, marked by Aster's poignant efforts to assume their mother's role: "I never remind her to brush her hair and I always forget to check she's cleaned her teeth. I hear her suck her thumb again, and I close my eyes, swept with a desperate fear that something bad will happen to Poppy because I can't look after her properly."
This is an inventive and touching story, from a novice who writes like an old pro.
Once Upon a Wild Wood by Chris Riddell ★★★★☆
Older readers may recall the thrill in 1971 when Merseyside members of Women's Lib rewrote Snow White so that the heroine elected to work in the mines with the dwarfs rather than wash their dishes. Half a century on, their gung-ho Snow White feels commonplace. In Beverley Naidoo's Cinderella of the Nile, our heroine succeeds without a fairy godmother; this year brought Jessie Burton's The Restless Girls, "a feminist reimagining" of The Twelve Dancing Princesses.
So Little Green Rain Cape – the heroine of a sumptuous picture book by Chris Riddell, the former Children's Laureate - has a lot to live up to. The story weaves in some famous fairy-tale characters - Goldilocks, Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood – but Green is Riddell's own invention. We meet her marching through a wood, holding a stick and carrying a backpack. As she stumbles upon fairyland's gallery of villains, she outwits them all.
"Can I help you?" asks a friendly-seeming wolf. "No, thank you," Green replies. "Would you care for an apple?" asks a kindly-looking old lady. "No, thank you," Green replies. When she finally finds Beast mourning the loss of his Beauty, the heroine will need all her ingenuity to bring about a happy ending, while cunningly leaving the path open for a sequel: "'I wonder,' thought Green to herself as she continued on her way through the wild wood, "what will happen next"' Riddell, a former political cartoonist, is one of our most successful children's authors and illustrators, with books including his popular Ottoline and Goth Girl series. Here, the emphasis is on humour. "Fairy-tale problems!"' sighs Thumbelina, summing up the story's catalogue of comic mishaps. Riddell's drawings lend old-fashioned enchantment to this thoroughly modern tale.
First Prize for the Worst Witch by Jill Murphy ★★★★☆
No one could accuse Jill Murphy of dashing things off. The first novel in her phenomenally successful Worst Witch series was published in 1974, and it took her 40 years to write the next six instalments. This new novel will be the final book in the series, and by now Murphy's original fans might be grandparents. But at Miss Cackle's Academy, remarkably little has changed. Our shambolic heroine Mildred Hubble has finally reached the Fourth Form, and is still the best friend of Maud, and the "implacable enemy" of the priggish Ethel Hallow, who never misses a chance to torment her.
When the story opens, the girls are nervously awaiting the annual Fourth Year Firsts ceremony, at which next year's Head Girl will be announced. Mildred longs to be appointed ("I have done quite a few good things for the school, in between disasters!"), but not even the loyal Maud can take her ambitions seriously: "'Sorry, Mil!' she howled. 'It's just so incredibly unlikely.'" And it looks even more unlikely when a spiteful move by Ethel ensures that Mildred loses custody of her beloved dog Star, without whose help she lacks the confidence to fly her broomstick. "[Ethel's] right really. I am a hopeless case – everything I do always does go wrong in the end." Things, however, take a surprising turn.
Murphy is a seductively simple writer, whose crisp, pared-back prose enables an action-packed plot to unravel in fewer than 200 pages. Readers will love the familiar world of chanting lessons and "broomstick aerobatics". (This term, Mildred must master the "Privilege Spell", which enables fourth-formers to enchant any broom so that it can fly.) But the real charm of Murphy's books lies less in the magic and more in the nostalgic familiarity of the boarding school routine.
A History of Pictures for Children by David Hockney and Martin Gayford ★★★★★
Oh, how we groan when another celebrity writes a book for children. But this gem of an anthology by the pop art veteran David Hockney turns all such prejudice on its head. Like the adult version published two years ago, A History of Pictures for Children takes the form of a series of conversations between Hockney and the art critic Martin Gayford. "When we look at pictures, we all bring our own point of view," Hockney writes. "That's one of the great things about art, and why I keep making it."
Hockney, now 81, knows how to see through a child's eyes. "His workshop would have been rather like a Hollywood film studio," he speculates about the 15th-century painter Jan van Eyck. "Wigs, armour, chandeliers, models - all kinds of props It must have been rather like making a movie: costumes, lighting, camera, let's go!" The play of light on the Mona Lisa reminds him of "the great Hollywood actress Marlene Dietrich".
