Children's summer reading: Slapstick capers and amazing adventures for pre-teens
Dinosaurs, hamsters, and a brother's famous bottom
Saturday 20 July 2013
Long ago, on the plains of Africa, there grew a resplendent tree. Its fruit smelled of "sweetest mangoes" and was as "fat as melons". Zebra, monkey and other hungry animals clapped eyes on the tree with delight, for the land was parched and little else grew. But the tree was guarded by a python, who refused to relinquish the delicious fruit. So begins an enchanting retelling of a folktale from Gabon. Packed with humour and brought to life by Piet Grobler's vibrant illustrations, Dianne Hofmeyr's The Magic Bojabi Tree (Frances Lincoln, £11.99) is an immensely satisfying tale.
Who wouldn't want a friendly stegosaurus as a pet? In Ian Whybrow's Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs (Ladybird, £4.99) we encounter a boy who finds a box of Jurassic toys in his granny's loft. Adrian Reynolds's dinosaurs jump off the page. Harry washes and fixes the plastic creatures, taking them in a bucket to the local library to discover their names. His curious friends spring to life, gazing at images of their giant forbears. Harry takes his bucket everywhere, with the playful dinosaurs peeking over the rim. How will Harry cope when the bucket goes missing? This charming book will appeal to early readers.
Not all pets are friendly. Some are grumpy and supercilious, as is the case with Jasper Stinkybottom, the rodent star of Dave Lowe's My Hamster is an Astronaut (Templar, £5.99). When Ben Jinks dashes back from school, announcing his plan to build a rocket for the science fair, Stinky is far from enthused. "Make a rocket? ... You'd struggle to make a sandwich." Hamsters are peculiarly popular in early junior fiction, but it takes a special sort of hamster to gnaw a path through the competition, and the cynical Stinky is the beastie for the job. Illustrated by Mark Chambers.
This year saw the reissue of Esio Trot (Puffin, £5.99) by Roald Dahl, the king of funny books for young readers. Lovelorn Mr Hoppy lives in a flat above widowed Mrs Silver. Every day they chat from their balconies, but Mrs Silver only has eyes for her tortoise, Alfie. She lavishes affection on the little reptile, but when Mrs Silver confides her frustration at Alfie's creeping rate of growth, Mr Hoppy hatches a plan to trick the good woman into thinking he's made the tortoise grow – and then, at last, she will love him back. It is hard to imagine such dastardly malfeasance being rewarded in a modern children's book. We are infinitely fortunate that Dahl's tales survive as popular classics, enlivened by the masterful Quentin Blake.
Today's comic tales point to a shift from Dahl-esque devilry to madcap snot-and-underpants capers, particularly popular with boys. The best of these are the books of Jeremy Strong, and this year's My Brother's Famous Bottom Gets Crowned (Puffin, £5.99) will not disappoint. Timed to build on the arrival of a new royal baby, Strong gives us a street party to celebrate the Queen's Coronation, annoying neighbours, naughty siblings and the birth of twins to the Prince and Princess. The scene is set for slapstick escapades.
You can never have too many cats in fiction – the playful ones, the prissy ones, the villainous and fiendish ones. Ginger Biscuit certainly falls into the last category, and he's planning the greatest heist in history, together with his human accomplice and a band of Machiavellian magpies. Reformed cat burglar and all-round-cool-kitty, Atticus Claw, will have to draw on all his courage to foil the cunning plot. Packed with mischief, razor-sharp dialogue and memorable characters, Jennifer Gray's Atticus Claw Settles a Score (Faber, £5.99) is the follow-up to Atticus Claw Breaks the Law.
Climbing up the age band, R J Palacio's Wonder (Corgi, £6.99) has already won international acclaim. The protagonist introduces himself: "I know I'm not an ordinary 10-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball …. My name is August, by the way. I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse." Born with severe facial abnormalities, Auggie has been home-schooled, protected by his family. But all that's about to change as he starts middle school, where befriending someone "different" is an act of bravery. The story probes beneath the skin to highlight society's casual prejudice and the cult of beauty and popularity that leaves children like Auggie ostracised. While the sentiment may be pitched a little high for a British audience, the story cannot fail to touch you. Wonder is a special sort of book – distressing, moving and uplifting all at once.
At the top of the age band, and also suitable for teens, is Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon (Hot Key, £6.99). The novel won the 2012 Costa Children's Book Award and recently snapped up the 2013 Carnegie Medal. Maggot Moon is a powerful novel that works on multiple levels. Set in an alternate 1950s Britain under fascist rule, the story is told by Standish Treadwell, who lives with his grandfather. Life is hard in Zone 7. Not only is Standish dyslexic, his parents are feared dead and his only friend has vanished. The Motherland strives to augment its power with a space launch but there is more to its scheme than meets the eye. A gripping dystopia with a compelling, original narrator.
Inbali Iserles is the author of 'The Tygrine Cat' (Walker, £5.99) and 'The Tygrine Cat: On the Run' (Walker, £5.99)
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