Tim Hall’s Shadow of the Wolf is a rather extraordinary debut for teens. It’s a new version of Robin Hood, set in a never-never medieval England (where you can, if you wish, practise callisthenics) and where life for the poor really is brutish and short. Torture and maiming are the order of the day. Hall also introduces a supernatural element: Robin becomes a kind of wood god, merging with a wolf spirit, while Marian is a psychotic nobleman’s daughter who trains up her own army of killer nuns. If it sounds mad, that’s because it is, and its mixture of the earthy and the fantastical won’t suit everyone; there’s also little room for tone changes and the darkness can be overwhelming. It is, however, mightily assured, and children of thirteen and up will hurl themselves into its world. Hall looks set to be a strong new voice on the young adult shelves.
The ghosts in Toby Ibbotson’s Mountwood School for Ghosts aren’t doing their job any more: nobody, as one of the terrifying Great Hagges notes, has been scared to death for years. Ibbotson’s book is based on the work of his mother, the recently deceased Eva Ibbotson, and it has a great deal of her charm and her political sensibility: here a street full of old houses is threatened by a horrible town planner who wants to pull it down, so the inhabitants enlist the help of the newly trained ghosts to frighten away the builders. It’s not a new idea – Daren King’s Frightfully Friendly Ghosties has a similar plot, while many readers will remember the television show Rentaghost – and the ending is a little squashed together; but young readers will be both thrilled and amused, and won’t notice or mind the carefully politically correct residents.
The first time I tasted true magic, I was eight years old: I found my father’s tattered, paperback Puffin copy of E Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet – the third in her Five Children and It trilogy. The grumpy Psammead (‘sand-fairy’) remains one of the most engaging mythical creatures in children’s literature, and Kate Saunders, in her brave and beautiful Five Children on the Western Front, not only captures his snootiness perfectly, but also adds an intriguing extra dimension. The furry little creature was once a desert god, worshipped by millions, and now must atone for the crimes he committed. Saunders’s book is deeply wise; set against the backdrop of the Great War, the Psammead’s tyrannical reign becomes a metaphor for all cruelty. If a terrible god can reach peace, why not the human race? This will not only thrill the hearts of those who love Nesbit, but will also introduce Cyril, Robert, Anthea and Jane to new minds.
Not a continuation, but a reimagining: Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle is a volume, sumptuously illustrated by Chris Riddell, that cleverly twists together the stories of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, with slightly Sapphic overtones. Snow White is here a warrior princess, dissatisfied with her pretty princeling and her life: she marches out in search of adventure. Children of twelve and above will enjoy the strong female presence and the compelling quest narrative, made strange and wonderful by touches of gold leaf and the bold lines of Riddell’s pictures.
Also set in a mythical realm, but for younger girls of the eight-year-old variety, is Sarah Courtauld’s Buckle and Squash and the Monstrous Moat-Dragon, which bursts with sparkle and wit. Here you will find Prince Kanye the Anachronistic; some wizards who can only make things out of wool; and a delightfully practical heroine, Eliza, who must rescue her annoying sister, Lavender, from the villainous Mordmont. It’s about exploration and family, and sends up fairy tales with demented glee. Naturally, there is a goat, called Gertrude.
Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre’s Cakes in Space delves into similar themes, only here a spaceship sets off to Nova Mundi to establish a new colony with little Astra and her family, and the villains are not dragons but highly evolved killer-cakes. Madcap mayhem ensues; Astra has only the help of a space creature called the Nameless Horror and a robot called, in a nice Wodehousian reference, Pilbeam. There is much here to enjoy.
A little darker is The Imaginary by A F Harrold, with illustrations by Emily Gravett, which posits the idea that imaginary friends are, in fact, real. Its excavation into the imagination of a child is both involving and frightening; and Mr Bunting, the man who lives forever by feeding off imaginary friends, is one of the most quietly disturbing baddies I’ve ever come across.
For young teenagers, Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song remoulds the changeling myth, from the point of view of the changeling. Hardinge excels at creating slightly askew worlds: we are in an alternate 1920s, inhabited by motorbike-riding young women and a race of fairy-like creatures who have a terrible hold over an architect – they snatched his daughter and replaced her with a monster made out of wood and paper. This monster has a consciousness, a growing sense of identity and enough of the human girl’s memories to want to put a stop to the horror. With a gift for eerie atmosphere and intelligent writing that is immediately recognisable as her own, Hardinge has written a book that will keep eager readers absorbed for days (and may make them look at their siblings with new eyes).
Older teenagers will find in Keren David’s Salvage a taut novel exploring the different perspectives of two separated half-siblings. One is adopted by an MP and leads a life of apparent ease; the other is sent from one broken home to another. David examines nature and nurture, and the way that families expand and contract, with a keen social eye and a fine understanding of the teen psyche. There is an echo in the title of ‘savage’ – David asks the question, what makes a person who they are?
This theme is also examined, with grace and thoughtfulness, by Marcus Sedgwick in Ghosts of Heaven, which is a series of four interconnected narratives, each centring around a mysterious spiral. The spiral, argues Sedgwick, is the most intriguing and essential pattern in the universe: it’s what defines us, from the double helix to the shape of the universe. We begin in the Stone Age and pass through witch-hunting England, a lunatic asylum in 20th-century America and a spaceship looking for a new earth (no cakes, though). Sedgwick’s writing throughout is humane and gripping. Another one for the fireside, and it will plant questions in any teenager’s mind.