Gayford acts like the patient schoolmaster, indulging Hockney's enthusiasms while gently steering us back to the facts: "Look at this picture of Pharaoh Ramses II, painted on a temple wall in the 13th century BCE" The book ranges from the 17,000-year-old cave drawings at Lascaux to the "ever-increasing billions" of photographs taken on smartphones. A huge canon of art is galloped through in 121 pages: a chapter entitled "What makes an interesting mark?" includes Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Monet and Manet; and there are 10 paintings by Hockney himself. But the charm of the book lies in the unhurried nature of the conversations, with Gayford's scholarship the perfect match for Hockney's flair. With the history of art barely taught in primary schools, this trove of a book is all the more to be cherished.
Secret Seven: Mystery of the Skull by Pamela Butchart ★★★★☆
The literary police have uncovered plenty of crime in Enid Blyton. In her fictional Toytown, mischief-making “golliwogs” steal Noddy’s car; in The Famous Five, George “flushed with pride” when her father told her she’d “make a great boy!” But Blyton has proved unsinkable. In Britain her titles still sell at the rate of one a minute – and now the tills will be tinkling even faster with this glossy reboot of the Secret Seven, who star in two new tales by Pamela Butchart.
“It had been ages since the last Secret Seven meeting,” begins Mystery of the Skull. Some 55 years, to be precise – but on the face of things, not much has changed. The adventure begins when Peter discovers a skull hidden in his bedroom, and the detectives once again find themselves in “the shed at the bottom of the garden”, with Peter even bossier than before: “Peter looked at his watch and started pacing backwards and forwards, shaking his head. He had sent out a message saying that the meeting started at 9am sharp and it was now 9.02am.” But some things have changed. While Jack and Peter look on in terror at a giant spider’s web, Janet “pushed past them and ripped [it] in two with her bare hands”. Girl power!
Blyton’s writing has inspired much parody – most recently, in Bruno Vincent’s ubiquitous Famous Five spoofs. But Butchart is a lifelong fan, and like the true Blyton student she uses short, cliffhanger chapters (“Janet comes up with a plan”, “Scamper sniffs out trouble”), in which the barest description is deployed for the maximum suspense. Some of her attempts to modernise Blyton’s language – “Jake looked freaked out”; Peter was “mega annoyed” – will grate with older readers. But Blyton claimed never to care about any critic over the age of 12 – and the under-12s will have no such quibble.
The Storm Keeper's Island by Catherine Doyle ★★★★★
If you are looking for some higher-than-average-brow fiction to slip into your nine to 12-year-old child's beach bag this summer, then bingo. This novel by the 28-year-old Catherine Doyle (author of the Blood for Blood YA trilogy) is a gem. Our hero is Fionn Boyle, who travels with his increasingly aloof sister Tara to see their grandfather on Arranmore island, off the Irish coast. "Fionn and his sister were close in age... they'd had something in common until the day she turned 13 and he stayed 11."
The children's father has died, their mother is ill, and at first glance the island looks just as the dejected Fionn had imagined it: "a forgotten smudge on the edge of the world. The perfect place for his soul to come to die." But when he sets foot on the pier, the island starts to weave its mysterious spell: "The ground was vibrating underneath him, the slightest tremor rattling against his soles." Fionn is drawn into an ancient of a new "Storm Keeper" to safeguard Arranmore's magic from its enemies.
Fantasy is now the most popular children's genre – and at first glance, some of Doyle's scene setting looks familiar. "In a field full of wild flowers, a boy and a girl stood side by side beneath an ancient oak tree," the book begins; and we have barely turned the first page before the tree has started to talk ("Sssssspeak or be sssspoken to") and the ground to shudder: "Somewhere deep inside the earth, the darkness was rising again, a darkness more terrible than anything the world had ever seen." But Doyle is a supremely confident writer who manages to embrace some of fantasy's most familiar tropes while never quite letting us feel that we've been here before. This is a book that should have any child glued to their deckchair.
Dear Katie by Kate Thistleton ★★★★★
There is now a huge market in celebrity children's fiction – not all of it very good. ("Execrable", was one verdict on Russell Brand's The Pied Piper of Hamelin.) Dear Katie: Real Advice on Real Life Problems, in which the television presenter Katie Thistleton answers letters from people aged 10 to 16, may be the tip of the next iceberg: the celebrity children's self-help book. And "Help!" was my first reaction.
