Children’s and teens roundup: the best new picture books and novels

Dogs and jungle animals for young ones, politics and mysteries for older readers

Big names for small readers abound as summer creeps over the horizon, including Shirley Hughes’s new book for five- to eight-year-olds, Ruby in the Ruins (Walker), which vividly evokes a child’s view of the aftermath of war. After Ruby and Mum weather the blitz together, Dad comes home at last; but, to Ruby, he seems a huge, sunburned stranger, taking up too much space … But rather than being remote and shell-shocked, Dad is warmly sympathetic to Ruby’s escapades in this story full of resilient, hopeful love.

Visually stunning, with spare text allowing pictures to do the heavy lifting, Grahame Baker-Smith’s The Rhythm of the Rain (Templar) is a quiet, intoxicating account of water’s transmutations. Where does the water in Issac’s favourite mountain pool go? Following its progress down waterfalls, into rivers, lakes and sea, and back ...

Children’s and teens roundup: the best new picture books and novels

Novels in verse, rival puffins and what really happened after Humpty Dumpty’s great fall

Unusual titles for eight to 12 are blooming this spring, including Julie Hunt and Dale Newman’s KidGlovz (Allen & Unwin), an Australian graphic novel in the vein of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. KidGlovz is a child prodigy, starved by his showman “uncle” to keep him small. After he is kidnapped and his hand injured, he is abandoned as useless. Can KidGlovz and his friend, the thief Shoestring, survive alone in the wintry mountains – and has Kid lost his heart’s music along with his fingers? Though less nuanced than Selznick’s work, this meandering adventure, with its thought-bubbled, pencil-shaded illustrations, has memorable charm.

There is more unconventional storytelling in Kwame Alexander’s verse novel Rebound (Andersen), a prequel to his Newbery-winning The Crossover, which features comic strip daydreams as well as poetry. Chronicling ...

Children’s and teens roundup: the best new picture books and novels

Griffins and Goorialla, knights and spies – and all the fun of a feast

This Easter, picture-book fans have plenty to choose from, including Juniper Jupiter (Frances Lincoln), a delightfully down-to-earth superhero story from Waterstones award-winner Lizzy Stewart. Juniper has formidable powers, including super-strength, flight and modesty (her great deeds are “no big deal”). But who could possibly be strong, courageous and funny enough to be her perfect sidekick? Crammed with the warm, enticing detail of the everyday, this vivid book is absorbing.

Meanwhile, Sarah McIntyre’s The New Neighbours (David Fickling) features a tower block full of animal tenants. When a pigeon brings news to the top-floor bunnies that rats are moving into the building, they are thrilled; but as the news makes its way downwards, attitudes harden, and pigs, polar bears and yaks in turn declare rats to be smelly, thieving undesirables. What will happen when the residents finally ...

Children’s and teens roundup: the best new picture books and novels

From insect adventures and alien invasions to the fate of 10 hapless chipolatas

This month, Nosy Crow celebrates the centenary of voting rights for (some) women with an anthology of work by contemporary female authors, ideal for readers of eight plus. Crammed with assured writing from Katherine Woodfine, Catherine Johnson, Sally Nicholls and others, Make More Noise examines girls’ access to money, education, respect and power. It’s a thought-provoking collection of short stories.

Capable girls also battle patriarchal values in Robin Stevens’s A Spoonful of Murder (Puffin), the latest in the bestselling series starring 1930s schoolgirl detectives Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells. This instalment, set in Hong Kong, features ultra-English Daisy feeling “foreign” for the first time, an unexpected development in the Wong family – and a murder close to home for Hazel. Stevens’s combination of meticulous research, character development and a knotty plot is guaranteed to please.

