IoS Books of the Year: Children's books age 8-12
This year's best children's fiction is high on adventure, full of colour and imagination, and imbued with a touch of magic
Sunday 09 December 2012
The Magnificent Moon Hare by Sue Monroe (Egmont, £5.99) introduces P J Petulant ("P J" does NOT stand for "Pyjamas"), a grumpy princess who wishes for a Moon Hare. When he obligingly appears, the two of them, and a dragon called Sandra, fly off to rescue P J's father, who is imprisoned in the next-door kingdom. Funny, pacey and filled with memorable, colourful characters, it's a delightful debut for younger readers. A sequel is already out, with more to come.
Sarah Garland's Azzi in Between (Frances Lincoln, £12.99) uses a graphic-novel format to tell the story of Azzi and her parents, who are forced to flee their war-torn home. Her sensitive handling of it masks the weight and significance of the subject which Garland is introducing to her young readers.
Talking of marvellous pictures … the long winter nights are perfect for sinking comfily into a beloved classic, many of which are now being re-imagined by contemporary illustrators, as gifts for new generations to discover. There's Ursula Moray Williams's Gobbolino, the Witch's Cat, brought beautifully to life by Catherine Rayner (Macmillan, £9.99); a new edition of Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking illustrated by Lauren Child (OUP, £7.99); and Neil Gaiman's creepy Coraline which has illustrations by the genius Chris Riddell (Bloomsbury, £12.99). But my favourite of this crop must be The Wind in the Willows (OUP, £12.99), visually revived here by the always-brilliant David Roberts.
More improbable is an experiment in the opposite process: new words written to classic pictures. Chris Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, first published in 1984, comprises 14 pictures with titles and captions but no written story, and is one of the best things I know for sparking a reader's imagination: a true original, and a masterpiece of picture-book art. Now, 14 US writers have taken one picture apiece and spun stories around them. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick (Andersen, £14.99) can't replace its predecessor, but it is a fascinating complement.
One of my favourite US children's novels of recent years is Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me. Now she's back with Liar and Spy (Andersen, £9.99). Georges moves into a new apartment and befriends upstairs neighbour Safer. Safer has an unusual family, a spy club, and a secret. The boys learn from their friendship with each other, and Stead's readers will grow from knowing them, too.
Barney, meanwhile, is having a miserable time at school. And home isn't so great, either, not since Dad disappeared. Oh, how much simpler to be a cat, he wishes. Ah, big mistake. I loved Matt Haig's To Be a Cat (Bodley Head, £10.99), a terrific yarn with just the right mix of humour, surprise and page-turning peril.
When Eva Ibbotson died in 2010, we thought One Dog and His Boy would be our last chance to relish her storytelling. Now there's one final gift, The Abominables (Marion Lloyd, £10.99), a novel found posthumously among her papers. Young Lady Agatha is abducted from her tent by a yeti (below). But yetis are charming, smiling vegetarians, so she isn't eaten; instead she teaches them to talk. A poignant reminder of why its author was so loved, The Abominables brims with character and wit.
Philip Reeve is one of those writers who seems incapable of producing a bad book. (Or, for that matter, a bad sentence.) Goblins (Marion Lloyd, £6.99), in which we join Skarper and his fellow goblins in grim Clovenstone Keep, has all the imaginative sparkle we've come to expect. Dave Shelton's A Boy and a Bear in a Boat (David Fickling, £10.99) is indeed about a boy and a bear in a boat, but in every other respect is entirely unpredictable. It's an indescribable fable of friendship, trust, adventure; odd, innocent, and quite wonderful.
Finally, in Nicky Singer's The Flask (HarperCollins, £10.99), Jess's mother has just given birth to conjoined twins. Will Jess's discovery of a glass flask belonging to her late Aunt Edie somehow help her newborn brothers' chances of survival? It's a story about the connections between people, and about the things we can and cannot explain. Emotionally sophisticated and imbued with magic, this one stays with you.
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