This winter, rejoice! The White Witch has been banished and merriment and magic reign once more. Too many children’s books this year and last have been inward-looking, didactic or overtly political. The first rule about writing for children should be: don’t preach.
You won’t get any preaching from Celeste, the heroine of Sally Gardner’s new novel, Invisible in a Bright Light. She wakes from a troubling dream into a world only half familiar. Celeste must navigate it with no compass and soon discovers that she is playing a game whose rules she does not know, overseen by a mysterious man in an emerald-green suit. Gardner is on superb form, bringing all her love of the theatre and costume (she used to be a designer) to a richly textured prose style with echoes of Hans Christian Andersen. Wicked opera singers, sleigh rides, warm chocolate and shipwrecks combine to wondrous effect in a novel for children of eleven and up.
Shipwrecks and the sea play a large part in Frances Hardinge’s novel Deeplight, which takes place on an Earthsea-like archipelago once ruled by giant, spectacularly tentacled sea creatures that were worshipped by the inhabitants. The monsters turned on each other, fighting until there were none left; their final battle caused an apocalypse. Now, in the aftermath, the islanders search the deeps for what is known as ‘godware’. A scale here or an eye there, still retaining malicious and mysterious powers, is what you might usually salvage. One day, though, a god’s heart turns up – and boy, does it cause trouble. Hardinge’s protagonist, Hark, becomes indentured to a scientist who is delving into the biology of the gods; Hark must race to prevent catastrophe once more. Hardinge’s writing rolls out like breakers on the shore, turning up polished pebbles, barnacled creatures and fantastical nightmares. It will intrigue those of twelve and up.
A very strange creature, seemingly some kind of cat, prowls through Hilary McKay’s The Time of Green Magic. It’s not a problem, you might think, except that not everybody can see it, and it’s getting bigger and more dangerous. The setting is a tall north London house covered in ivy, inhabited by a large, noisy family, which includes bookish heroine Abi, thirteen-year-old Max, who has a growing interest in the French au pair, and little Louis, with his heightened sense of unfairness. McKay writes superbly about relationships and imagination, literature and love. Children of nine and up will revel in her book’s gentle humour, gripping pace and evocative language.
One of my favourite books as a child was Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, in which the threatened children, the romantic landscape and the wicked, scheming adults all combine to provide a satisfying thrill. The Velvet Fox, Catherine Fisher’s sequel to her beautiful The Clockwork Crow, takes its cue from Aiken. A lonely house is visited by a Mrs Honeybourne, who claims to be a governess and brings with her a beautiful toy carousel, on which sit figures of a dancer, a soldier, a jester and a little fox. She tries to drive a wedge between Seren, the orphaned girl living at the house, and Tomos, the son and heir, whom Seren had previously rescued from fairies. Fisher writes with elegant poise. The Velvet Fox will charm and frighten readers of ten and up in equal measures.
If you were to visit the Hotel Splendid, you wouldn’t find any guests. They’ve all fled, because the reception bell rings by itself and the furniture moves at night. Sunny, the hero of Alison Moore’s Sunny and the Hotel Splendid, is, like all children, able to see ghosts; but far from being frightened, he’s actively friendly towards them. Moore, a Booker Prize-shortlisted novelist, has produced a charmingly clever story that delights in paradoxes and absurdity. In order to attract guests to the hotel, the children enlist the ghosts. Moore plays with eerie music, flickering lights and disembodied screams in a way that shows her love of the ghost story genre, all wrapped in delicious prose that eight-year-olds and up can savour.
This magazine’s cover illustrator, Chris Riddell, is no slouch in the fiction department, having won the Costa Children’s Book Award for his witty and engaging novel Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse. With Guardians of Magic, he begins a new series, the Cloud Horse Chronicles, which features three children who wish for magical objects, including a runcible spoon that causes pastries to come alive, a cello that dreams and sings, and a worpal sword. Riddell delights in playing with fairy tales, and his imaginative characters and stories of the weak triumphing over the powerful will tickle young readers.
When I was about eleven years old, in pre-internet years, my prep school developed a link, via satellite, with a school in America. The idea was that we would write to each other about our lives. I typed out reams of stuff along these lines: ‘The melancholy leaves fall from the trees in the woods as we prepare for our Latin subjunctives…’ The first reply I got said, ‘Hey! Whassup!’ The Misadventures of Frederick, by Ben Manley and illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark, sees Frederick writing profusely and verbosely to his friend: ‘My Dearest Emily, The woodlark’s melody floats across the shimmering sky…’ Emily replies, ‘Hi Frederick. I’m climbing trees today. Do you want to come?’ So yes, I can relate to Frederick, and so will children of five and up, who will enjoy Frederick’s mishaps, real and imagined, and will love the gorgeously cluttered rooms of his grand house and the russet browns of the autumn forests (there, you see, I can’t help myself).