Philip Womack

Inky Fingers: December 2018 Children’s Books Round-up

As children, the Brontë siblings developed a magnificently rich imaginative world populated by armies, generals and editors. Their literary ambitions were in evidence from an early stage: they carefully wrote their stories down in tiny books, complete with the names of the author, publisher and editor on the title pages. In Celia Rees’s Glass Town Wars (Pushkin Children’s Books 313pp £12.99), Tom, a 21st-century boy in a coma, is fitted with a virtual reality device that sends him plunging straight into Glass Town, one of the Brontës’ creations. Here he meets Lady Augusta, who is engaged in an endless, complex war against the Duke of Wellington.

Rees’s gorgeous prose unfolds a tale of intrigue, love and power. She highlights the emptiness of social media – in one particularly effective scene, Tom’s awful real-life girlfriend ponders whether to unplug him from his life support machine, hoping that it will gain her more followers on Twitter. Tom, caught between his paralysis and his boundless imaginative life, finds himself increasingly drawn towards Lady Augusta – who of course is an avatar of Emily Brontë. Darker forces are at work: Rees effortlessly weaves in fairies, enchantment and a sinister hacker who’s at the centre of the plot. Wise and sweeping, this novel will enrapture readers aged eleven and upwards.

Another new book dealing with creativity is Kenneth Oppel’s Inkling (Walker Books 281pp £6.99), in which an ink blot comes bursting into life and starts drawing, causing chaos for young Ethan. His mother has recently died, his father, a comic book artist, is creatively blocked and his sister has Down’s syndrome. Everyone at school expects Ethan to be able to draw, but he can’t.

Ethan wrestles with the problem of Inkling drawing for him. Is it plagiarism? Or is it somehow a part of his father’s spirit, come to help him in an unexpected form? The result is a delightful, breakneck story that contemplates originality and the relationship between fathers and sons. There is real joy in the way that little Inkling, as it learns to read, develops its own taste, moving swiftly and with glee from Roald Dahl to Hemingway. It’s amazing how much Oppel makes you care for a splatter of ink. When a venal comic book publisher, having captured Inkling, tries to harness its power for dastardly ends, readers of ten plus will be egging on Ethan in his daring rescue attempt.

The role of storytelling is again a central theme in Katherine Rundell’s Into the Jungle (Macmillan 231pp £16.99), which will make a splendid, lustrous present for those aged eight and above. Taking Kipling’s The Jungle Book as inspiration, Rundell imagines the animals telling tales to Mowgli as he tries to escape what he thinks is a tongue-lashing from his wolf-mother. Many of the tales are concerned with breaking out from incarceration: Bagheera was once a rajah’s pet; Kaa belonged to a snake charmer. New light is also cast upon Baloo, who turns out to be the jungle’s version of a polyglot. Each story contains some element of wisdom, which the young, prideful Mowgli stores away for later use. Kipling didn’t really know much about jungles, but Rundell’s world is convincing and alive, dealing with wildness, fierceness and the nature of humanity, and her charming style is on full display. The illustrations by Kristjana S Williams are vibrant and enticing.

Kevin Crossley-Holland is a master of retellings and his Between Worlds: Folktales of Britain and Ireland (Walker Books 350pp £15) does not disappoint. Many of these will be unfamiliar to the general reader: ‘The Dark Horseman’, in which young, handsome Jemmy is taken up by a dark rider to a fairy castle, or ‘The Baker’s Daughter’, in which the heroine, as Ophelia tells us in Hamlet, is turned into an owl. Between Worlds depicts a land of brave peasants, boggarts, changelings, pixies and seals who morph into women, a place where fortunes can be made and lost on a whim. It’s all told in charged, poetic prose. A glimmering introduction to the folklore of our islands, this book will suit children aged ten and upwards.

Anthony McGowan is well aware of the resonances of English landscapes. In Lark (Barrington Stoke 114pp £7.99) he sends his heroes Nicky and his younger sibling Kenny into the Yorkshire winter. This book completes a series for teenagers that began with Brock, in which the brothers had to care for a badger. Here, they embark on a walk that swiftly turns disastrous: snow falls, and they find themselves trapped by nature itself. As ever, McGowan’s understanding of masculine youth – its brashness and unexpected tendernesses – is evident, and there is a quiet worldliness underpinning the whole. It’s intense and dark, full of sadness yet also hopeful, with the lark serving as a metaphor for life and renewal. The gully in which Nicky is trapped is a way of expressing the narrowness of his impoverished working-class life. McGowan allows him to escape it.

It’s always a pleasure to see a writer one has championed flourishing. Lucy Strange’s second novel, Our Castle by the Sea (Chicken House 321pp £6.99), shows her further development. It’s a Second World War story, set somewhere on the Kent coast, with a difference. Our heroine is the lighthouse keeper’s daughter. Somebody has been sabotaging equipment and telephone lines, and suspicion naturally falls upon her mother, who happens to be German. While I was not entirely convinced by the plot, which expects us to feel sympathy for a traitor and fashionably suggests that members of the Establishment are more villainous than the enemy, Strange has a real talent for place, character and tension, and children aged ten plus will find her questions about heroism and the nature of war to be searching indeed.

For little ones, Brian Wildsmith has produced two radiant picture books, both published by Oxford University Press. The Twelve Days of Christmas (32pp £7.99) is a bright and lively version of the traditional carol, brimming with energy and colour. A Christmas Story (32pp £7.99) reimagines the Nativity as told by the foal of the donkey that carried Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Wanting his mother, the foal sets off with Rebecca to follow them. Along the way they just miss the Three Wise Men and the shepherds, but eventually they reach the beauty and light of Christ in the stable. Embossed with gold, this is a graceful and engaging way to introduce children to what Christmas is really about.

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