But beneath its bubbly cover, this turns out to be an eminently wise book. Thistleton explains that she has "struggled at times" with her own mental health and discovered "tips and tricks" that help her feel better about herself. This book is an attempt to make the reader feel better, too.
Predictably, there is a lot on self-esteem: "Stay true to your beautiful nature and do whatever makes you happy You are YOU," is a typical entry – and there is even a blank page on which to make a list of "Things That Are Brilliant About Me". But we are given more than platitudes. The problems dealt with here range from a teenager worried that her mother doesn't love her anymore, to hypochondria ("it's driving me crazy!"), and a child who can't stop blushing. Some of her advice is philosophical: "Families are complicated because they're made up of humans, and humans are complicated." But elevating it all is the sense of the author's intense personal involvement.
Whatever the problem, Katie's been there: "I used to be insecure about everything about myself every little thing made me feel like the most pointless, rubbish person who had ever existed." Her prose consequently hums with a peculiarly persuasive passion. "Please don't ever feel like you're not good enough. You are. You so so SO are," she tells a child suffering from stress - and by the end of this consoling book, I was beginning to believe it, too.
Mummy Fairy and Me by Sophie Kinsella (Puffin) ★★★★☆
Mothers are rarely cast as the heroines in children's fiction. But bucking the trend is Mummy Fairy and Me, the first of a new series by the bestselling novelist and mother of five, Sophie Kinsella. The story is narrated by Ella, a primary schoolchild whose mother looks "like any other mummy", but can secretly turn herself into a fairy and perform spells with her mobile phone. None of Ella's friends know about her mother's double life ("It is a big secret that Mummy is a fairy. No one must ever find out") but Mummy Fairy often draws attention to herself by getting things wrong. When she waves her "Computawand" for a pint of milk, a cow appears in the kitchen; when she tries to give herself more "bounce", her bed flies out of the window; when she casts a spell to make herself warmer, she conjures up a dragon breathing fire.
The moral to the story, which will comfort child and adult alike, is that Mummy Fairy's imperfections only add to her comforting maternal glow. "[She] wasn't a fairy any more - she was just Mummy, with cake mix smeared across her cheek and flour all over her hair," observes Ella, after a tidying-up spell backfires in the kitchen. Kinsella is already a prolific adult author, whose books include My Not So Perfect Life and her hugely popular Shopaholic series. This is her first for children, and the simple ideas and almost soporifically readable prose are likely to win her as many fans in a younger generation. CS Lewis she is not, but she pulls off a rare trick, encouraging children to see things from the beleaguered mother's side: "Mummy finds it hard to remember all the magic spell codes," Ella explains. "She says her head is too full of other things, like raising a family and holding down a job."
The Children of Castle Rock by Natasha Farrant (Faber) ★★★★☆
Since Harry Potter, fantasy has dominated the children's bestseller lists. But with rising sales of Enid Blyton and Eva Ibbotson, and the success of young writers such as Robin Stevens (Murder Most Unladylike) and Katherine Rundell (The Explorer), is the old-fashioned adventure story regaining ground? The Children of Castle Rock is the latest gem in the revival. The story's heroine is "small, pale 11-year-old Alice", who since her mother's death has been brought up by her bohemian aunt, and hapless thespian father. "Once a cheerful, outgoing child, since her mother's death all Alice ever wanted was to stay at home to read and write." So, with Blyton-like ruthlessness, she is packed off to the Stormy Loch Academy, a remote Scottish boarding school run by an eccentric major. Alice dreads a "place of horrors" where she would "sleep in a dorm with dozens of other girls who would force-feed her midnight feasts".
Naturally, she ends up loving it. But when her father fails to turn up on visitors' day, and sends a message telling her to meet him on a remote island, she finds herself embarked on a trek across the Scottish highlands instead.
Farrant is an accomplished writer, who combines the zest of a school adventure story ("Mega-Super-Fun" is one chapter title), with the suspense of a John Buchan. The only flaw in this excellent book is the narrator, on whom the spirit of adventure can seem comically lost. "Please, never ever try at home what Alice did next," we are cautioned, before the heroine sets off fireworks in a rowing boat. When it comes to stating the obvious, though, the narrator is fearless. "This is the story of a girl who lost her mother and her home, and was afraid of losing her father, and needed to find herself," we are told in chapter 18 - just as I was working it out for myself.
