The best children's books for this summer: Outstanding tall stories for short people

As the schools break up, Nicholas Tucker picks the best books around for youngsters

Nicholas Tucker
Thursday 24 July 2014 12:48 BST
Milly and The Mermaids
Milly and The Mermaids

This is a happy book" trumpets the title page of Clara Vulliamy's I ♥ Holidays (Harpercollins, £6.99 paperback), and indeed it is. Three cheerful rabbit siblings take a seaside holiday with Mum and Dad and have a good time doing the usual beach things including putting up with rain. Bright colours and lots of detail make all this very pleasing.

Younger readers should also enjoy a different seaside experience in Maudie Smith's Milly and the Mermaids (Orion, £12.99, £6.99 paperback). Luminously illustrated by Antonia Woodward, the promise of "extra sparkle inside" is amply born out when Milly discovers the secret world of mermaids. This she does after entering a shell brought back from the beach that afternoon which has now swollen to giant-size. Is she dreaming? Ask any child lucky enough to possess this beautiful book.

Simon Puttock's Mouse's First Night at Moonlight School (Nosy Crow, £10.99) takes a reassuring look at feeling shy on the first day in the classroom. Initially mouse conceals herself behind the curtains but after winning a game of hide-and-seek she decides that school and her new animal friends are a good thing after all. Ali Pye's dreamy illustrations are as appealing as the child-head teacher Miss Moon, who sports a witch's hat but is otherwise a model of affectionate understanding.

A different level of patience is required by the invisible dog-owners in Catherine Rayner's Smelly Louie (Macmillan, £11.99). Wild-haired Louie, a hound of indeterminate extraction, hates his new roses and apple bloom fragrance following an unwanted bath. A series of swirling, impressionistic full page water colour illustrations show him setting about cultivating a smell as revolting as his last. An over-flowing dustbin and some sticky sludge are put to good use, but when he returns home there is already another bath running for him. His artist-illustrator won the prestigious Kate Greenaway medal in 2009. But if Giles Andreae's Sir Scallywag and the Deadly Dragon Poo (Puffin, £6.99 paperback) were to be next year's winner, the gentle Victorian artist who gave her name to this prize would surely be revolving in her grave. When Andreae, master of the comic rhyming couplet, gets together with top anarchic illustrator Korky Paul, the two naughtiest boys in the current picture book class really let fly. Their story begins with King Colin bombarded with dragon poo by the evil Baron Greedyguts, who is intent on stealing a giant sweet machine. The bespattered monarch turns to six-year-old Sir Scallywag for rescue and the young hero is finally successful, but not before a lot of dragon poo has hit rather more than a fan. Young readers will not believe their luck if they get their hands on this rudely hilarious picture book.

James Campbell's Boyface and the Quantum Chromatic Disruption Machine (Hodder, £5.99 paperback) is an engagingly eccentric story set in the seaside village of Stoddenage-on-Sea. It features a husband and wife pair of stripemongers who have the ability to remove stripes of any description and then sell them on. Their 10-year-old son, Boyface, is put in charge of the shop and battles to get through his first day. Mark Weighton's line drawings are an added pleasure.

Caryl Hart's Foxy Tales: The Road to Fame and Fortune (Hodder, £4.99 paperback) also contains ingenious black and white illustrations provided by Alex T Smith. The continuing saga of ambitious Foxy Dubois and her regular nemesis the monstrously greedy Alphonso the Alligator now takes them to the film studios of Jollywood, home of the glamorous film star Ebenezer Jones. As always nothing ever works out with a lot of fun along the way.

And, for the Daddy of all jokey books for junior readers, go to Jeremy Strong and his 100th title, Kidnapped! (Puffin, £5.99, paperback). Streaker, the talking dog whose favourite occupation is running at great speed, finds herself in France for a fortnight's camping. Illustrated by Rowan Clifford, what follows lives up to its predecessors.

For older readers, Angie Sage always offers good value, and her latest Araminta Spook novel Gargoyle Hall (Bloomsbury, £5.99 paperback) is well up to speed as the fearless child detective solves another mystery, this time set in an exclusive girls' boarding school.

A different secret becomes evident in Ross Montgomery's The Tornado Chasers (Faber, £6.99 paperback), which combines comic writing with gathering menace. It follows the fortunes of 11-year old hero Owen Underwood, who is unwillingly relocated to the decidedly strange town of Barrow. This bleak habitation has been founded by parents with an obsessive dread of anything bad ever happening to their children. Resenting the six o'clock curfews and constant warnings about mythical killer bears, Owen joins a gang of children determined to break away from this stifling over-protection. What happens after that is fast, often furious and, finally, surprising.

Jon Walter's assured debut novel Close to the Wind (David Fickling, £10.99) is the tautly written story of Malik, a 10-year old boy trying to escape with his grandfather from devastating civil war to a better life overseas. No country is named, with Malik standing in for all child asylum seekers. Threatened at every stage, he finally makes it but at severe cost, although there is a happy ending of sorts. This is a gripping and frequently moving story that's highly topical and not to be missed.

Also recommended is E Lockhart's We Were Liars (Hot Key books, £7.99 paperback). It's a sometimes over-wrought but ultimately compelling story of a rich American family in meltdown. King Lear beckons as old man Harris Sinclair decides who gets what from his holiday island, with all three grown-up daughters squabbling for his possessions with not a Cordelia in sight. But it is the grandchildren who suffer most, with the narrator, 15-year-old Cadence, only gradually recovering her memory of the terrible events that left her part-amnesiac.

British readers may sometimes wonder how so much opulence can still leave characters feeling so permanently adrift, but in these angst-ridden literary times any novel or play showing wealthy American extended family members actually enjoying their vacation now seems well past.

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