Hilary McKay’s The Swallows’ Flight is a wide-ranging and ambitious novel which shows how when ordinary people become entangled with evil goodness can still triumph. Three narratives intersect, gradually, involvingly and unpredictably. The first centres on young, birthmarked Ruby’s working-class family in Plymouth; the second, on Kate, the sickly, overlooked youngest child of a sprawling middle-class family in Oxford; the third, on Hans and Erik, two decent, honourable boys from Berlin who become Luftwaffe officers.
It is wonderful to read a children’s book where the plot is (almost) secondary to personalities and relationships. McKay excels at tender, precisely observed scenes, such as when Kate, being ill, is forbidden to attend the Christmas carol service where her brother is singing the solo. Her wonderfully grumpy grandfather sneaks her in and feeds her watered-down whisky. Tension and horror, however, are never far away. There is a terrifying moment when the Gestapo searches Hans’s house for the Jewish woman his family has hidden behind a secret door.
Every one of the large, enchanting cast brims with energy – from glamorous, mysterious grown-up Rupert, who dashes in and out of Kate’s life, to his lover, the intelligent Clarry. McKay is one of our best children’s writers, subtle and compelling, and this book is one of her finest works yet.
Jonathan Stroud’s The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne is a galloping adventure story set in the near future. An apocalyptic event has left most of Britain submerged, with only isolated cities and islands clinging to life. The landscape is ravaged by wolves, bears and the cannibalistic, zombie-like Tainted. Making her sharp-shooting way through all these dangers is the heroine, Scarlett, a violent teenager with an excellent eye for a bank heist. She would not be out of place in a Coen brothers western.
Scarlett does have a heart, though, which leads her to rescue a strange boy called Albert Browne, whom she finds locked up in the lavatory of a destroyed bus. He’s escaping the sinister Dr Calloway. Scarlett, meanwhile, must raise enough money to pay her debts to a criminal gang. They make an unlikely but engaging team.
A new book by Stroud is always a treat, and this one is tense and assured. Scarlett and Albert canter through bustling towns controlled by fanatics and struggle along a river. Their journey reaches a gripping climax on the islands where London used to be, and there are many chilling moments on the way. At the book’s centre is the developing friendship between the two, as they both realise that the other is hiding something. Readers will root for them to find peace and safety on their own terms as they begin to understand their abilities. Like all the best children’s books, this one is about growing up and finding your place in the world.
Sam Thompson, who has already produced two elegant novels for adults, has written his first children’s book, Wolfstongue. Gentle, imaginative Silas is bullied at school and stammers when in trouble. One day he stumbles upon Isengrim, a talking wolf with a hurt paw, and is swiftly pulled into a parallel world known as the Forest, where wolves and other animals have been enslaved by foxes.
Thompson is a superb writer. There is a dreamlike quality to his prose, and Silas is carefully drawn, as are the animal characters (with the psychopathic fox Saffron being particularly terrifying). He finds that he can talk more easily when he’s with the wolves – and that he might be the one they’ve been waiting for, the Wolfstongue of the title, who can help them break free.
Billy, the thoughtful yet active hero of Polly Ho-Yen’s How I Saved the World in a Week, also has problems at school: his mother, who makes him call her Sylvia, is becoming increasingly erratic and keeps hauling him out of lessons to teach him survival techniques. She trains him to build shelters and navigate by the stars. They move around a lot and he never makes friends.
Matters come to a head when she accidentally sets fire to their flat and is placed in a psychiatric hospital, leaving Billy with his father and new girlfriend. There are moments when it looks as if everything is going to be alright, as he makes new friends and comes to terms with his father; but, of course, it appears that Sylvia might not have been that mad after all.
Ho-Yen’s novel morphs into a gripping take on zombie and alien films, with a dash of pandemic thrown in. Her great talent is to invest the generic with deep emotional wisdom, and all in finessed prose infused with foreboding. I gulped down the whole thing in about three blissful hours.
Conrad Mason’s The Girl in Wooden Armour also has a mother–child relationship at its core. Young Hattie’s mother has died in strange circumstances and Hattie lives somewhat in her shadow. After Hattie’s family (comprising a convincingly annoying little brother and a harassed father) receives a bizarre, scrawled message from her grandmother, they go to her house and find that she is missing.
It turns out that the village where she lives, Brokewood, exists on the border of another place, the Unwood; an ancient Order of the Broken Wood guards its terrors. The Hollow King wants his queen back and will do anything to get his way. Mason creates a wonderfully darkling atmosphere and tells a story of fearsome monsters, mayhem and magic with gusto.