Philip Womack

December 2013 Children’s Books Round-up

Abandoned and betrayed, damaged and orphaned children cheerily abound in this Christmas crop of books. At odds with the adult world, and often endowed with sharply different perspectives, they must rely on their own virtues to survive, none more so than the sensitively drawn Titus Adams in Sarah Naughton’s outstanding debut, The Hanged Man Rises (Simon & Schuster 235pp £6.99). What more perfect setting could there be than London in 1865 for a slick, supernatural murder mystery? Titus is courageous, clever and touchingly concerned for his little sister; and so he must be, as he has to defeat a child killer who has risen from the dead and become an inhabiting spirit. Innocence is besieged and dark secrets crawl out of the murky Thames: this is a superb, menacing tale that will have children of 11 and up gasping with horrified glee.

Titus would get on very well with Lucy, the psychic heroine of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase (Doubleday 441pp £12.99), who’s also knocking about a spirit-infested Victorian capital. In fact, one can hardly move for dismayingly malignant ghosts, who (fortunately) can be put out of action with a silver rapier, a sprinkling of Greek fire and a spot of wit. ‘It’s never pleasant, sitting in a haunted house, waiting in the dark,’ says Lucy, who’s taken on by the dashing Lockwood as his ghost-busting partner; those who encounter her will find more than enough to keep them entertained.

As they will in Chris Riddell’s delicious Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse (Macmillan 219pp £9.99), which has the ghost of a mouse (‘Call me Ishmael,’ he says) appearing to young Ada Goth, the daughter of the hilariously Byronic Lord Goth of Ghastly-Gorm Hall. The lord is preparing for his annual Indoor Hunt – only this time, there’s something more sinister going on: someone’s collecting fabulous beasts and it’s up to Ada to prevent the deaths of the Sirens and a confused long-haired centaur called Hamish. Heaving with literary puns, this is worth it alone for Ishmael’s Swiftian mini-memoir, tucked cheekily into the back flap.

With an equally blue-blooded literary heritage, Chris Priestley’s The Dead Men Stood Together (Bloomsbury 216pp £10.99) is a startling and luminous take on Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Priestley has never been more gloomily delightful as his protagonist, the Mariner’s nephew, is unfairly hurled into the jaws of Hell itself, only to gain a fate that’s quite literally worse than death. There’s a neat twist to it all, too.

Another Victorian ghost pops up in Sally Nicholls’s Close Your Pretty Eyes (Marion Lloyd Books 231pp £6.99): Amelia Dyer, a baby farmer who lurks in the corners of an old farmhouse where Olivia, a foster child, has been sent. ‘I think I might be a witch,’ says Olivia. Abused by her real mother, she is unable to settle anywhere and terrorises those who take her in. But is Dyer a manifestation of her mind or a real malicious influence? Nicholls pulls off the rare feat of making Olivia’s prickly reactions seem understandable: this is a complex book that emphasises the power of love.

Anthony McGowan also deals with a marginalised child in Hello Darkness (Walker Books 272pp £6.99), in which a boy with mental illness forgets to take his pills. McGowan deftly leads us into the growing paranoia of his imagined world. Taking its inspiration from the film Brick, in which high school students behave like seasoned Raymond Chandler characters, this is a bold exploration of what exactly it means to be normal; McGowan also achieves some gorgeously, glitteringly mad writing.

Strato Nyman, in Tim Lott’s How to Be Invisible (Walker Books 236pp £6.99), is on the autistic spectrum: lonely and bullied, he’s obsessed with particle physics. In classic children’s book style, he finds an old tome that gives him the power of invisibility. Lott’s work has an adult sensibility and feels the need to patronise its audience by explaining words such as, in a particularly egregious example, ‘negligent’. Nevertheless, Lott manages to create an uncannily gripping study of isolation. And there’s a really spooky raven.

A rather more straightforward heroine can be found in Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (Electric Monkey 468pp £7.99). Rose is a 16-year-old American transport pilot who, bringing a British plane back from France, is chased into Germany, where she is captured and forced to endure the horrors of a concentration camp. Stark and brutal, this book shows how humans can find strength in even the most extreme situations: hope glimmers, however dimly, in this exceptionally well-realised, heart-rending novel for teens.

Two darkly wrought novels for those in mid-adolescence both also concern beleaguered girls beset by frightening forces: in The Company of Ghosts (Andersen Press 265pp £6.99) by Berlie Doherty, Ellie is accidentally abandoned on a remote Scottish island – alas for her, it’s haunted. Doherty is a keen observer of nature and uses it to illustrate the turbulence of the teenage years with sensitivity and care. The terror in Caroline Green’s Hold Your Breath (Piccadilly Press 234pp £6.99) is very much man-made, but Tara, the admirable protagonist, has the gift of second sight and is more than capable of defeating it. This is a top-notch thriller, nuanced and enthralling.

Tonke Dragt’s The Letter for the King (Pushkin Children’s Books 451pp £16.99) was first published in the Netherlands in 1962. It has sold a million copies worldwide and is now translated into English for the first time. It concerns Tiuri, a young squire whose vigil before becoming a knight is interrupted with an urgent message: he must deliver a letter to the king of a neighbouring country at whatever cost. It’s a classic quest narrative, though the obstacles in his way are rather more bureaucratic than one would find, say, at the court of King Arthur. While the expansiveness of the journey, and its stately pace, may not suit many modern children, others will find in Tiuri a thoughtful and endearing hero, whose loyalty and nobility – qualities much ignored today – sustain him throughout. Dragt’s illustrations are mystical and timeless.

Sarah McIntyre’s drawings lend Philip Reeve’s charming Oliver and the Seawigs (Oxford University Press 201pp £8.99) a gleeful anarchy: richly detailed, they complement and enhance the already enjoyable story, which sees the (again accidentally abandoned) son of explorers going off in search of his parents with the help of a giant, living island. The seawigs are actual wigs the islands wear – they have a competition each year to choose who has the best one. Oliver is a valiant chap who must learn to defeat bluster, arrogance and an army of evil sea monkeys with his quick intelligence – and a slightly dumpy, half-blind mermaid.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world, Ann Kelley’s elegiac and elegant Runners (Luath Press 219pp £9.99) concerns a brother and sister on the run – and well they might be, because everyone over a certain age gets the chop. In tune with ecology, this is an instructive and well-constructed tale in which the promise of salvation seems always just out of reach – but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Children’s books seek to restore, to mend, to heal: the abandoned will, after all, find a home.

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