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The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert review – a wonderland of terror

A teenager must rescue her kidnapped mother in a dark YA debut that mixes horror and fairy story

Part twisted fairytale, part psychological horror, Melissa Albert’s young adult debut is plum-pudding rich with allusions to Angela Carter and Lewis Carroll. Featuring an angry, acerbic protagonist full of spiky self-reliance, it is simultaneously enticing and fearsome, much like the Hazel Wood of the title: both the secluded estate of a famous, secretive author, and a place where living nightmares walk. While not a book for everyone – its dreamy-sharp, intoxicating prose is likely to leave more down-to-earth readers cold – those who fall for it will fall hard.

Seventeen-year-old Alice Crewe and her mother, Ella, are used to leaving fast when their luck runs out, moving through the US from small town to big city. In affluent New York, however, ill luck finally catches up with them. Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author ...

Children’s and teens roundup: the best new picture books and novels

From YA reads about Muslim lives to picture books featuring great whales and burping owls

The new year is off to a flying start for Young Adult fans, for whom Muhammad Khan’s I Am Thunder (Macmillan) is a must-read. Muzna’s parents want her to be their kind of good Muslim: an obedient daughter who steers clear of boys and studies medicine. Muzna, though, just wants to do something about her facial hair, write stories and have a bit more freedom. When she meets handsome Arif at school, she’s intrigued by his interest – but Arif is under the thumb of an older brother with a sinister agenda. Will Muzna be drawn in, too? With its superb heroine, pitch-perfect dialogue, and sensitive examination of extremism preying on naivety, this assured, hopeful debut feels unprecedented and essential.

Across the pond, 17-year-old film-maker Maya also considers rebellion in Samira Ahmed’s Love, Hate & ...

Children’s books roundup: the best new picture books and novels

Scary stories for Halloween, the transformative power of education … and fish-finger sandwiches

Ghoulish goodies abound for picture-book fans this Halloween, including I Want to Be in a Scary Story by Sean Taylor and Jean Jullien (Walker). Asked what sort of story he’d like to be in, Little Monster demands a scary one. But a spooky forest and haunted house prove too perturbing – and he wants to be the one doing the scaring … This is beautifully structured for reading aloud; a vibrant, viewpoint-flipping picture book that should lessen small readers’ fairytale fears.

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Children’s books roundup: the best new picture books and novels

From a retelling of Rapunzel to a tentative romance, there is something for all ages from toddlers to teensAuthor-illustrator Bethan Woollvin returns to enthral picture-book fans with a retelling of Rapunzel (Two Hoots) in her characteristic, starkly beguiling graphic black and white. The contrasting waves of Rapunzel’s hair, in over-saturated buttery yellow, light up a heroine every bit as defiant, quick-witted and tough as Woollvin’s award-winning Little Red. Another strong-willed girl features in Sean Taylor and Kasia Matyjaszek’s I Am Actually a Penguin (Templar), in which the narrator dons a seabird persona along with her beloved new costume and refuses to behave in any way unbefitting a penguin. It’s warm, hilarious, with acutely observed behaviour and a delightful twist. Continue reading...

Children’s books roundup: the best new picture books and novels

From a retelling of Rapunzel to a tentative romance, there is something for all ages from toddlers to teensAuthor-illustrator Bethan Woollvin returns to enthral picture-book fans with a retelling of Rapunzel (Two Hoots) in her characteristic, starkly beguiling graphic black and white. The contrasting waves of Rapunzel’s hair, in over-saturated buttery yellow, light up a heroine every bit as defiant, quick-witted and tough as Woollvin’s award-winning Little Red. Another strong-willed girl features in Sean Taylor and Kasia Matyjaszek’s I Am Actually a Penguin (Templar), in which the narrator dons a seabird persona along with her beloved new costume and refuses to behave in any way unbefitting a penguin. It’s warm, hilarious, with acutely observed behaviour and a delightful twist. Continue reading...

