Under the baking sun of a southern city, thousands of years into the future, funicular houses slide up and down cliff-faces; talking birds (known as angels) flock and caw around them. Here, in Philip Reeve’s stylish A Web of Air, a travelling theatre stops to put on its play: ‘Niall Strong-Arm and the Conquest of the Moon’, based on the tale of an archaic ‘astro-knight who flew to the moon in Apollo’s fiery chariot and won the love of the moon-goddess’. Flight into the unknown is the central theme, as Fever Crumb, a rational young engineer, stumbles across a boy who, being brought up by the angels, yearns to fly like them. The ancient secrets of aeroplanes are about to be unlocked, but such knowledge is dangerous – and coveted. Everyone’s after it, not least Fever’s ice-cold mutant mother, who has her own nefarious designs. Atmospheric, well-tuned and gripping, this is a fine tale for adventure-loving ten-year-olds.
Also dreaming of lunar landscapes is Paul, the thoughtful hero of The Boy Who Climbed into the Moon by David Almond. Paul lives in a dreary tower block. ‘I shall go and touch the sky,’ he says, and sets off to the top of his building. His journey brings him into contact with an artist who, eccentric and oddly magical, aids him in his selenic quest. He makes it, and finds a world of wonders: pterodactyls, lost astronauts (maybe Niall Strong-Arm’s in there too) and a pretty human cannonball. Rammed with wit (‘“A ladder fit for the gods! Where on earth did you obtain such a thing?” “B & Q”, said Alfred’), this is a deeply strange and weirdly brilliant fable for younger children that’s worth it for the flying poodle alone.
The three children in Sam Osman’s warmly enjoyable Quicksilver have a lot to do with the skies. The ley lines of the world convey information and people, and they bring the three to a neverland London suburb complete with post-office, parson and sweetshop. Everyone says ‘blimmin’ and ‘ruddy’ a lot. The three children all have green eyes and names that mean Wolf, and their parents have disappeared in similar circumstances. More astute readers will not appreciate the length of time it takes for the lupine trio to realise what’s going on (a planet called Lupus appears early on – is it connected? You bet); but the combination of old-fashioned romp and galactic villainy will delight and entertain girls and boys.
Even more intergalactic is Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men, which is set on a colonised planet. This is the final volume in his Chaos Walking trilogy. The first was one of the most original and exciting children’s books to have appeared in years. I didn’t like the second – and then it went on to win the Costa Award. So what of this one? It takes up the story from the moment the last volume finished, with three armies converging: those of the despotic, mind-controlling Prentiss; the freedom-fighting (or terrorist) Mistress Coyle; and a sprawling, deadly army of the etiolated indigenous people who communicate by thought. Brave and resourceful Viola and Todd are stuck in the middle, and must negotiate for peace and pave the way for the future. Ness’s style takes some getting used to: a barrage of curt sentences, one-line paragraphs, BIG LETTERS for emphasis, and very, very short scenes. There are cliffhangers, setbacks and explosions on every page: the tone is one of constant conflict. It left me drained and gasping, but I think it is a fitting, whomping end to a brilliant and challenging series.
More sedately, on an alternative earth, a lonely dancer named Nimira is taken by a noble magician from her scuzzy theatre into a world of plots, palaces and captive princes. The magician has an automaton in the drawing room and a mad wife in the attic; Nimira’s task is to sing with said automaton. No other girl has lasted, since it is said to be haunted: it rolls its eyes and groans. She discovers its secret soon enough, and Jaclyn Dolamore, in Magic Under Glass, provides scenes of moving intensity as an improbable and impossible love flowers between living flesh and ticking clockwork. Precise and picturesque, this is a sterling debut, with all the best qualities of folktale, for older girls.
The centaurs of legend are alive and well in Zizou Corder’s Halo. In true Greek romance style, a baby is washed up on a distant shore after a shipwreck: but here, the child is cared for by the hybrid horses. They’re a peace-loving lot, and the child – Halo – has to learn about humans the hard way. As she is variously kidnapped or enslaved (rather too many times for my liking), she has to pretend to be a boy to survive, and ends up at the centre of Athenian politics. Corder (the pseudonym for a mother and daughter team) is an enormously involving writer, and any children’s book that has the Greek alphabet in the back deserves a special accolade. Classically-minded children will love it.
Zooming forward through the centuries we find Grace, a pauper, riding the Necropolis Railway into the suburbs where she can quietly dispose of her stillborn baby (the result of a rape) without any fuss. Mary Hooper’s Fallen Grace is a powerful, evocative account of that staple of Victorian fiction, the ‘fallen woman’, and she exposes the myriad hypocrisies of that era (hospitals that will take pregnant unmarried women only for their first child, for example). Grace must look after her younger sister and survive. With an appearance from Charles Dickens, this exquisite historical drama will suit teens with a taste for Thackeray and his ilk.
Closer to us in time is Kate Saunders’s Beswitched. The idea may have been around in Halo’s day – spoiled modern girl swaps places with girl from an earlier time (in this case just before the Second World War), has amusing ‘fish out of water escapades’, and then saves the day whilst learning something valuable about herself – but Saunders’s writing is so infectious and jolly that one can’t help being carried along by it. It’s also a very successful parody of those po-faced stories like Elinor M Brent Dyer’s ‘Chalet School’. A marshmallow-flavoured treat for girls of eight and up.
Bringing us shrieking into the present day is Daren King’s Frightfully Friendly Ghosties. This is a joyously inventive book that turns conventions on their heads. One day, the ‘still-alives’ lock a member of the ghostly host (accidentally, it must be said) in the attic. The ghosts are immensely polite and completely unaware of the terrifying effects they have on humans: a spectral housekeeper imagines she’s cleaning, but in fact leaves trails of goo. Each ghost has a power – except Wither. ‘‘‘I can’t do anything,” said Wither ... “You should write poetry, Wither,” said Charlie.’ Later, the ghosties convene again, after Wither has tried his hand at sonneteering: ‘‘‘I wish I had a skill,” said Wither. “You can write abysmal poems,” said Humphrey Bump.’ This is a sweetly bizarre tale about cooperation and friendship that should enchant (if it doesn’t baffle) ghoulish children of seven and above.
Sylvia and Bird by Catherine Rayner is a hauntingly beautiful picture book about Sylvia, the last dragon in the world, who befriends a tiny yellow bird. There may be dragons on the moon (there’s our friend again), so Sylvia and Bird set off to see. Rayner conveys a quiet passion in her pure, numinous drawings and simple phrasing that is immensely effective.