Chil­dren’s books ex­plore icy lands, deep oceans and the hu­man heart

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Culture - BY VICKY AL­LAN

AMONG the books pub­lished this season for older chil­dren, just as with those for the very young, there are many that ei­ther tell lost sto­ries or dig down into a tale and re­late it from an­other point of view.

Patrick Ness’s lat­est chil­dren’s book, And The Ocean Was Our

Sky (Walker, £12.99),

is one of th­ese. Here, he takes as his start­ing point Her­man Melville’s great novel, Moby Dick, and be­gins it with the words “Call me Bathsheba”, the name of his warrior fe­male whale whose sailor-hunt­ing pod is in pur­suit of a man called Toby Wick and his ship.

This is the world, lit­er­ally turned on its head, told by whale not man, in which the ocean depths are the sky, and the whales have their re­venge. “What more rea­son did a young whale need,” con­sid­ers Bathsheba, “than the fact that men had hunted us for time im­memo­rial and hunt­ing men was what we did in re­turn? It was a whale’s duty, if so proph­e­sied, and I em­braced it.”

It’s haunt­ingly il­lus­trated by Rov­ina Cai, whose dark, shad­owy images con­vey both the murk­i­ness of the deep and the bulk of th­ese mon­u­men­tal crea­tures.


Cor­nelia Funke’s Through The Wa­ter Cur­tain (Pushkin, £12.99),

is not about re­work­ing the old but re­dis­cov­er­ing it. The au­thor of the Mir­rorWorld fantasy se­ries has brought to­gether a fas­ci­nat­ing col­lec­tion of rare and un­usual fairy tales, which serve as a re­minder that the past is not all about men slay­ing dragons and girls be­ing res­cued by princes. There is in­spi­ra­tion to be found here too.

They re­flect, Funke says, her “wish for well-trod­den roads” and “love of re­bel­lious he­roes and hero­ines”, and span many coun­tries, rang­ing from a Ja­panese tale about a boy who draws cats to a Swedish story she calls The Girl Who Gave A Knight A Kiss Out Of Ne­ces­sity. It’s a marvel­lous se­lec­tion, but part of the joy is her ex­pla­na­tions of why she picked them.

The Way Past Win­ter (Chicken House, £10.99) by Ki­ran Mill­wood Hal­grave,

au­thor of the Costa-short­listed Is­land At The End Of Ev­ery­thing, is a fantasy tale which feels as if it has its roots in the old sto­ries such as The Snow Queen, but is re­fresh­ingly orig­i­nal. Win­ter has come to the planet and never left. Mila, one of four sib­lings, lives in the for­est in a house whose win­dows are made from ice. One day a fur-clad vis­i­tor ar­rives – who is in fact, a great bear who has put the world into per­pet­ual win­ter – and steals her brother away. This story of sib­ling love takes Mila on a jour­ney through the frozen north to find him, across groan­ing ice and un­der a glow­ing sky, a won­drous, white, high­a­drenaline ad­ven­ture.

The Storm Keeper’s Is­land (Blooms­bury, £6.99)

by Cather­ine Doyle brings Ir­ish Celtic mythol­ogy right into the present with a grip­ping tale. In it, 11-year-old Fionn Boyle and his older sis­ter ar­rive at their grand­fa­ther’s home on Ar­ran­more, the is­land from which their fa­ther was lost at sea, which also hap­pens to be where the au­thor’s own sea­far­ing an­ces­tors lived. Like so many mag­i­cal tales it is a story of des­tiny – each gen­er­a­tion on the is­land chooses a Storm Keeper – but its root­ing in the real his­tory of a place makes it all the more haunt­ing and con­vinc­ing.

Not all books dig down into the past.

Me Mam. Me Dad. Me. by Mal­colm Duffy (Head of Zeus, £6.99)

is one of my books of the year. It’s hard to think of a work I’ve read for young peo­ple in re­cent times, that has so much heart and hu­mour, yet man­ages to ex­plore such dark­ness.

For this is a story of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. Mal­colm Duffy’s tale of a 14-year-old Ge­ordie whose mum takes up with a wealthy, vi­o­lent and con­trol­ling man, rings true to the pat­terns of abuse. The warn­ing signs are all there right from the mo­ment his Mam’s boyfriend tells her he’s “seen ele­phants with smaller back­sides” to when he seems to half stran­gle her on hol­i­day as re­venge for a prank.

Yet it’s also funny and vi­brant in its por­trayal of Danny, a kid with a lot on his plate – a girl­friend, a fa­ther who ran off to Ed­in­burgh, and a worry that, ac­cord­ing to statis­tics he’s read on a web­site, his Mam could end up be­ing one of the two women who get killed ev­ery week. I heartily rec­om­mend this for all teens.

The ar­rival of a rich boyfriend and its im­pact on a mother and child team is also the key plot twist in a book for younger read­ers, Jacque­line Wil­son’s lat­est Tracy Beaker novel. Her first Beaker novel in 12 years,

My Mum Tracy Beaker (Pen­guin, £6.99)

is told

from the point of view of daugh­ter Jess. Tracy is now a grown-up sin­gle mum who has left her care home past be­hind and is do­ing pretty well as a par­ent – save for the odd anger man­age­ment is­sue – and, though the pair live on a run­down es­tate and there’s mould on the walls, all is good un­til Tracy’s boyfriend, Sean, lures them away to live with him in a world of man­sions and fast cars. A treat both for old and new Wil­son fans.

Malo­rie Black­man, mean­while, de­liv­ers an emo­tion­ally true and af­fect­ing novel grounded in the here and now in

The Dan­ger­ous Game (Bar­ring­ton Stoke, £6.99).

Sam has sickle-cell anaemia and his par­ents are in­clined to wrap him in cot­ton wool. But he’s de­ter­mined to go on a school trip to the High­lands. The big­gest prob­lem for him there, though, is the bul­lies and the risks they are set on tak­ing. A fast-mov­ing tale of courage and kind­ness.

The much-awaited young adult novel of the year has ar­rived. Twelve years af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of his best­seller,

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak has fol­lowed it up with Bridge Of Clay (£18.99),

the story of five or­phaned tear­away broth­ers, the Dun­bars, who, at the start, live in a house with no adults fol­low­ing the death of their mother to can­cer. It’s told with brio, wit, and, over 600 pages, with plenty of me­an­der­ings, in the voice of the old­est, Matthew.

Is it strictly speak­ing a young adult book? Who cares. It’s a story about love, loss and grief, and the build­ing of bridges, both phys­i­cal and be­tween peo­ple, that will likely win the heart of any­one over the age of 14.

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