Filth and fame: how David Walliams became king of kids’ books

The actor, writer and author has been the UK’s bestselling children’s author for 100 weeks. What is the secret to his success? David Walliams’ colossal sales figures are the stuff of dreams for most kids’ authors; he has just hit his 100th consecutive week as the UK’s top‑selling children’s writer. So, what is the secret of his success? Is it the power of celebrity – or is he simply a brilliant author? Well, fame has certainly helped. Well known for his work with Matt Lucas on the sketch show Little Britain, Walliams had already established himself as a familiar funny face and a writer with a turn for grotesque humour when his first book for children was published by HarperCollins in 2008. The Boy in the Dress was deeply indebted (as Walliams acknowledges) to Roald Dahl; it also benefited from the involvement of Quentin Blake, the ...

Release by Patrick Ness review – a gay teenager’s quest for freedom

Themes of sex, shame and sexuality are explored in this coming-of-age novel with echoes of Mrs Dalloway Patrick Ness is known for taking the staple themes of young adult literature – coming of age, feeling at ease in your own skin – and interweaving them with supernatural elements. More Than This (2013) features a teenage cast in an ambiguous limbo, which may or may not be the afterlife; The Rest of Us Just Live Here (2015) foregrounds characters experiencing ordinary happiness and heartbreak, while “Chosen” adolescent heroes, with names such as Indigo, battle monsters in the background. Release is written in the same vein, and is probably his most heartfelt novel to date. He comments in the endnote on his debt to Mrs Dalloway, and the Woolfian echoes begin with the opening line: “Adam would have to get the flowers himself.” The blooms in question are not to ...

Children’s books roundup: the best new picture books and novels

Mole’s missing specs, a new outing for the Little Mermaid, a love song to the planet and Beetle Boy returnsBuds are bursting, lambs are leaping; slough off Easter’s chocolate coma with books about biodiversity, mermaids, battles, beetles, song, ships, grief, star-gazing and growing up. For picture-book fans, Jarvis, master of fabulous foolery, returns with Mrs Mole, I’m Home! (Walker), a worthy successor to Alan’s Big Scary Teeth. Featuring a short-sighted earth-dweller who, mislaying his glasses, tunnels into several erroneous lairs, this delightfully retro book boasts perfectly judged repetition, an appealing palette of blues and reds, and a running joke about the whereabouts of the missing specs; reading it aloud should trigger instant cries of “Again!” Continue reading...

Children’s books roundup: the best new picture books and novels

Diabolical kids, alien communication apps, a first story from Jessica Ennis-Hill and the last from Geek Girl As the weather turns balmier, welcome in the spring; wander in a maze, ride on a truck, and get lost in a story. Picture-book lovers will find much to like in Triangle (Walker), the latest collaboration between Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, and the first in their new trilogy. Klassen’s spattered mint-green, bark-brown and rust-pink shapes impart depth and humour to this story of friends Triangle and Square’s practical joke feud – and Square’s valiant attempt at styling it out when things backfire. Continue reading...

Children’s books roundup: the best new picture books and novels

Diabolical kids, alien communication apps, a first story from Jessica Ennis-Hill and the last from Geek Girl As the weather turns balmier, welcome in the spring; wander in a maze, ride on a truck, and get lost in a story. Picture-book lovers will find much to like in Triangle (Walker), the latest collaboration between Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, and the first in their new trilogy. Klassen’s spattered mint-green, bark-brown and rust-pink shapes impart depth and humour to this story of friends Triangle and Square’s practical joke feud – and Square’s valiant attempt at styling it out when things backfire. Continue reading...

Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel review – heat, dust and dinosaur bones

Two paleontologists chase the elusive ‘rex’ as their children fall in love in a fast-paced, warts-and-all western

This breakneck palaeontological western is perhaps best not judged by its cover. A jigsaw dinosaur skeleton seems to welcome younger readers, despite the tagline’s warning that “Love lies buried”; this makes the appearance of sexual attraction (“I felt myself stiffening between my legs”)on page nine slightly disconcerting. But for a reader mature enough to handle the pungent, realistic detail of 19th-century life, it’s a fascinating, fast-paced, rich and provocative novel.

Appropriately, its author specialises in adventure that takes place on boundaries and frontiers. Kenneth Oppel’s Silverwing trilogy, with its cast of migrating bats, has been compared to Watership Down, selling over a million copies worldwide. In steampunk vein, he has written about thousand-car trains crossing Canada in The Boundless, and 900-ft airships crossing the Pacific in Airborn. Now he has turned his ...

