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