Devious penguins, dogs turning into trees, do-gooding werewolves and old-fashioned thrills: this winter, the world of children’s books sees some marvellous writing, not least in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which tells, in beautifully judged, fluid prose, the tale of Nobody Owens (‘Bod’ for short). This long-haired, thoughtful little chap is born into tragedy: his entire family is slaughtered by the Man Jack, an agent of a mysterious organisation known as The Convocation. He escapes, as a toddling baby, and is found by the ghostly inhabitants of the local church, who promise the screaming shade of his mother to see him through to adulthood (and revenge). Gaiman is a master of gloomy atmosphere – the dripping trees, the dank stones – and yet he also manages to make the Graveyard a place of light and hope. As Bod grows, he realises that he has a place in the world outside, and encounters a series of trials (including facing a ghoul called the Bishop of Bath and Wells and, more scarily, lessons at his local comprehensive) under the tutelage of his guardian Silas (who has a face like ‘a book written in a language long forgotten’), all of which turn him into a strong-minded young man. There are many moments of beauty and poignancy: the most lasting, and appropriate, is of the Danse Macabray, in which the ghosts process from their home to dance with the living townspeople, in a whirl of miraculous white December blossoms, watched over by the brooding Lady on the Grey (Death herself). Both twisted coming-of-age novel and riff on established folklore, it comes with my highest recommendation.
Also with its roots in folklore, Chris Priestley’s Tales of Terror from the Black Ship starts in the middle of a thunderstorm. Jonah Thackeray, a sailor with ‘dark eyes like those of a seabird’, arrives at the inn of Ethan Matthews, bringing with him a collection of tales to freeze the blood of Ethan and his sister. Much more focused on morality than last year’s collection (Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror), most of these yarns punish wrong-doing individuals; and thus, they lose some of their black brilliance. Priestley also loves using animals as agents of revenge, a trope that has been explored a few too many times before. The best of the lot, ‘The Boy in the Boat’, has echoes of the god Dionysus’s capture by pirates: a laughing boy is picked up by a ship; he says nothing, his smile is enchanting, but he causes terror wherever he goes. This story works at being terrifying because there is no obvious cause: the fear is all the more real because it is random; the serene boy floats off, free to cause more destruction, leaving the devastated ship to fester behind him. Priestley’s spooky, gory prose and his talent for the telling detail make this, despite its faults, a fine, eerie read, encompassing demon tattoos, flesh-eating snails and a bewitched whale’s tooth, suitable for those children who love telling stories in the dark.
Jonathan Stroud, in his Bartimaeus trilogy, created one of the wittiest series of the last few years: Heroes of the Valley is his first book since. Halil, bandy-legged and ugly, is a misfit in his House: unlike his handsome father and brother, he has none of the qualities that make a Hero – or so his family think. When his favourite uncle (the boisterous Brodir) is murdered by a visiting House, Halil sets off on a quest for revenge. This novel has a Nordic tang: the heroic Houses rule the country, each telling its own version of the way their country was founded, and this is what makes the book interesting – it plays with truth, and shows convincingly how a child can come to learn what is real and what isn’t about the world it grows up in. But otherwise, sadly, this turgid saga has none of the fire and flavour of its predecessors; it degenerates too quickly into a plodding Odyssey, and has too many subplots that detract from the main action.
For younger children, a brace of highly imaginative, playful titles will keep them occupied long after the stockings have been opened: Peter the Penguin Pioneer by Daren King is a zany fable about truth and friendship. Told by young Punky, ‘the only penguin with tufty ear feathers’, the tale shows how the penguins cope with an invasion of impostors who are crowding their ice rink. The penguins, naturally, turn to Peter for help: he is an explorer, who brings back ‘exotic objects’ for his friends to marvel at. But these objects, and Peter’s stories, turn out to be of doubtful provenance, as does his ability to cope with the impending crisis. King is very good at making children think about their world: Punky’s questions will resonate with any parent: ‘What are pockets?’ ‘Persons put things in them, then take them out again.’ ‘But why?’ Hugely inventive and charmingly funny, early readers will adore having this book read to them, and will love trying it themselves.
They will also enjoy the dreamier, stranger Tree Soup: A Stanley Wells Mystery by Joel Stewart. Stanley Wells wakes up one day to find that his whole house has been taken over by trees, and his family are missing. Exploring in the woods, he finds a retired pirate called ‘Four-Limbed Jim’; sensing that Jim has something to do with it, Stanley and his friend, a violin-playing, pipe-smoking rabbit-like creature called Dr E B Moon, drift through the sunlit greenwood and come to a remarkable discovery. Beautifully atmospheric, the trees whispering and waving in the golden and green light, and with lively, eccentric illustrations (by Stewart) of a cheeky-looking, rotund Stanley and the bizarre Dr Moon, this has the feel of a classic children’s tale, whilst having its own ebullient originality.