Grab that Rabbit! by Polly Faber, illustrated by Briony May Smith (Pavilion) ★★★★★
Grab that Rabbit! by Polly Faber is a feel-good bunny story whose appeal will be long lasting. Our hero is Hodge, an enterprising white rabbit "with one black splodge" who gets stuck in the hedge of Mrs Sprat's vegetable garden, from which he has been stealing carrots. "That rabbit!" cries the faintly sinister-looking Mrs Sprat, rolling up her sleeves to catch him. Meanwhile, unbeknown to Hodge, a hungry buzzard looms overhead. Will the hapless rabbit escape to tell his tale?
It takes a bold author to write a tale so reminiscent of Peter Rabbit, but Faber pulls it off. Grab that Rabbit! is beautifully, simply told, with languid illustrations by Briony May Smith that complement the suspenseful plot. And the delightful twist to the tale will make this a story that younger readers will wish to return to over and over again.
The Goose Road by Rowena House (Walker Books) ★★★★★
While the Second World War has inspired some of the most famous children's novels of the past half-century (The Silver Sword, Carrie's War, Goodnight Mister Tom), the First World War has produced fewer. It is our everprolific Michael Morpurgo who has probably done most to shape children's impressions, with his bestselling novels War Horse and Private Peaceful. But now the balance is truly being redressed, with the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day triggering a barrage of new children's fiction set during the First World War.
The Goose Road, a debut novel by the former Reuters correspondent Rowena House, is one of the gems. The story begins in 1916, when Angelique, a 14-year-old French farm girl, learns that her drunkard father has been killed on the battlefield. "Am I wicked, I wonder, a heartless, unforgivable child because I'm not sad he's dead?" While her mother grieves, Angelique determines to keep the farm intact for her brother Pascal, who has also gone to fight: "If nothing ever changes, then maybe he won't change either." When the Requisition plunders the farm, Angelique flees across France with her flock of Toulouse geese, which she plans to sell to save the family home.
House is a wonderful storyteller, combining simple prose with a relish for domestic detail. Angelique's relationship with her geese, led by the gander Napoleon, is particularly charming ("I wish he could fly just this once, and wheel freely in the glittering heavens But he's too heavy"). House explains in an afterword the extent to which the story was inspired by true events; but, like all the best historical novelists, she focuses on the fiction rather than the facts. This is a story that young readers will remember long after GCSE timelines have been forgotten.
Wonders of the World's Museums by Molly Oldfield (Wren & Rook) ★★★★★
There is something particularly gratifying about a book that equips its reader with an air of instant erudition, while going into no depth on any subject at all.
Wonders of the World's Museums is just such a book. "I wanted to write a treasure map for you to discover some of the most incredible museum exhibits on the planet," Molly Oldfield explains in the introduction. "It doesn't matter whether you get to see them in person or not; reading about them will let you uncover their magic."
" What follows is a whirlwind tour through the treasures of 43 museums of varying fame. Some of the exhibits may be familiar: the blue whale skeleton in London's Natural History Museum; Anne Frank's diary in the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. But others are more offbeat. There is an entry for Galileo's middle finger, which is exhibited in the Galileo Museum in Florence, and for a colossal squid,Museum of New Zealand, as well as for Winston Churchill's red velvet siren suit, made by "a very expensive tailor in London called Turnbull & Asser", and now in the Cabinet War Rooms.
Oldfield does not try to be funny, which is unusual for a children's writer these days. There are no gimmicky cartoons, and no attempts at lavatory humour. "The sewers of Paris used to be cleaned with giant balls like this one," reads a refreshingly stony caption next to a picture of a cleaning device from the Paris Sewer Museum.
Some of the nuggets of wisdom in this book are of the sort that children used to absorb from school textbooks. But if we are to believe a recent survey, only one in 10 teachers still uses textbooks in lessons, as schools increasingly steer pupils towards the internet instead. This depressing statistic makes reference books such as this one all the more to be prized.
Lady Mary by Lucy Worseley (Bloomsbury) ★★★★☆
Lucy Worsley's enthusiasm for cavorting in fancy dress has made her one of the most popular television historians of modern times. Despite the Horrible Histories author Terry Deary complaining about her "posh little voice" (something that could equally be said of the revered Kenneth Clark) and David Starkey dismissing her for reducing Tudor history to "soap opera", Worsley is unstoppable - and now here she is with a sequel to her bestselling 2016 historical novel, Eliza Rose.
