The sheer variety of children’s books currently on offer is a wonderful thing, and five books this spring exemplify this diversity – from the ‘never-when’ of fairy tale, to the gutters and boudoirs of nineteenth-century London, to the darkest episodes of the Second World War and finally the Thirties youth of our favourite fictional spy.
Ian Beck is rightly described as something of a national treasure; his illustrations for picture books and nursery rhymes enhance many a child’s first bookshelf. How appropriate, then, that for his first foray into writing for older children he brings something of that younger world with him. The Secret History of Tom Trueheart by Ian Beck is a delightful book, and one with a wide potential audience, for here are characters that everyone will feel they know. Set in and around the Land of Stories, Tom is the youngest of seven brothers who embark upon fairy-tale adventures suggested to them by the ruling elite: the Story Bureau. All well enough, but as Tom’s twelfth birthday approaches, he suddenly finds adventure thrust upon him as his brothers, all incidentally named Jack, have gone missing. What follows is a story with a timeless quality and great charm for bedtime reading upwards.
Ivy by Julie Hearn takes us headlong into the London of the Pre-Raphaelite era, but we see both sides of the curtain here: the eccentric and louche glamour of the painters’ world, as well as the corrupted underworld from which they pluck their muses. Ivy is one such beautiful girl, ‘a stunner’ with a past that she tries to blot out with her free use of laudanum. Spotted in Lambeth by a rich but inept painter, she is soon draped in a sheet and a snake as a model for the Fall of Eve, unaware that her real destiny lies with the more famous painter who lives next door, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. There is much to be admired in this complete and skilfully told book; the world is painted in full colour and life-giving detail, and its characters are rounded, and as hideous as they are lovable – from the terrifying Carroty Kate of Ivy’s childhood, to Oscar, the balding would-be aesthete, and his mother, jealous and a little too fond of her son for comfort, to Ivy herself, the inadvertent heroine who stumbles her way through the book until she finally takes her destiny into her own hands. Great stuff, and surely any book featuring armadillos is to be applauded.
As much as it ill behoves this reviewer to write a ‘spoiler’, the nature of a book review means we must ignore the publisher’s blurb for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, which informs the reader that any hint as to what the story might be about is not to be forthcoming, and exhorts us to plunge into the story of Bruno, a nine-year-old boy. Bruno, it transpires, is the son of a German officer who has just been given a ‘very important job’. When Bruno and his family move so his father can take up the new post, Bruno is alarmed and confused by the sight of thousands of men, women and children wearing what he thinks are striped grey pyjamas, and living on the other side of a high fence. As a novel, this book would fall down, but the title page tells us it’s a fable, and it’s as a fable that it needs to be read, despite the awful historical background against which it plays out. Whether this succeeds is a question for each reader; the Holocaust is, or at least should be, a daunting subject for any writer to tackle, and some small but significant elements – the name ‘Out-With’ for Auschwitz, for example – are a little clumsy here. Nonetheless, this is an impressive debut.
More consequences of the Second World War are explored in Guus Kuijer’s short novel, The Book of Everything – this time the mistrust and bitterness caused by former collaborators in post-war Holland. The eponymous Book is a diary kept by Thomas, another nine-year-old boy, living in Amsterdam in 1951. Thomas is a timid boy, and his one ambition in life is simply to be happy, but a welter of fears is holding him back: fear of the old lady next door, apparently a witch, fear of talking to the beautiful though crippled girl he admires, and above all fear of his father, a vicious despot at the head of the family who is beating Thomas’s long-suffering mother. How Thomas overcomes his fears, with the aid of his formerly aloof sister, the ‘witch’ and the local community, and the subsequent taking of power from his father, gives this slim book not only great depth but a joyous ending, and it successfully combines the timelessness of a fable with the reality of a difficult slice of history.
Blood Fever is the second of Charlie Higson’s Young Bond series based on the exploits of the teenage James at Eton, and farther afield, in the Thirties. This time, after some initial suspicious goings-on in England, James is dropped into a world of banditti and super-villains when his school trip to Sardinia takes an unexpected turn. This series could have been a disastrous Hollywood remake affair, but a few pages is all it takes to see that Higson is a good writer. Blood Fever is a smooth piece, befitting its hero, and there is the same drip-feed of wit, alongside the adventure, that we expect from Bond. There is just the right number of nods at the man the boy will become along the way to keep a Bond aficionado happy, and the period detail is delightful as it is subtle; the Thirties is not a particularly cool period in children’s literature at present, and Blood Fever is all the more refreshing for it.