Beasts are vital components of children’s fiction. They can be agents of revenge for the powerless and metaphors for challenging emotions. In The Time Traveller and the Tiger, an engrossing novel by Tania Unsworth, tigers prowl in all their Blakean glory. We begin in India in the 1940s with John, a twelve-year-old boy, in the act of shooting one. It ends up as a rug in his house. Eight decades later, his great-niece Elsie rediscovers it.
Elsie also finds a time-altering flower in his greenhouse and is immediately hurtled back to the fateful day of the shooting. Written for readers of ten and up, Unsworth’s exciting narrative explores conservation, colonisation and friendship without ever becoming preachy.
In her anachronistic trainers and with her knowledge of the future, Elsie must contend with chauvinistic, bloodthirsty adults. Helped by John’s servant, Mandeep, a boy who loves the forest, they discover a lodge where a nefarious hunting party is staying. The tigers are symbols of the children’s growing power and of India’s political future, as well as being gorgeously, dangerously themselves. This is a lyrical, vivid and tender novel.
The ghost-like wolf that stalks the pages of The Wolf Road by Richard Lambert serves as a symbol of trauma and adolescent grief. When Lucas’s parents die in a car crash after swerving to avoid a wolf, he is sent to the Lake District to live with his estranged grandmother, a socialist lawyer who reads books about the miners’ strike. Lucas must navigate the local school and its bullies, while also processing his loss and a near-paralysing fear of cars. Meanwhile, a wolf is stalking the mountains nearby, killing livestock.
Lambert is an excellent writer, evoking the cold, majestic north in spare sentences. The wolf and Lucas develop a complex relationship: he wants to exact revenge on it, believing it to be the cause of his parents’ death, but also to save it from hunters.
Becoming progressively more introspective, Lucas treads the line between sanity and madness. His only friend is a Sylvia Plath-reading goth girl, who also happens to be the daughter of the local farmer. The dynamics of the teenage characters mirror those of wolves: if you’re in the pack, you’re fine; if you’re not, you’re a target. This is Lambert’s first novel. It’s a haunting, involving study of compassion, wildness and family for teens.
Madame Pinchbeck, the villain in Jenni Spangler’s debut, The Vanishing Trick, illustrated by Chris Mould, is one of the most sinister characters to emerge in children’s fiction for a while. She collects children, hoarding parts of their souls in objects of value and training them up to play a role in her opportunistic seances. She’s also part rat and sometimes her yellow, sharp teeth reveal themselves.
Pinchbeck, who can make her enslaved children disappear at will, tours the country, putting on shows and seeking riches. One day, she picks up Leander, the orphaned son of the cook in a great house whose master has decayed into despair following the disappearance of his young niece. Leander begins the fightback. Spangler’s book is delightfully chilling and gallops to a riveting climax. There are hints of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Children of eight and up will be egging on the three heroes right to the final page.