Lady Mary begins in 1525, and tells the story of the future Mary I, as she witnesses the breakdown of her father's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and the arrival at court of "that nasty French-looking lady," Anne Boleyn. In Eliza Rose, Worsley wanted to refute the "general consensus" that Henry VIII's fifth wife Katherine Howard "was a dizzy airhead", and in Lady Mary she takes a similarly independent line. During her five-year reign, Mary I had more than 280 religious dissenters burned at the stake, but Worsley presents her as a sensitive bookworm ("I never knew such a girl for daydreaming!" her mother laments) to whip up the reader's sympathy. After a hostile encounter with Anne Boleyn, the 15-year-old Mary is left "gasping like a trout brought out of the moat and on to the grass all the breath had gone out of her, and left her limp, like a rag doll."
An afterword explains that the book is an attempt to counter the anti-Catholic propaganda that has tarnished Mary's image. Some might quibble with Worsley's version of events. But she is a brilliant storyteller, whose flair for drama soon lures you in.
"When it comes to history I am shameless," she has said. "I will do whatever it takes to get people involved." The result is another Tudor "soap opera", of which any author should be proud.
The Colour of the Sun by David Almond (Hodder) ★★★★★
Almond's first children's book, Skellig, brought him instant fame - and with two new novels out this year, he remains as popular as ever. His success as a children's writer is all the more impressive given that Almond is hardly "light". His 2011 novel, The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean, about a boy imprisoned by his parents until the age of 13 and treated as a messiah on his release, was published in both children's and adult editions.
The Colour of the Sun, however, is firmly one for the teens. The hero is Davie, with whom any adolescent might sympathise: "He wants to be older so he could be with a lass or go drinking with the lads. He wants to be younger so he could run about yelling like a daft thing." When the story begins, he is bemoaning his "dead-end" Tyneside town, where "nothing seems to happen" - but by page 14 a body has been found in the rubble by the old church hall, and recent death of his father, is lured into the mystery.
When Almond won the 2010 Hans Christian Andersen Award, the judges praised the "deeply philosophical" nature of his writing, and death is a theme to which he constantly returns - even when writing for younger children. Last year, in The Tale of Angelino Brown, aimed at readers aged eight to 11, he told the story of an angel who appears in the pocket of a bus driver grieving for his son. But Almond never lets his big themes slow the plot - and The Colour of the Sun, told in a trance-like present tense, remains brilliantly suspenseful until the end. In a foreword, the 66-year-old Almond says that the book is about "what excites and mystifies me about the nature of being young". He is that rare thing - a writer of lucid, mature elegance, who can still see the world through adolescent eyes.
Cinderella of the Nile by Beverley Naidoo (Tiny Owl) ★★★★☆
It's hard to think of a story as unfashionable as that of Cinderella. In his 2015 film, Kenneth Branagh meant to portray his heroine as "strong and independent" - only to be hit with a backlash when his star, Lily James, admitted she had been on a liquid diet to fit into Cinderella's corsets. But in this delightful retelling of an ancient Greek variant by Beverley Naidoo, our heroine wins the day without a fairy godmother or a fancy frock.
Our heroine is actually called Rhodopis, a Greek girl born "long, long ago" with "eyes like sapphires' and hair "the colour of the finest sunset". Rhodopis is no bra burner: "She collected water from the well, fed the chickens and did everything her parents asked with a smile. 'You are our treasure!' they said." But when she is snatched by bandits and taken to Egypt to be sold as a slave, she shows her steel. "Blow wind, blow,/ I promise to be strong," she sings to herself as the waves batter her ship - and when her fellow slave girls torment her, rubbing sand into her food, her resolve only grows: "Blow wind, blow,/ Watch me bend, not break!" Rather than moping in the slave hut, she is soon dancing by the banks of the Nile - and weaving her spell on the Pharaoh.
Africa has inspired much of Naidoo's fiction. As a student, she was arrested for campaigning against apartheid, and her first book, Journey to Jo'burg (1985), about two children under the regime, was banned in South Africa until 1991. The Other Side of Truth (2000), a tale of Nigerian political refugees, won the Carnegie. Cinderella of the Nile – illustrated by Marjan Vafaeian – is another such story of triumph over adversity. It's not exactly a feminist anthem, but perhaps a retelling of Cinderella was never going to be. Instead, Naidoo gives an ancient heroine a modern feel.
