Books of the Year: Children 8-12

Alien brothers, soaked loo roll and entrail bonfires
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The Independent Culture

Publishers have a pretty unsubtle strategy for getting the young boy reader on board: gross them out. David Walliams' latest entry in this category, Billionaire Boy (HarperCollins, £12.99), isn't a patch on last year's Mr Stink. Joe is the son of the Bog-Roll King, a man who made good by inventing double-sided toilet paper (one wet side, one dry). Urgh. Joe, not surprisingly, has no friends at his posh school. He decides that the local comp might be a more amenable environment. Cue tales of bullying and solicitous befriending by the local Billy No Mates. Walliams' writing here is, as all Little Britain fans will recognise, very much in the school of Dame Sally Markham: several entire pages are filled with the word "BLOB!".

Mr Gum and the Secret Hideout by Andy Stanton (Egmont, £5.99) is similarly disgusting but, rather than being self-consciously eccentric, is out-and-out insane. It's the eighth book in the Mr Gum series and nowhere is madder than the town of Lamonic Bibber. Mr Gum and his accomplice are filling a furnace on the edge of town with entrails in the hope of creating "Townal Warmin'" so severe that the settlement will fall into the sea. Enter young Polly and old Friday O'Leary, founders of the Department of Clouds and Yoghurts, who set out to investigate why the weather has gone wrong: "They were as brave as bees, as true as trees, as cheerful as cheese and as knowledgeable as knees." A lesson in how it should be done.

Girls in search of a good read often find themselves directed towards Jacqueline Wilson, who pulls as hard at the heartstrings as ever in The Longest Whale Song (Doubleday, £12.99). Ella's mum, Sue, has remarried and is expecting a baby. But after the baby is born, Sue falls into a coma and can't be woken up. Ella struggles to adjust to life without her mum, to form a relationship with her stepdad and to look after baby Samson. It's a long search for the happy ending here, but the fractured family finally makes it. Wilson may be a little mawkish at times, but her grip on what little girls are made of is a sure one.

Small boys may appreciate a less emotionally intense take on new baby brothers, as offered by Malaika Rose Stanley's Spike and Ali Enson (Tamarind, £4.99). Spike's new sibling, Ali, has protuberant eyes and poos green stuff so Spike naturally assumes he's from outer space. He takes a photo and a dirty nappy for testing, then has to break it to his mother that Ali is indeed an alien. Stanley eschews the traditional here, as Spike turns out to have been adopted and his birth parents are from the planet Aledela. Mother recalibrates the particle accelerator and they all zoom off into space. Now that's what I call a happy ending.

Michael Morpurgo's Shadow (HarperCollins, £12.99) is far more in touch with the real world. Shadow is an army sniffer dog who comes across young Aman and his family living in a cave in Afghanistan. She leads them to Kabul and a passage to Britain, where Aman befriends a boy called Matt and gets detained at Yarl's Wood. It is up to Matt and his grandpa to get him out. Morpurgo's prose has a clarity that prevents it from becoming too cloying and Shadow is a genuinely moving story which packs a political punch that most children's fiction would shy away from.

Finally, it's the witching hour. This year is the 50th anniversary of Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (HarperCollins, £5.99). The influence of this spooky tale of Alderley Edge cannot be overstated: buy it now, and read it again. If you must have more contemporary fantasy for your almost-teens, then the bogglingly prolific Terry Pratchett has a new Junior Discworld title: I Shall Wear Midnight (Doubleday, £18.99). Tiffany Aching is a teen witch who spends a lot of time dealing with the mundane. But life is getting stranger by the second, particularly when the old Baron remembers a perfect childhood day when he drew a picture of a hare which, he says, "I shall remember until the day I..." At which point, Death arrives and carries him off. All complete with footnotes about why woollen clothes used to smell of wee, and why every hare is a "her".

For something even more sinister, try Reckless by Cornelia Funke (Chicken House, £12.99). It takes an old idea – an alternative world through the looking glass – but this one is less like Lewis Carroll's, and more like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Jacob has been disappearing into the mirror world for years now, in search of his lost father, but when brother Will follows him in and gets clawed by the Goyl, Jacob must fight through gingerbread houses, Rapunzel ropes and the Dark Fairy's chambers to save him. Which just goes to show: you're never too old for a good fairytale.

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