Enduring another form of imprisonment, and also in the nineteenth century, is the eponymous heroine of Velvet by Mary Hooper. Her confinement, however, is more psychological. She works for a pittance in a steam laundry, wrongly believing that she caused her abusive father’s death by drowning. Naive and optimistic, she becomes easy prey for the medium Madame Savoya and her gorgeous footman, George, who employ Velvet as a useful idiot in their fake seances. But Velvet soon realises that even with her new finery she is as trapped as she was in the laundry. Hooper’s detailing of dirty, sprawling London is painfully moving, with all the social injustices of the time springing mud-spattered and pitiful out of the page. A deeply absorbing read for teens (with or without a social conscience).
Also set in the nineteenth century is Mister Creecher by Chris Priestley. Billy is a vicious, violent fifteen-year-old; but when he is rescued by Mister Creecher he experiences feelings of compassion. Creecher is a terrifying creation – quite literally, as he’s the monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Billy, beholden to Creecher, has to find out what Frankenstein is up to. But who is the monster? The creator, Creecher, or Billy himself? This is a dark exploration of human nature, and a vivid and exciting metafiction.
Lauren Oliver’s Liesl & Po is a pleasingly old-fashioned romp, suitable for ten year olds and up. Liesl is imprisoned in an attic by her wicked, fat stepmother, Augusta, who murdered her father with a bowl of soup and entirely disinherited her. Rather than dolls, Liesl has a ghost of indeterminate gender, Po, as her friend. The sun hasn’t shone for over a thousand days (because an alchemist has sucked every last drop of light out of the sky); meanwhile, Will, apprenticed to said alchemist and in love with Liesl, makes a dreadful mistake and accidentally leaves a box containing the greatest magic in the world in the wrong place. Naturally, problems ensue.
Much, much stranger is the incarceration of another Billy, in The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean by Skellig writer David Almond. He’s kept secret because he’s the bastard child of a priest in a world constantly at war. Naturally, he turns to skinning mice for fun in his bedroom and makes a little book out of their hides; he also sees faces in the walls at night, which leads a neighbour to think that he’s some kind of prophet. Billy’s book is written in a badly spelled vernacular, and it’s hard not to think of Molesworth when he writes ‘grate’ for ‘great’. Once he is released into the bombed-out town of his birth, he becomes known as ‘The Aynjel Child’: he really can commune with the dead, and heal the sick. But his father, thought dead, looms in the background, leading to a violent climax. This bizarre, sometimes lyrical novel might suit older adolescents with a taste for the eccentric.
Much more joyful and inventive is Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again. It’s a mash-up of the spirit of the day-glo film and the original book by Ian Fleming. When Mr Tooting loses his job in a factory, he turns to home improvements. His attempts at decorating his house (with self-opening doors and toys that can move, amongst others) prove near-fatal, so his wife gives him an old camper van to tinker with. It seems to have a mind of its own, and takes the family – first by road, and then by air – on a trip that involves being fêted in Paris and serving pancakes in Cairo. There’s also a villain called Jack Tiny who uses mobile phones in the shape of jelly babies – oh, and a giant squid. And there’s a nice reference to Bond (an armour-plated Aston Martin DB5 and ‘that spy who drove it before’). Boyce’s writing is a delight, and this will charm children over eight with its keen, irreverent cheekiness.
Roddy Doyle’s A Greyhound of a Girl is a tale of four female generations of an Irish family. One day Mary sees a woman who looks young but old-fashioned; she also has a habit of appearing outside Mary’s bedroom window. She’s a ghost, obviously, and is here to help Mary’s own grandmother come to terms with her approaching death. Doyle’s book is eerie, intelligent and funny, suitable for thoughtful younger teens.
Finally, for the babies, two books with some zany zip: Philip Pullman’s Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp retells the ancient tale with a dim Sultan, a naughty Aladdin and some new touches of his own.
Daren King’s School of Meanies, mulled with King’s customary spicy wit, sees schoolboy ghost Humphrey Bump entering a school of ‘still-alives’ – and battling against a truly demonic headmaster. Pullman’s book has carefully etched, sumptuous drawings by Ian Beck; King’s is full of wibbly-wobbly sketches that will make younger children crow with pleasure.
Anne Fine’s sinister and splendid The Devil Walks concerns Daniel, the first of many wrongly imprisoned children in this Christmas round-up. Daniel has been brought up by his mother to believe himself an invalid, and his only companions are books and a huge dolls’ house, which he knows is the replica of his mother’s childhood home. When a doctor manages to sneak in and rescue him, his mother is sent to an asylum, and family secrets come flurrying out like rooks from a treetop. At the centre is a doll with two faces – one of a boy, and one of a cruel man – that seem to exert a powerful influence on reality. Daniel must find the source of the doll’s power and break it – at great cost. This book shows a versatile children’s writer at the top of her game. Far more than an elegant pastiche of a Victorian ghost story, this is something with its own disturbing originality and horror, and will chill and delight children over twelve.