Kat Wolfe Investigates by Lauren St John (Macmillan) ★★★★★
The judges of this year's Branford Boase Award for children's fiction complained that novelists were spurning adventure for "claustrophobic" domestic dramas, and creating "a depressing children's literary landscape". This is not a criticism that can be levied at Lauren St John, whose books are so full of fresh air that they read like a nuptial celebration between Biggles and Enid Blyton. Her smash hit Laura Marlin series follows a young detective's rampages around Cornwall with a husky. The Snow Angel (2017) is the story of a girl in Nairobi, who dreams of climbing Mount Kenya.
Kat Wolfe Investigates, the first in a new mystery series, delivers all the cliffhangers that St John's fans expect. The heroine is 12-year-old Kat, who lives in London with her mother. She might strike some readers as priggish: "Where others spent every spare penny they had on clothes, travel and fancy gadgets, the Wolfes were united in preferring novels and cake." But Kat soon wins us over. A natural loner, she has no time for the "selfie-obsessed girls" at school, and is delighted when her mother takes a job at Bluebell Bay in Dorset. But when Kat sets up a pet-sitting agency, and her first client vanishes from his clifftop mansion leaving behind a half-packed suitcase, she stumbles on more excitement than she envisaged.
St John is a wonderful writer, who lets the adventure hurtle without ever making the reader feel hurried. Mysteries thicken, lives are at stake – but when it comes to a picnic, no ingredient is forgotten: "There [was] a salad and chocolate cake freshly baked scones, jam and clotted cream, and Dr Wolfe was stopping en route to pick up chips, dips and ginger beer." This is just the sort of thoroughly wholesome novel that should really be consumed outdoors.
The Last Chance Hotel by Nicki Thornton (Chicken House) ★★★★☆
Robin Stevens's hit Murder Most Unladylike series capitalised on the childish appetite for puzzling out crime, and in the last few years a slew of teenage detectives have crept on to the bookshop shelves, eager to share in its success. Now comes Last Chance Hotel, an inventive murder mystery for ages nine to 12, with a twist: it will appeal to fantasy lovers, too.
The hero is Seth, a kitchen boy at the sinister Last Chance Hotel ("outside the hotel the whole world was nothing but never-ending trees"), run by the penny-pinching Bunn family. With pantomime pathos, Seth and his beloved cat Nightshade sleep on a lumpy bed in the attic, while the Bunns' pampered daughter Tiffany treats him like Cinderella: "You'll never leave this place. Every time I come home you will still be here in your rightful place, up to your elbows in potato peelings." But when a party of magicians turns up for dinner, and the mysterious Dr Thallomius dies after eating Seth's apricot pudding ("'Dr Thallomius is dead,' announced Papperspook. 'And it looks like poison'") the narrative takes a more fantastical turn. Seth is accused "of murdering the most important sorcerer in the land", and in a well-executed plot must set about applying logic to magic in order to clear his name.
Thornton cites as childhood heroines Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie, and her writing contains echoes of both. Her prose is plain; chapters hurtle toward cliffhanger endings; and the suspense seldom slackens: "'I'll handle this,' said a voice  Tiffany stared around, her eyes wide in horror  Count Marred clasped his head in his hands and let out a huge, rending wail. 'My friend. My friend is dead...'" Readers of a sensitive disposition should not be deterred - for Thornton, like Christie, can turn murder into a thoroughly comforting bedtime read.
Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Edgar (Walker) ★★★★★
As an adult buying novels for children, the temptation to judge a book by its cover can be unusually strong: some just look more wholesome than others. Race to the Bottom of the Sea, with its delightfully retro cover illustration of a sunken treasure chest and a deep-sea diver, is one such example. Aha, one thinks, before one's fingers have even reached the title page, here is something reminiscent of Willard Price.
In this case, however, the heroine is the thoroughly modern Fidelia, an 11-year-old who has grown up on a fictitious Arcadian island, exploring the "underwater fairyland" with her marine scientist parents. Fidelia loves the ocean - "the olive green of the algae", "the soft pink of the stingrays" - but her paradisiacal summer is cut short when her parents are killed following an accident in their submarine, and she is kidnapped by Merrick the Monstrous, a notorious pirate who wants to exploit her maritime expertise to lead him to a horde of treasure on the ocean floor.