The Song of Seven by Tonke Dragt review – a playful Dutch classic

A self-doubting teacher becomes a fantasy hero in a seductively spiralling story from the author of Letter to the King There are many reasons why The Song of Seven should not work as a book for children. The most significant is that it lacks a child protagonist; although there is a 10-year-old boy at the centre of the story, its hero is a young schoolteacher, Frans van der Steg. Add in a labyrinthine conspiracy, some metafictional comment on reality, identity and storytelling, a delayed central plot-strand and several matter‑of-fact references to corporal punishment, and it seems certain that disaster will result. Yet, somehow, in a hurdy-gurdy way, it hangs together. It does not boast the breakneck pace of The Letter for the King, Tonke Dragt’s world-renowned 1962 heroic fantasy, a big success for Pushkin when it was translated into English in 2013; rather, it draws the reader seductively along its spiralling paths. Its author, ...

Children’s books roundup: the best new picture books and novels

Monochrome magic with Mary Poppins, a swooning YA romance and Winnie-the-Pooh returnsThis bleak November, curl up with a story – whether about monkeys, Mary Poppins, sentient trains, revolutionary France or romance across borders. For picture book lovers there is Pandora (Frances Lincoln), by the award-winning Victoria Turnbull, the tale of an inventive vixen who lives alone, “in a world of broken things”, until a wounded bird falls from the sky. Compelling detail, tender, subtle colouring, economical text and pure emotion – loneliness, grief, hope and eventual joy – add up to a book of quiet but considerable power. Continue reading...

When authors’ prejudices ruin their books

The unsavoury attitudes found in novels from writers such as GK Chesterton and Susan Coolidge have ruined some of the fiction I loved most as a child. But where do you draw the line when you return to tainted classics? When I was 10 or 11, I was consumed by a passion for Golden Age detective fiction. I browsed mildew-smelling secondhand bookshops for Dorothy L Sayers and Arthur Conan Doyle, developing secret proto-crushes on both Lord Peter Wimsey and Sherlock Holmes (and wishing I could carry off a monocle). I burned through Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion books, and Agatha Christies by the score and I adored GK Chesterton’s Father Brown. But recently, rereading the stories of the round-faced, stumpy cleric, with his flapping black cassock and his encyclopedic knowledge of human evil, left me feeling cold rather than cosy. Chesterton’s glorious evocations of light, landscape, and unnerving, lurid strangeness remain ...

Save dragons, save books! Three authors give tips on children’s writing

Children’s author Philip Ardagh, Cressida Cowell and Laura Dockrill on how to write for an audience with short attention spans, ‘spongier’ brains and parents who demand morals over laughs It’s a perennial bugbear among children’s writers that every other writer thinks it’s an easy thing to do when, in fact, children are among the most discerning readers, with an intimate relationship with the on-off switch. Three leading authors will be passing on the tricks of the trade in a Guardian Masterclass on Sunday, 20 March. We asked Philip Ardagh, author of the Eddie Dickens series; How to Train Your Dragon author Cressida Cowell; and Laura Dockrill, author of the Darcy Burdock books, to explain the challenges and the rewards of specialising in literature for young people. They also give some useful tips for anyone hoping to follow them into ...

Politics in picture books: big questions for the smallest readers

For younger minds interested in how the world works, there are a number of erudite authors who make subjects like migration, war and equality accessible Politics and picture books aren’t, perhaps, ideas that automatically go hand in hand in readers’ minds – especially if they are exhausted parents, absently chanting rhymes as their minds steal off. But political themes, both quiet and strident, are often interwoven with the usual suspects’ anthropomorphised cuteness, noisy transport and fairytale retellings. From feminism to climate change, war, immigration and human rights, picture books can provide an easy way into, and fruitful discussion points for, some complex and challenging concepts. Continue reading...