Forget chocolate – why not try a book this Easter?
Susan Elkin reviews the best children's and young-adult fiction to help keep your darlings entertained over the spring holidays
Sunday 01 April 2012
Among quirky new books for the over-fours is The Frank Show (Harper Collins, £6.99), in which David Mackintosh's lovely people-filled drawings and witty text introduce us to Grandpa Frank, who lives with the boy narrator's family in New York. He doesn't like fancy food or modern music but (eventually) makes a good subject for a talk at school about a family member.
William Steig's Shrek (Particular, £12.99), the delightfully simple book which inspired the films and the musical, is fun too. Steig's drawings of the world's favourite ogre decorate his crisp prose, which sends up traditional tales of valour. It reads like Hemingway for children. "Wherever Shrek went, every living creature fled" and "The knight, red-hot, dove into the stagnant moat."
Shahnameh (Frances Lincoln, £16.99) is a collection of 10th-century stories and myths full of kings, heroes, princesses, magical animals, and demons. Master storyteller Elizabeth Laird has retold this Persian classic with elegant simplicity and Shirin Adl's lively art work makes for a very pretty book.
In May, for independent readers in the later primary and early secondary years, comes the compelling and moving Butterfly Summer by Anne-Marie Conway (Usborne, £5.99). Becky is haunted – in every sense – by her family's past, and especially by her father, whom her mother refuses to discuss with her. Who is the demanding girl in the butterfly garden on the edge of the village whom nobody sees except Becky? And what really happened to her father? Lovely characters include Mum's supportive friend Stella, her common-sensible son Mack and Mr and Mrs Jackson who run the village shop.
Rachel Billington's Poppy's Hero (Frances Lincoln, £6.99) is a well observed story inspired by the author's 20 years of prison work, about a child whose dad, Big Frank, is a jailed Irish drug smuggler. Nothing in it is black and white. The charismatic, likeable Angel, whom Poppy meets while visiting prison, will probably end up in prison like his father. Then there's Poppy's Polish piano-teacher mother and her friend Will, who has heart problems, both counterpointed with her "normal" friend Jude.
Elizabeth Laird's The Prince Who Walked With Lions (Macmillan, £12.99) is a poignant historical novel about orphaned Prince Alamayu. The unfortunate boy was brought from Ethiopia to school in Britain, with Queen Victoria's support, in 1868 after his father was killed by the British. It taught me a great deal about a "campaign" – actually a vicious war against the indigenous people – in Ethiopia that I knew nothing about, and Laird fills out the period details convincingly.
And so to books for over-12s. Brigid Lowry's Triple Ripple (Allen & Unwin, £6.99) is a clever and original fairy story with interjections by the New Zealand-based writer and a modern reader – the former discussing authorial quandaries and decisions, and the latter responding to them while she deals with trauma in her own life. The main story gives us Princess Mirabella and her maid Glory, who are both teenagers, and they're all linked by common themes such as boyfriends, bullying and absent fathers.
There is yet another father quest in No Use Crying by Zannah Kearns (Frances Lincoln, £6.99). It's an impressive first novel with striking imagery, such as of a character carrying knowledge like a kicking foetus. There is a cast of splendid characters, including the ailing Professor Munroe and his friendly, helpful wife. The daughter of a troubled single mother, Niki eventually finds her reformed father and his new family, which leads to a messy but hopeful conclusion.
There's no father at all in Maya Brown's life. She is the feisty, sometimes foolhardy 15-year-old Kosovan daughter of Pam, who is something senior and hush-hush in international intelligence. Breaking the Circle (Frances Lincoln, £6.99) is Maya's second outing, and finds her uncovering a drugs and sex-trafficking ring. It's implausible, but also a fast-paced and readable thriller which manages obliquely to pack a strong and realistic message about the horrors of drugs.
In a quite different mood is Dee Shulman's Fever (Razorbill, £6.99), the first part of a trilogy which links Sethos, a 2nd-century Londinium gladiator, with Eva, a super-bright but troubled sixth-former in a rather unlikely London boarding school for high fliers. Both stories fly along, and then comes the link: suddenly we're in a world of metaphysics and virology. Full of twists, immaculately researched, it is very exciting and unpredictable.
A Midsummer Tights Dream by Louise Rennison (HarperCollins, £10.99) and The Intern by Dillon Khan (Puffin, £6.99) are both about the performing arts. Rennison's Tallulah is back, with her strange idiolect, at her performing arts school in Yorkshire, and working her way painfully and humorously through adolescence. Khan's novel is different. Jay is older. He is an intern on a TV pop show. He makes mistakes and compromises his relationship with his girlfriend. Khan gives us a pretty ruthless, off-putting picture of the less-than-glamorous industry and Jay does a lot of growing up.
And finally, the teenage thieves Ash and Benjamin return in their latest escapist excursion, The Hit List, by Jack Heath (Usborne, £6.99). Their quest to break into the world's largest intelligence agency begins with a raid on a drift mine, followed by an underground shoot-out in which they are ranged against 12 snipers who kill everyone in sight. It's fast paced stuff for those who like this sort of thing.
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