In her first book, Hour of the Bees (2016), Lindsay Eagar told the story of a girl's relationship with her grandfather, who is suffering from dementia. While that novel tended towards magical lyricism, here the adventure moves at a brisker pace as Fidelia battles with hostile seas and piratical tantrums: "Don't test me girl You're getting my treasure if I have to hog-tie you and throw you into the water myself."
But despite the high-speed plot, Eagar allows her characters time to develop. She is particularly good on Merrick, whom Fidelia comes to suspect is not the villain he appears to be: "She knew how monstrous he was. And yet she'd seen it, in his one remaining eye - a shred of humanity." From start to finish, this is a thrilling book - which fully lives up to its cover.
The Book of Comparisons by Clive Gifford (The Ivy Press) ★★★★☆
Did you know that the blood of an adult human travels 11,800 miles a day, which is roughly the distance from London to New Zealand? No, nor did I. But now I have read Clive Gifford's absorbing Book of Comparisons, and my brain (which weighs 2.86lb, about the same as a large cantaloupe melon) has become a mine of astonishing facts.
"Comparisons can get really wild and weird and wonderful It's time to look at the world in a whole new way!" Gifford writes – and what follows is a lavishly illustrated, 90-page compendium of the sort of jaw-dropping statistics with which children love to outdo each other. The leafcutter ant can lift up to 50 times its body weight, which is equivalent to a man lifting a rhinoceros and a large car!
If all the people in China stood on each other's shoulders, they would form a tower five times higher than the distance between the Earth and the Moon.
Readers of a certain age may remember Sidgwick & Jackson's 1980 Book of Comparisons, one of the most popular non-fiction titles of its day. This version has a similarly nostalgic feel, with more emphasis on the natural world than scientific invention. And the author is himself something of a phenomenon. Gifford has written more than 180 books, many of them bestsellers, from The Who's Who of World War II to Badminton (Know Your Sport). His speciality, he says, lies in "finding new ways to convey crucial information".
It may not be crucial to know that the tongue of a blue whale weighs two thirds as much as an elephant, or that its calf drinks 800 pints of milk per day, which is enough to fill two-and-a-half bathtubs. But the huge charm of this book lies in the fact that much of the information it contains is rather pointless.
Mud by Emily Thomas (Andersen Press) ★★★★★
Books with teenage narrators often seem to be written in a secret code for teenage readers. In the Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell, for example, the 14-year-old Nikki has 'COMPLETE MELTDOWNS!!' and wants to 'SCREEEEEEAM!!' or 'DIE!!' - which presumably hasn't won her many grown-up followers.
But Emily Thomas's debut novel contains that rare gem: a teenage narrator whose voice will resonate just as much with adults. The story begins in 1979 when the heroine Lydia is nearly 13, and has started recording events in a diary given to her by her mother, who died two years earlier. Lydia's life so far has been "mostly extremely boring", so her diary has remained blank. But now her shambolic father has announced that he is selling the family home and taking Lydia and her three older siblings to live on a barge in Essex with his girlfriend and her three children: "'Gosh' I said finally, as calmly as I could. 'I hope this is one of your jokes, as this will absolutely, completely ruin my life. Sorry. No.'" So Lydia takes up her pen - and woe betide anyone who attempts to pull the wool over her eyes. "[Dad] tried to tell me more about the boat, but I didn't want to listen. I mainly remember 'old' and 'characterful' and most awful of all, 'Swallows and Amazons'."
Thomas spent her own teenage years on a Thames barge with seven siblings and step-siblings, and she is brilliant at chronicling the family's jaded spirit of survival as the boat's electricity fails and rusty water streaks down the freezing cabin walls. But it is Lydia's voice - a mixture of protest and reconciliation - that is the book's genius: "I felt ashamed of him. And that is probably the worst thing you can ever feel about your dad," she writes after her father pawns her christening mug. The poignancy, however, lies in the way that Lydia forgives, and soldiers on.
The Boy Who Hit Play by Chloe Daykin (Faber) ★★★★☆
Last year, her debut novel Fish Boy recounted the adventures of a lonely child whose life is transformed when he goes swimming in the sea, and meets a talking mackerel. The Boy Who Hit Play is another story of a young outsider - in this case Elvis Crampton Lucas, who as a baby was found abandoned on a bench at the zoo, the only clue to where he came from being the copy of the Norwegian newspaper in which he was swaddled.
