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

Tumbles in the jungle, kidnaps in Paris, and a biscuit-loving flying pony

Eight-plus readers are spoilt for choice this autumn. Onjali Raúf’s debut, The Boy at the Back of the Class (Orion), illustrated by Pippa Curnick, offers a child’s eye view and an ambitious, adventure-filled plot. When a new boy is introduced at school, no one is exactly sure where he has come from; what is a “refugee kid”, anyway, and how can Ahmet be helped to feel that he belongs? Though the narrator’s voice is overly young at times, this is a lovely, warm-hearted first novel, a celebration of courage and friendship leavened with mischief.

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

A slave’s escape, an Egyptian curse, a fairytale party and a squirrel called Cyril

There’s a rich harvest of historical adventure for readers of eight-plus this month. Set in the late 18th century, Catherine Johnson’s Freedom (Scholastic) is the powerful story of Nathaniel, brought from Jamaica to England solely to tend pineapple plants aboard the ship by masters who have sold off his mother and sister. Believing that all slaves are free on English soil, Nat looks forward to making his fortune and buying back his family; swiftly disillusioned, he begins to plan his escape. At times harrowing (especially during its description of the Zong court case in 1783, dealing with the murder of 133 slaves at sea), the story is also filled with humour, compassion and hope – humanity’s worst and best, shown side by side.

Candy Gourlay’s Bone Talk (David Fickling) is set in the Philippines at the ...

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

A mellow lion, a beach party with sharks, a rooftop paradise and the curse of a superpower

There is a cool wind of adventure blowing through books for eight- to 12-year-olds this month, a welcome distraction from the heat. In Catherine Doyle’s magical fantasy The Storm Keeper’s Island (Bloomsbury), sea-fearing Fionn doesn’t want to go to Arranmore, leaving behind the familiar Dublin smog. But when the island chooses him as its new preserver, he’s drawn into a battle with an ancient evil at its roots. Acutely observed sibling dynamics, a house full of magical candles, and a vivid sense of history interwoven with Irish legend make for a standout novel, written in the vein of Susan Cooper and Pat O’Shea.

A different kind of fantasy is at play in Joanna Nadin’s Where Do You Go, Birdy Jones? (Little, Brown). Birdy doesn’t fit in at home, especially now Dad’s remarrying and ...

Want the kids to read more? 15 modern classics for all ages

From greedy dogs to shimmering dragons and from dance competitions to grisly murder – these books can inspire a lifetime of reading

The Street Beneath My Feet by Charlotte Guillian and Yuval Zommer (Words and Pictures)
A concertina-book that falls open in yards of pages, taking you to the centre of the Earth and back again; good for budding geologists, treasure-hunters, archaeologists and those who aren’t too keen on traditionally book-shaped books.

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

A mermaid parade, a naughty gran, the coming of war and a reworked Eugene Onegin

The stand-out title this month is a picture book, Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love (Walker). When Julian sees three women dressed as mermaids, he wants to be one too; but how will his Nana react? In this bravura feat of understated storytelling, the richness of Julian’s day-to-day reality and free-floating imagination is caught in images layered with colour, movement, muscle and life, celebrating black and Latin experience. Julian invents a tail and flowing hair, and Nana’s acceptance, as she accompanies him on a wild parade of mermaids, will leave the reader filled with joy.

Nadia Shireen’s Billy and the Beast (Penguin) also celebrates the experience of those often left out of picture books, with its brave brown heroine and the outrageous array of props she stores in her huge cloud of hair. Lively, ...

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 ...