Lissa Evans’s moving, joyous new book for children, Wished (David Fickling Books 254pp £12.99), combines all the most enticing elements of children’s fiction into a confection about wish fulfilment, imagination and the need for understanding between different generations. Ed and Roo are an ordinary brother and sister whose parents are trying to build an extension to their house, since Ed now uses a wheelchair. During the building work, they’re packed off to their neighbour, Miss Filey, who talks ‘like somebody out of a black-and-white film’. Deadly dull days will ensue, they think.
Of course, they are wrong, and delightfully so. Evans is a skilful writer, drawing the reader on at a fizzingly fast pace. Almost immediately the siblings (along with the local vicar’s son, Willard, who considers himself the class clown and is rather adorable) discover some birthday candles that grant wishes. The catch is that the wish only lasts as long as the candle burns. So no vast wealth, then.
Over time, the children learn more about Miss Filey. Forced to look after an elderly relative for much of her life, she committed her desires to paper; the candles are left over from her own, uncelebrated tenth birthday. Trapped by circumstances, she escaped into her imagination.
There are countless sources of laughter, including a talking cat, Attlee, and a performing ant. Miss Filey’s wishes, which the children can share in, form a Neverland of desires: zooming in a rocket to the moon, finding treasure, working on a film set and foiling art thieves. The relationships are tenderly and carefully drawn, the growing friendship between Willard and Ed particularly so, and Roo is a sparky and sympathetic sister. The hitherto repressed Miss Filey learns that she too can have fun. This is a top-notch piece of work. Children aged eight and up will revel in it.
A similar high-octane energy abounds in Hannah Moffatt’s Small! (Everything with Words 214pp £6.99). Harvey Small is beset by bad luck: the only school he can get a place at is Madame Bogbrush’s School for Gifted Giants. His parents are separated and his mother is busy doing something that Harvey doesn’t really understand. Unfortunately, Harvey is very much not a giant so has to pretend to be one. Cue stilts, fake feet and lots of suspicious giants wondering why his hands are so tiny. Nobody must find out the truth or he’ll get bashed. The giants, you see, hate smalls.
Moffatt tells her tale with comical charm, as the bizarre and bonkers situations ratchet up, bringing ghostly elephants, ballet lessons for the giants and a bad-tempered fairy inspector. Harvey manages to fit in among the giants, even making a friend, the giant Walloping, who tells him, ‘I wants to see the world! Ma says the world is too small and narrow for giants. But I is an explorer!’
Twin threats approach in the form of the Beastly School Board and a prophecy from the clairvoyant who lives in the basement. Harvey doesn’t learn to enjoy bogweed sandwiches and ‘sink pit surprise’, but he does find love in his life in unexpected places. Children of eight and up will delight in this gleeful, rambunctious romp.
In the fine tradition of stories set in witchy schools represented by Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch books and J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, we have a sparkling newcomer: Skye McKenna’s Hedgewitch (Welbeck Flame 402pp £12.99). We begin in classic children’s book style: Cassie, a young, lonely and bullied girl, is reading fairy stories in the broom cupboard of her ghastly boarding school. Children have been disappearing across the country, a slightly alternative Great Britain. Cassie’s mother has been declared dead, though Cassie feels in her heart that she is still alive. When she decides to run away from school, she is hurtled into the world of her fairy stories, which turn out to be true. Talking cats, goblins and witches abound. Britain has been at war with Faerie and only the Hedge (a vast forest) separates them from each other. Cassie’s family are Hedgewitches, bound to protect the country from wicked supernatural forces.
McKenna’s debut combines satisfyingly quirky elements (names like Widdershin and a pub called the Pickled Imp) with a rooting in folklore. The terrifying Erl King is on the hunt for a key that belongs to Cassie, and she must face up to this – and her mother’s disappearance – while passing her Fledgling exams in order to become a fully fledged witch. Vivid and thoroughly assured, Hedgewitch may well stand alongside the works of Murphy and Rowling in years to come.
The historical novelist Emma Carroll’s Escape to the River Sea (Macmillan 275pp £12.99) also sits within a classic tradition, being directly inspired by Eva Ibbotson’s enchanting 2001 adventure novel, Journey to the River Sea. Some of the major characters recur, but the story is entirely Carroll’s own. Rosa is a half-Jewish evacuee staying in a stately home (owned by Sir Clovis, an actor). Although the Second World War has ended, she still has heard nothing from her mother and sister in Vienna. When Dr Yara Fielding arrives at the house announcing that she’s going on a hunt for the giant sloth, which some believe still exists in Brazil, Rosa travels with her.
On arriving in Brazil, they find cattle ranchers illegally cutting down trees and another scientist also seeking the giant sloth. The locals talk of a great monster with a mouth in its stomach. Rosa sets off down the Amazon in search of the truth, not only about the giant sloth but also about Yara and her own family. Carroll is a gorgeously atmospheric writer and the dangers of the journey, from piranha fish to real human evil, are vividly described. This is one for children of ten and up with an appetite for japery, spies and adventure.
Philip Pullman’s The Imagination Chamber (David Fickling Books/Scholastic 85pp £12.99) is a slim collection of fragments from the His Dark Materials series. In a short introduction, Pullman refers to these as ‘charged particles’ or ‘cosmic rays’ – ideas which pass through him before coalescing into something greater.
Each of the ‘cosmic rays’ here is finely wrought and evocative. Some drip with mystery. In one, Mrs Coulter and Will sit in a cave watching each other: ‘Their words like chess pieces, placed with great care, each carrying an invisible nimbus of implication and possibility and threat.’ Others add texture to the worlds his readers know well: we see the city of Cittàgazze ‘under the moonlight … the colonnades drenched in soft shadow’, and read of how the witch Serafina Pekkala ‘on her cloud pine would find a still field of air at night and listen to the silence’. One for fans, The Imagination Chamber nevertheless displays Pullman’s impeccable talent. It’s something to whet the appetite as we await the concluding volume of the Book of Dust trilogy.