It is now his 12th birthday - or "discovery day" - and Elvis decides that the time has come to solve the mystery of his past: "I think about the bench. I think about Dad's dad and his dad and his I wish I knew why?" So accompanied by his "now father", George, and by their childlike family friend Lloyd, who fills his pockets with apples and attacks people with blown-up paper bags, Elvis sets off on his adolescent voyage of discovery to Norway.
Daykin completed her first novel while studying for an MA in creative writing, and in the opening pages her bullet-like sentences and supremely pared-down style can feel a little stylised. ("Hello. Hi. Yes you. Howdy.") But any such misgivings are soon overcome - for the pleasure of this book lies in the easy confidence with which Daykin inhabits her child narrator's mind.
What follows is in part a detective story, as Elvis delights in each clue he uncovers, and cleverly lures the reader into his problem-solving: "Detective work is really a matter of making a list and crossing everything off it till you're left with the answer Thinking is the difference between darkness and discovery. Thinking is all." But the real drama of the novel lies in Elvis's search for who he really is, which will resonate with any young reader.
Secrets of a Sun King by Emma Carroll ★★★★☆
Emma Carroll is the Hilary Mantel of children's fiction, belting out the sort of elegant, informative historical novels that scoop up awards and feature on every school reading list. She is a natural storyteller who wears her research lightly, champions the boy or girl next door and keeps her plots moving at a breakneck pace. If your children have not read her, they have some catching up to do: this is her fifth historical novel in two years.
The story begins in 1922, and is narrated by Lil, who lives with her parents in a London attic and feels misplaced at the girls' school she attends on a scholarship. But adventure comes thick and fast, and by the end of the first chapter Lil has found a mysterious package on her grandfather's doorstep, sent to him by an Egyptologist who has just vanished, leaving behind only his feet. ("Human feet found in Bloomsbury Town House," says the newspaper.) As events unravel, Lil is charged with the task of travelling to Egypt and returning the package to the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun, in order to stop the deadly pharaoh's curse from wreaking serious havoc.
The story is based on the actual events of November 1922, when Tutankhamun's tomb was discovered by Howard Carter, one of Britain's most eminent Egyptologists. But children's adventures need a grown-up villain, and here Carter and his patron Lord Carnarvon come across like a couple of Enid Blyton baddies, sneaking past the guards at night and "squeal[ing] with delight" at their treasures. "My Howard Carter is brash and rather untrustworthy", Carroll concedes in a footnote. The poor man perhaps deserve a better press. But Carroll's skill is that of the novelist, rather than the historian - and this crisp, beautifully paced story will hold every young reader in thrall.
A Chase in Time by Sally Nicholls ★★★★☆
In her brilliant and breathless young adult novel Things a Bright Girl Can Do, Sally Nicholls told the story of three London teenagers whose lives are changed when they join the suffragettes. In her new adventure series, The Time-Seekers, she returns to that period, but this time for younger readers – so the emotional rollercoasters and lesbian trysts of the earlier novel are out; good clean fun is in.
The hero is Alex Pilgrim, who lives in “a scrubby little house on a scrubby little estate on the edge of an ugly red-brick town”. When the story begins, he is spending the summer with his Aunt Joanna at her rambling bed and breakfast in Suffolk. The house is full of curious things, and Alex’s suspicions that there might be magic afoot are confirmed when he and his sister Ruby tumble through a mirror, and find themselves transported back to 1912. No sooner do they land than they are thrown into adventures with Dora and Henry, their young Pilgrim ancestors, in a race to find a priceless golden cup. (“We’re Pilgrims too, you must be our great-great-grandparents or something.”)
The book consists of 10 short, cliffhanger chapters, which an able reader would devour in a sitting. (It is aimed at readers of nine-plus, but should be easy fodder for a seven-year-old.) Some of the history lessons might seem brisk (“Aunt Joanna said that [the mirror] had once belonged to a French aristocrat, in the days before the revolutionaries chopped off all the aristocrats’ heads and turned their palaces into art galleries”). But Nicholls is a wonderful storyteller. Dates may be swiftly dispensed with, but when it comes to a bodice or collar, no detail is missed. And bigger themes are rumbling.
As Ruby says of Dora’s clothes: “Someone… should teach you lot about feminism.” Which, later in the series, Nicholls doubtless will.