It’s very dark in the world of children’s literature at the moment. Bad dreams, murders, ghosts and resurrected corpses stalk every page – all very good for summer reading. Leander Deeny’s wonderfully strange, uncomfortable Hazel’s Phantasmagoria is a cracking story in the Roald Dahl vein. Our protagonist is the rather unpleasant, drippy Hazel, who is dumped on her wicked Aunt Eugenia whilst her parents go off on holiday (hooray! they must be thinking. No Hazel for a month!). Eugenia is the desiccated relict of a baronet, inhabiting a Gormenghastian castle complete with turrets, dusty retainers and insane son, Isambard, who, it is discovered, likes nothing better than giving cigarettes to ducks and conducting experiments on pigs. Eugenia is uniformly unpleasant, and Hazel decides that she is going to torture her. To this end she enlists some nightmares she finds living in the grounds (a ‘gorilleopard’, a ‘pythupine’ and a ‘frogstrich’) and spends a happy few days psychologically battering her. The novel is very well written, with flashes of black wit which occasionally strike out of nowhere, but by the end I did find myself feeling rather sorry for poor old Aunt Eugenia, whose only crime, it seems, is to be a little uptight. A cruel sort of book, this will suit your quiet, twelve-year-old nephew – the one who likes pulling legs off spiders.
Also rather cruel, but in a lighter sort of way, is Douglas Anthony Cooper’s Milrose Munce and the Den of Professional Help. Cooper has written two novels for grown-ups, and this brims with knowing and sly humour. Milrose Munce attends a school that has more than its fair share of ghosts, including Cryogenic Kelvin (who drank liquid nitrogen and shattered to bits) and Deeply Damaged Dave (who was caught in a downpour with stolen chemicals in his pocket, which exploded). ‘Some people can put a leg behind their head; some can extend their tongue halfway up a nostril; Milrose Munce could see ghosts.’ He’s quite happy chatting to his non-visible friends, but his odd behaviour is noticed and he is sent to get ‘Professional Help’, imprisoned with a psychotically normal analyst called Massimo Natica and forced to be ‘cured’. He must escape, with only the help of his dead friends. Lively and intelligent, this one is for any ten- or eleven-year-old offspring you might have.
In Triskellion, by Will Peterson, two kids from New York, Rachel and Adam, are sent to stay with their grandmother in a sleepy village in the West Country. Here we are very much in John Wyndham territory – the blustering local squire, Commander Wing; the mysterious, animal-skin-wearing ‘Green Men’; the secret that the children’s grandmother is carefully nurturing; the hidden neuroses of a settlement that has stayed the same for centuries being dragged into light. The Triskellion is a symbol – three interlinked crescents – which recurs everywhere in the village, and it is also an object of unimaginable power. The two children find themselves thrust into a race against time to find the three parts of the Triskellion, dealing with runes, mysterious warnings, death by bees and a spirit-like boy called Gabriel (the clue’s in the name). Peterson succeeds very well in showing how the New Yorkers cope with the weirdnesses (supernatural and otherwise) of rural England. It’s very thrilling, a rambunctious read for any child of eleven and up, and more is promised.
Sometimes you come across a children’s book of startling and poetic beauty: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness is one such. It is brilliantly evocative, tough, unsentimental, and creates its own, convincing argot that hurls the reader right into its world. It is set many years in the future, with the Old World riven by greed and destruction. Colonists leave to find new planets, and discover New World. All seems fine at first – they lead lives of agrarian simplicity. But there is a problem: ‘Noise’. Noise is the thoughts of every man – not, interestingly, the women – broadcast constantly from their heads. It can’t be turn off or escaped from. Everybody can hear what you think. The settlements fracture, each finding their own way of dealing with it, including Prentisstown, where our hero, Todd Hewitt, lives. Something terrible has happened there – all the women have died. Todd is the last boy, and the whole town is waiting for him to become a man. But Prentisstown wants war, and Todd must escape, through a bleak landscape haunted by mutant crocs and deranged preachers. Clouds look like bones, the sky looks like blue meat; Todd is a pilgrim, questing to find both himself and the murky truths behind New World. This amazing book will, I hope, become a staple of children’s literature, bravely dealing with loss, fear, and an adolescent’s burgeoning sense of self, whilst being at the same time enormously compelling.
Stalwart children’s writer Mary Hooper has written a glorious gem in Newes from the Dead. This historical novel concerns the story of Anne Green, a servant who, in the seventeenth century, was hanged for infanticide. The book starts with her body lying in a dissecting room, with students (including a young, dashing Christopher Wren) ready to slice her up. A parallel story runs with Anne reminiscing from her coffin – for, as it turns out, despite being hanged by the neck for half an hour, she is still alive. Her revival becomes a political weapon, a sign that God is speaking through her and that Cromwell’s reign is satanic. Hooper is a charming writer, bringing to life the joys of Anne’s early years, her seduction by her master’s grandson, her consequent pregnancy, and the secret birth of a stillborn child that leads to her imprisonment. The author is excellent on detail: the pearl-embroidered bodice of a fine lady glitters; a stuttering scholar rubs his cold hands over a candle; a blacksmith scrubs his filthy nails. She describes well, too, the horrors of a paternalistic society, where power was invested only in the gentry. It is a sophisticated tale, and will be relished by any teenager with even the slightest interest in the past.