In Pádraig Kenny’s sinister, sophisticated The Monsters of Rookhaven, the House of Rookhaven exists in another world, only a sliver away from ours. The powerful magic keeping it contained is weakening, however, allowing interaction across the dimensions. An extraordinary group of creatures known as the Family inhabits the house, some humanoid, some not, all mad. Aunt Eliza is made out of spiders, Odd creates portals into space, while Piglet, locked in the basement, is known by all to be unquantifiably dangerous. Mirabelle, our young heroine, doesn’t seem to have any special powers at all, which pains her. When two human children, exhausted by the Second World War and on the run, accidentally cross over into Rookhaven, they discover a land of wonders, now under threat from Mr Phelps, a monster who eats the souls of other monsters.
Kenny’s book is like nothing I’ve read since the glory days of Diana Wynne Jones. It’s a baroque fantasy that delights in the gothic (architecturally and thematically), and it is infused with a gentle charm not usually seen in tales of terror. From the bone-eating flowers in the garden to the Room of Lights where the monsters are born, the house and its landscape will enchant, while the story of Mirabelle’s mysterious birth provides the novel’s emotional core. Children of ten and up will be enraptured. Those, like me, with a few more grey hairs will find much to treasure too.
In Kenny’s book, Mr Phelps symbolises relentless human evil. A similarly unambiguous darkness can be found in Ross Montgomery’s The Midnight Guardians, which is also set during the Second World War. Here, the Midwinter King no longer wants to remain in his place within the cosmic order but to crush the Green Man and the forces of spring and light. (You can tell he’s no good because he has a horse made of bones and eyes ‘like dying stars’.) When whippersnapper Col discovers that his childhood imaginary friends have sprung to life and need him to help them defeat the king, he’s catapulted into a breakneck journey. To make matters worse, he’s in his Boys’ Brigade uniform, which means he’s wearing shorts.
Col’s imaginary friends are in the best tradition of children’s fiction: they take the form of a talking badger, a tiger who can change size at will and a miniature knight called the King of Rogues. Their quarrelsome banter and peevishness provide a hilarious counterpoint to Col’s increasingly frantic quest – he must find his sister before London is bombed to smithereens. Montgomery’s book is full of treasures, including enchanted trees ‘like a gang of shabby pirates’ and the earthworm-eating King Buttercup (a very ugly king of the fairies). This is a rip-roaring, sepia-tinted yarn for children of ten and up.
Natasha Farrant’s Voyage of the Sparrowhawk, another book set around the time of the Second World War, concerns a similar quest for lost family. It begins with two orphans, Ben and Sam, being adopted by a bargeman, and a rich young girl, Lotti, losing her glamorous parents in a plane accident. Sam goes missing in the war and Lotti can’t stand her ghastly aunt and uncle, who pack her off to boarding school. Lively Lotti’s not having any of it, though. She stabs her sewing mistress with a needle, steals a Chihuahua and joins up with Ben to travel to France on a narrowboat called Sparrowhawk in search of both Lotti’s grandmother and Sam. Like its avian namesake, the boat and its occupants are single-minded in pursuit of their goal. Lotti must disguise herself as a boy and adults are (mostly) not to be trusted. Sure-footed and joyful, this book will please and move children of nine and up.
In Julia Gray’s third novel, I, Ada, we gallop back into the early 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution is gathering pace, and encounter Ada Lovelace. More interested in biquadratic equations than clothes, Ada dreams of geometry, which glitters ‘like palaces of ice’. Her mother, who has theories about education, wants to change the world and insists on her learning Euclid’s theories. It pays off. Gray’s prose is lyrical and Ada’s growth is delicately and intelligently drawn. Governesses come and go, but Ada’s strength of mind is powerful and involving. The novel begins with Ada viewing a painting of herself, and throughout she compares herself to her swashbuckling and unknowable father, Lord Byron, as she struggles to make it in the world. There are lovely cameo appearances from Charles Babbage, working on his ‘Difference Engine’, and a young Dickens. Older children and teenagers will enjoy this immersive treat.
Also set in the 19th century is Catherine Fisher’s glittering The Midnight Swan, which completes a trilogy that began with The Clockwork Crow. A Welsh country house is under constant threat from cruel, deadly fairies, desperate to capture the heir. Seren, our heroine, has defeated them before, but when, at a summer fair, she buys a box that promises her heart’s desires, she finds herself thrust into a dilemma that might result in her own capture. Fisher’s writing, as ever, glistens. This is a gorgeous and fitting end to the trilogy and a treat for children of nine and up.
The fairies in Fisher’s novel are beautiful but terrifying; equally frightening is the ghost in Phil Hickes’s The Haunting of Aveline Jones, an eerie, tightly controlled novel that sees Aveline heading to a coastal town to stay with her aunt. There’s no phone reception and weird scarecrows pop up all over the place. Aveline buys a book of ghost stories from a second-hand bookseller, only to find that the final story has been scribbled out. Something terrible is coming from the sea, bringing darkness in its wake. Hickes’s novel is as much about the solitude and loneliness of its child protagonist as it is about terror, and it will keep children of nine and up hooked.
Meg Rosoff’s The Great Godden is set during a golden summer on the coast of East Anglia in a house which has belonged to the narrator’s bohemian family for generations. There are little nods to F Scott Fitzgerald in the title and in a handsome character who isn’t quite what he seems. Rosoff’s narrator, who remains nameless and whose gender is never revealed, watches the family as they are disturbed by the arrival of the sun-kissed, beautiful Kit Godden, ‘a kind of golden Greek statue of a youth … His longish hair sprang from his head like Medusa’s snakes.’ A dead cormorant also foreshadows trouble. The narrator hides behind a telescope, observing everything, but eventually becomes as much involved as everyone else.
Rosoff’s impressionistic prose is all dappled light and salty waves, and her insight into the adolescent mind is peerless. The Great Godden reminded me of Pasolini’s film Theorem, in which a handsome stranger seduces an entire family (son, daughter, mother, father), leaving them distraught. A similar process is at work here, and the novel’s tense climax is powerful and lasting. Teenagers and adults alike will swoon in its embrace.