Five new books for young readers - review by Philip Womack

Philip Womack

Princesses, Puppets & Pooches

Five new books for young readers


All Eli Fleet wants, in Alex Bell’s marvellous The Glorious Race of Magical Beasts (Faber & Faber 352pp £7.99), is a quiet life tending to the Royal Library. A tweed-wearing chap who likes nothing better than communing with his pet moon tortoise, Eli also has a special power. He is able to travel to any library in the world, which can be troublesome when the librarian’s a mermaid or, worse, a vampire. 

Eli also harbours a secret. He is a powerful mage, although he disdains kings and quests, unlike his glamorous parents (now dead). In classic heroic style, however, he’s called into action when his grandmother (who runs a cafe staffed by magical penguins) begins to lose her powers and fade away. And so he enters the Glorious Race of Magical Beasts, intending to win and thereby gain the magical powers that can cure her. 

Another of Eli’s tricks is his ability to bring fictional characters to life. He pulls out Jeremiah, a shark-fighting young pirate, from his favourite book; unfortunately, the author, Gaskins, wants him back for the sequel and sends a bounty hunter to fetch him. The friendship between Eli and Jeremiah is tenderly drawn and complex, shaded by the question of whether Jeremiah is real or a figment of Eli’s imagination.

Bell revels in the delightful machinery of fantasy: Eli’s ally in the race, Raven, is a logophile half-fairy princess; blue dragons soar, panthers gallop along rainbows and cities float. The book is charged with inventive humour and nerve-racking setbacks, and also considers whether authors are really in control of their characters and the creative process itself. An outstanding novel for children of ten and up, The Glorious Race of Magical Beasts is entirely original and utterly charming.

The creative urge is also the subject of David Almond’s elegiac Puppet (Walker Books 240pp £10.99). Whereas Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio is a haunted, uncanny creature, and his narrative is full of doppelgängers and danger, there are no such menaces here. Widower Silvester is the Geppetto analogue, a childless old man at the end of his career, whose puppet shows (which he performed with his wife) have delighted the nation. 

All his equipment has been removed to a museum, and he is left with nothing but his craft. He decides to make one more puppet. Formed from a mismatch of bits and pieces, it comes to life. Christened Puppet, the new being is ‘beautiful and imperfect, as all the most beautiful things are’. His tentative steps into the world are as stumbling as any fledgling’s. 

There is a luminous moment at the centre of the book when the characters dance, masked, in the garden: ‘It was not certain who was a puppet and who was not. Who was living or who was not. Did Silvester, Antonia, Puppet and Fleur even exist at all?’ Puppet himself picks up a smaller puppet and plays with it. Life and dream mingle. Who knows where the line between fiction and reality is drawn? While Puppet concerns the passing of an artist, it also lights the way forward for a new generation of storytellers. With lovely comic-book-style illustrations by Lizzy Stewart, this poignant tale will please children of ten and up.

Lucy Strange, in The Island at the Edge of Night (Chicken House 304pp £7.99), turns the classic boarding-school novel into something much more sinister. It’s 1932, and there are no helpful witches or mugs of hot chocolate on the lonely Scottish island where it is set; instead, the headmaster and his wife are being paid to drug and kill children whose families want them out of the way. The students include a boy who likes to defenestrate his nannies, another who shot his brother and the novel’s heroine, Faye, who was packed off after her aunt discovered her wielding an axe. The children’s midnight feasts do not involve ginger beer but scavenging bacon from bins.

Faye has no memory of what she is supposed to have done. Her scientist father is an invalid, and she has a psychic connection to natural phenomena. Strange employs more than a touch of the Gothic as Faye battles to uncover the truth about her origins (there’s a clue in her name). There is a hidden prince, whose uncle has stolen his throne; there are secret passageways, fog-filled moors and a magical cavern. The villains are perfectly monstrous – the school’s owner, the ironically named Sir Charles Lighter, believes that you are either predator or prey – and the children are resourceful, kind and valiant. This splendidly old-fashioned adventure for children of eleven plus yields a modern message about ecology and interconnectedness.

Things happen a little more easily for the children in Farrukh Dhondy’s The Freezies (Tradewind Books 144pp £9.95). The narrators are a trio of misfit friends who dub themselves the Freezies. The leader is half-Polish, half-Jamaican Kai; his companions are Sully, whose Indian parents run the post office, and Leo, the child of lawyers. One day, they find a converted bus parked on the village green. In it is Mr Christaki, a musician and an illegal immigrant. His arrival exposes a fault line in the village between those who don’t want newcomers, exemplified by the local newspaper, which hounds him at every turn, and those who welcome them. Mr Christaki is soon fixing people’s instruments, giving music lessons and moving into a conveniently abandoned house. The village stands for the United Kingdom; its treatment of Mr Christaki is emblematic of its immigration policy.

Dhondy’s writing is fluent and vivid, and the children’s attempts to save their new friend from deportation show courage and tenaciousness, though Sully’s actions, which see her lying about her parents and ruining their reputation, are beyond the pale. While the characters’ notion of socialism – that ‘people should be sort of equal, and nobody should be very poor’ – is markedly simplistic, and the book at times runs the risk of sounding like a sermon given by a trendy vicar, there is still plenty here to amuse readers of eleven and up.

Ross Montgomery’s I Am Rebel (Walker Books 304pp £7.99) is narrated, often hilariously, from the point of view of a dog named Rebel. It sees the dog’s owner, Tom, becoming involved in a group of revolutionaries known as the Reds, who desire the downfall of the tyrannical king (who has punitively raised taxes). A man in a wolf pelt (blurring the distinction between animal and human, but also a nod to Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder, where a young girl kickstarts the Russian Revolution) is their charismatic leader.

When this leader lures Tom away to storm the king’s castle, Rebel – who, obviously, adores Tom – goes in search of him. There are many lovely touches. ‘I am a good dog. I know this, because Tom tells me I am good all the time,’ says Rebel, and his loyalty and devotion are boundless. The relationship between master and dog is questioned: on his travels, Rebel meets a masterless dog, Jaxon, and encounters representatives of other canine types, including a selfish pub dog, before being reunited with Tom. Eventually, change is achieved, with consequences for society at large and relations between dog and master. An emotionally rich picaresque tale for children of ten plus, I Am Rebel leads the reader into danger and then safely home again, as all good children’s books should.

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