Chil­dren’s chap­ter books

Hi­malayan ad­ven­ture, trans­for­ma­tion and time travel all fea­ture in these sto­ries en­joyed by Kitty Em­pire

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda -

Can you judge a book by its cover? Of­ten, in chil­dren’s fic­tion. Set in the foothills of the Hi­malayas, Asha and the Spirit Bird (Chicken House) – the de­but from Jas­binder Bi­lan, win­ner of her pub­lisher’s chil­dren’s fic­tion com­pe­ti­tion in 2017 – hits you with lush trop­i­cal art­work: na­maste, il­lus­tra­tor Aitch and de­signer He­len Craw­ford-White.

The words do jus­tice to the pic­tures. If one of the gifts of fic­tion is to prof­fer un­fa­mil­iar footwear in which to walk a while, Bi­lan’s story is an eye-open­ing ad­ven­ture, with one san­dalled foot in at­mo­spheric re­al­ism and a toe­hold in the myth­i­cal. To thwart the debt col­lec­tor, plucky young Asha has to find her fa­ther, miss­ing in the faraway city. As her des­per­a­tion turns to real danger (po­lice­men, bliz­zards, wolves) help is on hand in the form of the pow­er­ful lam­a­gaia bird – known less at­mo­spher­i­cally as the bearded vul­ture – and a green-eyed tiger. Could these be the spir­its of Asha’s an­ces­tors?

Equally sat­u­rated with sen­seim­pres­sions is How High the Moon (Puf­fin), the de­but by Karyn Par­sons, who, hav­ing graced the small screen in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, now pro­duces chil­dren’s an­i­mated films. In 1943, small-town South Carolina has its prob­lems – se­gre­ga­tion, dis­tant war – but the creek is full of fish and the gar­den, corn; friends and church pic­nics abound.

All young Ella wants, though, is to be re­united with her jazz singer mother in Bos­ton, and to quiz her about the fa­ther she has never met. Par­sons is great at un­furl­ing the plea­sures of the freer north­ern states through bira­cial Ella’s eyes, but also adept at han­dling the sub­tleties of lay­ered sto­ry­telling. Back in the south, mean­while, one of Ella’s friends is framed for mur­der­ing two white girls. And might Ella’s fa­ther be closer at hand than she be­lieves? The fram­ing is a true story: 14-year-old Ge­orge Stin­ney was the youngest per­son ever ex­e­cuted for mur­der in the US; in 2014, he was de­clared not to have had a fair trial.

Back in the present day, there are more tales of time travel and trans­for­ma­tion. Agent turned scribe Sam Copeland is an­other de­but nov­el­ist whose Char­lie Changes Into a Chicken (Puf­fin) has been sold in 17 lan­guages. Like Kafka’s man-roach Gre­gor Samsa and fly guy Jeff Gold­blum be­fore him, nine-year-old Char­lie McGuf­fin trans­forms un­ex­pect­edly into a spi­der (and a pi­geon and a rhino). It hap­pens when he is in a flap, which he of­ten is: the school play is nigh. Char­lie’s quest to con­trol his nerves is the best kind of silly: tricksily, Char­lie never ac­tu­ally changes into a chicken (MacGuf­fin alert!). He does, though, turn into a “danger noo­dle – which, as ev­ery­one knows, is the ac­tual sci­en­tific name for a snake”.

The Gold­fish Boy au­thor Lisa Thomp­son re­turns with The Day I Was Erased (Scholas­tic), one of two books here that plays with al­ter­na­tive fu­tures. Any­one who has flounced about yelling “I wish I’d never been born!” might em­pathise with Maxwell, who leaves havoc in his wake. He’s not a great friend. His only con­fi­dant is an el­derly neigh­bour whose mem­ory isn’t what it used to be. Maxwell’s mis­be­haviour sets off a chain of events that finds him never hav­ing been born. Get­ting back to nor­mal en­tails re­source­ful­ness and – cru­cially – em­pa­thy.

How awe­some is Ross Welford? Con­sis­tently orig­i­nal, be­liev­able and filmable (please), the au­thor of Time Trav­el­ling With a Ham­ster et al does it again with The Dog That Saved the World (HarperCollins). The prom­ise and threat of science looms large here. Young Ge­orgina’s life just gets more com­pli­cated: her new step­mum is al­ler­gic to the res­cue dog Ge­orgie loves. Then there’s the ad­vanced VR rig she and her friend Ramzy are per­suaded to test for an ec­cen­tric Amer­i­can IT rene­gade.

Things get very real when a deadly ca­nine dis­ease leaps from dogs to hu­mans. To say more would spoil a ter­rific ad­ven­ture, with all the sus­pense of a med­i­cal thriller.

To or­der any of these books for a spe­cial price go to guardian­book­shop. com or call 0330 333 6846

One of Mike Low­ery’s il­lus­tra­tions for Lisa Thomp­son’s The Day I Was Erased. Be­low: a moun­tain in the Hi­malayas, the set­ting for the ‘eye-open­ing’ Asha and the Spirit Bird. Getty

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