Frances Hardinge has long produced high-calibre novels for the young: The Lie Tree is her best yet. Set in a typically slanted world – an alternative Victorian England – it follows Faith, the daughter of a discredited natural scientist, as she and her family move to a small Channel Island where everybody is against them. ‘For the last year she had felt like a see-saw, clumsily rocking between childhood and adulthood,’ writes Hardinge of Faith. This oscillation is mirrored in the plot, as she must grapple with her father’s reputation and her own plight, while choosing between science and the irrational. Oh, and did I mention the existence of a tree fed by lies? Throwing evolution, feminism and revenge tragedy together, The Lie Tree is a thrilling, gleamingly involving novel that anyone might enjoy, with gorgeous, lush writing matched by a vividly hooking plot. If this book doesn’t win prizes, I will retire to Sark myself.
It is refreshing to see the presence of so many rambunctious young women in children’s books, and none are more so than the protagonists of Robin Stevens’s Wells & Wong Mysteries, which see two girls solving murders in the 1920s. Arsenic for Tea brings the terror right into Daisy Wells’s house, when an annoying, adulterous guest is murdered and her entire family falls under suspicion. Hazel Wong, an uber-rich Hong Kongite, throws the habits of the British upper classes into relief. Stevens brings psychological depth to the classic Christie crime; she does not shirk the unpalatable consequences.
With more than a whiff of the old-fashioned about it, Brian Sewell’s The White Umbrella tells the story of Mr B – a man who shivers with pleasure at the sight of dark-eyed Asian youths and drops hints about indulging himself in Turkish baths – who rescues a donkey. The writing is faultless, in an elegant, mildly pedantic way; and there are oddities – he explains what ‘claret’ is, but not a ‘balletomane’. Those things that children might enjoy – such as a scene where a wrestler picks up the donkey – are sidelined. Nevertheless, Mr B’s intrepid spirit is heartwarming and there is a quiet, though adult, poignancy to its end.
While reading Anthony McGowan’s Pike I kept thinking of that mysterious Ted Hughes poem and the strange, alien creatures that lurk under the surface of the water. Here the fish is equally the stuff of nightmares, as Kenny decides to swim through a lake, spying a ‘golden glint’ he thinks will provide him and his family with a fortune. McGowan is alive to the laid-bare power of nature, and the story, aimed at dyslexic boys, is both touching and powerful.
With a wildcat companion as her friend, Molly Pecksniff might be another Lyra Belacqua, and Abi Elphinstone’s well-written debut, The Dreamsnatcher, cheerfully acknowledges the inspiration. Moll is a Gypsy girl with a brave, raggedy spirit that sees her through her battle with the titular Dreamsnatcher. The book is both well-paced and frightening, and little ones will enjoy the wood-based action and the pungently evoked Gypsy camps.
Sally Nicholls’s An Island of Our Own is similarly indebted to the great line of children’s literature and her heroine, Holly, is immersed in it too: the book is an update of the classic treasure-seeking tale, though with the internet and an army of helpers at her beck and call, Holly’s experience is markedly different from the old map with its X-marks-the-spot, as digital cameras and locked suitcases are the clues. The whole is a sweet and compelling tale of dreams, loss and family.
There is a welter of post-apocalyptic novels out there at the moment, but Patricia Forde’s The Wordsmith stands out for its imaginative approach and its beautiful and careful use of language. The Ark is a community led by John Noa, who is gradually cutting down the list of words that people can use, believing that it was words which led people into trouble in the first place. It’s a vividly rendered allegory drawn with poetic phrasing that will suit older children with an eye for the complex.
For younger children, Lucy Coats’s Beasts of Olympus: Beast Keeper begins a crazily amusing series in which the half-divine son of Pan is snatched from his mortal home and sent to tend the menagerie of the gods – which would be rather fun, if it didn’t contain a grumpy griffin, a hydra and every other kind of creature you can imagine. The twist is that the beasts are immortal and after every adventure they are shunted back for treatment. Lively and intelligent, it’s a sure-fire hit; the distance of the gods from the boy beast keeper is a nice metaphor for the gap between adult and child.
Equally amusing is Gary Northfield’s Julius Zebra: Rumble with the Romans! Sometimes a book comes along that is pure joy, and this is one of them, as weedy Julius Zebra (not Debra, as he frequently reminds us) is captured from his African herd and made to fight in the Colosseum. ‘I came, I saw, I threw up’ is one of the chapter headings, and that tells you all you need to know about the book’s gleeful humour, which, as well as containing a vegetarian crocodile, is also packed with historically accurate facts about the reign of Hadrian.
I’m a sucker for books about dogs, but Apocalypse Bow Wow by James Proimos III, illustrated by James Proimos Jr, will have anyone grinning stupidly, dog-lover or not. When all the humans disappear, a pair of pooches are left to uncover what’s going on. It’s absolutely accurate in its depiction of canine behaviour and the pictures are constructed with style and energy. ‘We’re dogs too!’ says one of the dogs as he approaches a fearsome police dog. Which, as everyone knows, is exactly what dogs say to each other when they meet.