Best books for children this Christmas: Part one

In the first of three round-ups, Susan Elkin reviews titles aimed at age 12 and above

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The Independent Culture

From the 16th century in Venice to the 23rd (or thereabouts) in Hawaii via coming of age in New Guinea and dealing with 1950s kidnappers in London, several visits to Australia – and, of course, the inevitable crop of heart-rending 1914 stories – the choice for readers in their early teens has probably never been wider.

To Hawaii first, where Lydia Millet’s vision of the future in Pills and Starships (Black Sheep £7.50) is chillingly bleak but with a glimmer of hope. The world, devastated by global warming and shrinking resources, is now run by “Corps” which sell death packages, cleverly presented as a positive life choice to people “ready to go”. Nat and Sam are in Hawaii at an artificially created resort where their parents have chosen to die. The details are terrific (no water for lavatories and everyone’s on “meds”) and as the tension mounts it becomes a real page turner when Sam discovers that everything is not quite what it seems, and action is taken to claw back humanity. I’m the first to admit that dystopia isn’t usually for me, but this one got right under my skin.

In a completely different mood comes Impossible! Michelle Magorian’s latest brick-sized book, a tangential sequel to her 2007 novel Henry (Troika, £7.99). Josie wants to be an actor and is enrolled at a 1950s London stage school which she doesn’t like. A very complicated and somewhat unlikely plot (think Ballet Shoes meets Emil and the Detectives) involving kidnapping, drugs, and a splendid character named Mr Beauvoisin, takes her to Stratford East Theatre where she meets and learns a lot about acting from the legendary, and real, Joan Littlewood. It’s two books in one, really.

Also set in London, but 60 years later, is She Wore Red Trainers by Na’ima B Robert (Kube, £6.99). Difficult as it is for non-Muslim teenagers to come to terms with semi-arranged marriage at 18 or 19, this compelling novel makes sense of it. There is mutual attraction between Ali and Amirah. But they aren’t meant even to speak to each other in a culture dominated by protective, well-meaning, generally decent, older brothers keen to set up “meetings” with a view to marriage. It’s a gentle, sensitive well paced love story, and I learnt a huge amount about Islam, which is, of course, a loving, caring, thoughtful way of life for the vast majority of its adherents.

New Guinea Moon by Kate Constable (Allen and Unwin, £6.99) is about an Australian 16-year-old, Julie, who goes alone to New Guinea to spend the summer with her charter pilot father, Tony, whom she hasn’t seen since she was three. It’s 1974 and New Guinea is about to be granted independence. She finds more than she bargained for, including a man she’s attracted to, and another she isn’t, many colourful characters (Barb is nicely sketched and so is Andy) in a world in which indigenous people are often ignored, an unexpected secret in her father’s life and, eventually, a future.

Also about Australians is The Vanishing Moment by Margaret Wild (Allen and Unwin, £.6.99). Arrow and Marika don’t know each other, but both girls have devastating trauma in their pasts involving child death. Wild tells their stories in parallel, alternating them with shorter passages about an abused child named Bob, until the three paths, inevitably, converge. There’s a deal of heartbreak and anguish along with the hope and then a rather unexpected and ingenious post-modern ending so the reader, in effect, chooses the outcome.

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The choice for readers in their early teens has probably never been wider (Elisabeth Schmitt/Getty Images/Flickr RM)

Still on the subject of child disappearance is Emma Haughton’s Now You See Me …(Usborne, £6.99) which is inspired by a true story. Danny, 13, has disappeared. The novel bravely explores how it feels for those who are left when they simply don’t know what happened. You’d be hard put not to think of Madeleine McCann’s parents. Hope can be deeply painful as Hannah, Danny’s half sister, discovers, as she tries to continue with school work and come to terms at the same time with the death of her own mother.  

Louisa Reid’s Lies Like Love (Penguin, £7.99) gives us 16-year-old Audrey moving to another part of the country with her mother, who doesn’t always behave well, and beloved little brother Peter. At the new school she meets, and is drawn to, Leo and his story is skilfully meshed with Audrey’s. Where is Audrey’s father? Why do they have insurance money? It’s a very long time before we learn exactly what has happened in the past – the skilled narrative unravelling makes it a good read.

The shortest novel in this selection is also historically the most distant and interesting because it is “dyslexia friendly”, printed on cream paper in an unusual font with serifs. Mary Hoffman’s Angel of Venice (Barrington Stoke, £6.99) tells of Luca working in the Arsenale in Venice building galleys for the war in 1571. Then he stows away on a warship and goes off to fight the Ottomans – the history is good and the battle scenes uncompromising, although Luca survives for a traditional happy ending back home.

And so, finally, to the First World War and four enjoyable novels inspired by it. In Michael Morpurgo’s Listen to The Moon (Harper Collins, £12.99) a single child survives a wartime sinking at sea and is washed up, injured and amnesiac in Scilly. Is she a mermaid? Or a German spy? A fisherman’s family takes her in and she gradually returns to health and self knowledge. It’s a thoughtful look at the knock-on effect of the war on civilians, in Morpurgo’s usual sentimental style. Maurice Gleitzman borrows Morpurgo’s War Horse territory in Loyal Creatures (Puffin, £6.99) which presents Frank, Australian, underage and desperate to get to war in 1914, as long as he can take his horse, Daisy, with him. There’s a lot of poignancy and nobility along with Frank’s ordinary teenage cares.

Ghost Soldier by Thereas Breslin (Doubleday, £12.99), like Listen to the Moon, focuses on people away from the front line. It’s a heart-warming story about two children whose father has purportedly been killed in the war. And Dawn by Eve Edwards (Penguin, £7.99) continues the gripping love story of Helen Sanford, a nurse with German ancestry, and a Royal Flying Corps pilot, Sebastian Trewby, begun in Dusk. She is missing, wanted by the authorities and he’s searching for her. The novel ends as the war does – with a strong sense of comrades lost.

Susan Elkin is the author of Please Miss We’re Boys, and other books on reading

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