Prequels are risky, particularly after a sequence of five books so brilliant that the bar has already been raised to vertiginous heights. But Hilary McKay, the best writer of child dialogue around at the moment, has come up with another winner. Readers young and old who have previously warmed to the chaotic Cassons and their friends are in for another rare treat.
This story concentrates on four 12-year-old female characters, all from different families. Each is still at that precious last stage of childhood before adolescence and conformist peer-group pressure start taking their toll. They love each other but are also critical of faults, and their conversations ring with often comical honesty. Much recent children's fiction has tended to feature extra-feisty heroines, well able to occupy roles once the preserve of tough, adventurous boys. McKay's girls have no need to take males on at any of their games; they are having far too good a time in their own intensely verbal little gang.
Celebrating lively, intelligent, socially secure young characters in fiction always runs the risk of the type of self-congratulation likely to cause quick reader offence. But while the girls continue to enjoy their own company, things do not always go right. A rescued fledgling pigeon soon dies. More worryingly, Caddy's mother produces a baby girl so premature that, with her hairy shoulders and hands like purple claws, she looks even worse than the pigeon.
Grimly, the younger Casson children start preparing a garden grave, proud of their new ability to dig holes with square corners. Daddy, unwillingly pressed into full-time fatherhood while his wife remains in hospital, welcomes the relief of his children going to school "like a man falling into sunlight".
There are other issues. Beth stops eating properly when she realises she is growing too large for her adored pony, Treacle. Brainy Ruby ceases working once she discovers she is going to be entered for a scholarship to a top school. Fiery Alison, who gathers detentions on a daily basis, has to face leaving the neighborhood and breaking up the gang. And Caddy loyally helps her mother with the baby while coming to terms with the knowledge that Daddy will now be going back to London to his other lady. Some occasional shadows then, but nothing really to spoil the sunshine of this glorious novel from a true master of her craft.