David Almond’s latest novel, The Colour of the Sun, is a quixotic narrative set in the Tyneside territory so familiar to his readers and about which he writes with such passion and beauty. Almond’s novels, at their best, attain the quality of a sustained poem, attuned to the cadences of dialect and youth. Here, young Davie has recently lost his father. He lives in the village of Little Felling, which is riven by a feud between two families. The book starts with a dead body; Davie goes in search of the apparent killer, and encounters many strange and wondrous things along the way. There is a blitheness to the tale and a literary knowingness: ‘he starts to think that maybe he himself is living in a story. If that was true, he thinks, then there’d be no way of knowing it, would there?’ There are also hints of the philosophical paradoxes beloved by Russell Hoban, as well as a broad and generous acceptance of humanity: ‘Davie knows that nobody can be just one thing, that each of us has to be many things as we wander through the world.’ Encompassing death, religion, community and art, this is a lyrical novel for teenagers and a bold injunction to live, and live well.
Barrington Stoke performs sterling work in publishing original, well-written stories for child and teen dyslexics and ‘reluctant readers’. The late lamented Mal Peet’s The Family Tree is no exception. A man returns to his childhood family home and finds his treehouse in a state of disrepair. It becomes clear, as he looks back on the past, that this was where his father, increasingly depressed, fell apart. The treehouse is both the place where he and his father were closest and the place that separates them forever. The emotional resonance and clarity of the words are set into relief by Emma Shoard’s haunting illustrations. Peet shows, with wisdom and skill, how childhood traumas cast a long shadow.
Another troubled teenager is the focus of Julia Gray’s wickedly brilliant second novel, Little Liar, in which she develops and hones her voice to excellent effect. Gray has a sure-footed understanding of the adolescent mind (so much so that I often winced in pleasurable recognition) and creates a gripping, smoothly executed psychodrama, set in contemporary London, that revolves around parties, houseboats and school plays. Nora Tobias is the little liar of the title. Shy and awkward, she manipulates truth and people, often to destructive effect. When she meets the daughter of a film producer, the stakes ratchet up. The prize is a part in a film; the cost is, ultimately, enormous. I genuinely could not stop reading this: a treat for teens and above.
What is a fairy tale? Once written down and altered for a bourgeois audience, the ‘oral’ tale that gradually developed over the years becomes a ‘literary’ fairy tale. Then there are authors who make a decision to contribute to the genre, using many of the tropes and systems of the oral ones. Hans Christian Andersen was a consummate practitioner of the literary fairy tale, investing his stories – which can be read by adults and children – with much romance but also with his own self-hatred. ‘The Little Mermaid’ is about many things, including longing. Louise O’Neill, in The Surface Breaks: A Reimagining of The Little Mermaid, recasts the story for a generation well versed in #MeToo. The Little Mermaid is Gaia, a misfit in the kingdom of the sea, questioning her father’s tyrannical authority and longing to go up to the surface. She falls in love with Oliver, the human scion of a shipping family, and decides to give up her voice for the opportunity to walk in agony on two legs. O’Neill is a brilliant, involving storyteller, making a well-known plot fresh; she throws in elements from Disney’s adaptation too (in which, let us not forget, Ariel gives up a world of infinite colour to marry some guy called Eric). And yet… In The Surface Breaks, every single male character is deeply flawed and wants to control women, consciously or not. Under the sea, life is not better; on land, even powerful women are constrained. By anchoring her version too closely in the specifics of a feminist view of the world, it may be that O’Neill has missed the opportunity to create a story that will resonate beyond the present.
John Matthews, in The Sword of Ice and Fire, intelligently refashions another familiar tale and does something remarkable with it. Young Arthur lives with his guardians in a mysterious, Gormenghastian castle, inhabited by magical creatures and ruled by the Nine, supernatural women who watch over the world. Matthews takes several elements from the Arthurian cycle – the Green Knight, the Questing Beast – and shapes something entirely new, in which Arthur becomes the beacon in a cosmic battle against darkness, fighting an enemy who rules a band of insect-like humanoids. Arthur must learn heroism and courage before he can set out on the road to his throne. More is promised, and it is to the great credit of the tiny independent publisher Greystones Press that they have taken on this fine addition to the Matter of Britain.
For younger children, Meg Rosoff’s McTavish Goes Wild is a work of gentle genius. Rosoff knows a lot about dogs and her portrayal of the smart terrier McTavish is perfection: ‘McTavish had made a great deal of progress with the Peachey family since deciding to rescue them, but they still required hard work and patience.’ The family are wonderful too. Teen daughter Ava just wants to study German philosophers: ‘I know lamentably little about metaphysics.’ Brother Ollie wants a girlfriend. The father imagines deadly creatures around every corner. It’s left to sensible Betty and her mother, guided by McTavish, to take everyone camping. This is a witty, stylish, often hilarious delight.
Andy Shepherd’s The Boy Who Grew Dragons sees young Tomas finding a strange tree in his grandfather’s garden. Is it a dragon fruit tree? Or does it actually grow dragons? When tiny Flicker, whose skin colour changes with his emotions, appears, Tomas must learn how to care for him while also keeping his presence secret from his parents and his school. Shepherd delights in describing crazy situations, and the book’s heartfelt message is one of care and friendship.
The Story of Tantrum O’Furrily by Cressida Cowell, with illustrations by Mark Nicholas, has a lovely, old-fashioned feel. A little kitten is kept at home by her overanxious owner. One day she dares to go outside, where she learns the courage to make her own story.
Creativity is also the subject of Mac Barnett’s Square, illustrated by Jon Klassen, which is an inventive fable, the second in a trilogy. Our hero, Square, is quite literally a square: he spends his days futilely piling up blocks, a metaphor for the modern worker. One day, Circle appears and assumes that Square is a sculptor; she asks him to sculpt a statue of her. The only catch is that it must be perfect. Intelligent, quirky and off-beat, Square will challenge and delight children aged three and up.