This year summer came to me early – ‘The pick of the latest hardbacks’, said your Editor, ‘littlies through to teens’. Thereafter heaps of advance copies, proofs and manuscripts landed on my doormat. The titles I’ve chosen begin with some for the very young and move on to books for secondary school readers and adults, too.
For those who’ve enjoyed Nick Butterworth’s board books, All Together Now! (Collins, 0 00 198134 X, £8.99) is bound to be a winner. It’s a splendid flap-book featuring the same toddler planning a picnic for his animal friends who are all playing a hiding game. The sort of book adults will have to read again and again as young children join in the ryhming text and lift the flaps (which are such an integral part of the pictures). It’s irresistible! In Charlie and Tyler at the Seaside by Helen Craig (Walker, 0 7445 3700 2, £8.99), Charlie the country mouse and his cousin Tyler, the town mouse, share another adventure. The boat trip is rather more terrifying than expected; beach-combing is great fun and the pier quite an experience – in fact the day is going well until Tyler is carried off by a huge seabird. Charlie, after a few tears, finds unexpected courage and becomes an unlikely hero. A rich text, varied page layouts and illustrations that give a mouse-eye view of the environment, and at times a tremendous sense of movement, force the reader to turn the pages.
In fact, picture books this summer are as strong and full of child-appeal as ever. Bedtime Story (Doubleday, 0 385 40648 7, £5.99) was selected for me by a toddler friend and is a pop-in-the-slot book written by David Wood and illustrated by Richard Fowler. Mole must be slotted through the pages and put into bed but finding the right bed isn’t easy. It’s an ingenious book with lively language, bright illustrations and a final double-spread in which everyone says ‘Good-night’. The book is tough, too – my copy has survived dozens of readings.
Skip Across the Ocean (Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 0966 9, £9.99) is a fresh collection of world-wide nursery rhymes collected by Floella Benjamin and illustrated by Sheila Moxley. Sometimes rhymes are in the original language as well as English – they’re both familiar yet unusual, showing the extraordinary similarities between rhymes originating from different parts of the world. Such rhymes says Floella Benjamin ‘are children’s first introduction to rhythm, poetry, music and the world around them’ and in this case, I would add, to the diversity of language. A special book to read together and talk about.
Lenny Henry’s Charlie and the Big Chill (Gollancz, 0 575 05938 9, £6.99) is something quite different. Charlie, drawn by Chris Burke, is a bit of a menace and, like so many children, really hates shopping – until she’s sent to the other side of the supermarket to pick up half-a-dozen eggs. On the way she meets the Ice-cream Posse! In a wonderful dream-like adventure Charlie learns to dance the Funky Chicken, the Boogaloo and the Mashed Potato as well as meeting the huge snow giant. By the time she returns to her mum she can’t wait to go shopping again. A fast and funky story with wonderfully whacky illustrations that simply dance through the pages.
In Satoshi Kitamura’s Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing (Andersen, 0 86264 585 9, £8.99) wolves, as so often in children’s literature, are the baddies. It’s always a pleasure to open a new book by this illustrator whose distinctive style is full of humour and originality. Three sheep decide to go for a swim and foolishly leave their coats in the care of four wolves – the expected happens, both wolves and coats have gone by the time the sheep leave the water. They call on a detective friend, Elliott Baa, for help and come upon a gang of cats playing rugby with a slowly unwinding ball of wool. Following the wool into the building of Wolfgang and Bros, Quality Knitwear, they defeat the wolves in a wonderfully visual battle. The illustrations are superb and changes in mood are established by using the pages in different ways as well as with the use of colour. By breaking up the page the battle comes alive and full of action – these extraordinary scenes contrast well with the last double-page which shows the sheep back home, grazing peacefully.
Any addition to Dutton’s ‘Folk Tales of the World’ series is very welcome and Kesuna and the Cave Demons (0 525 69040 9, £9.99) by Gini Wade comes from Bali. The story of two sisters, one sweet-tempered and kind, the other nasty and greedy, will seem familiar as versions of it are told all around the world. Illustrations in all the titles set the stories in their geographical location and take the reader on a cultural journey; this, as much as the stories themselves, makes these books important. This one has end-papers and borders from Indonesian textile designs. Although life is very different, the emotions and concerns of the characters are universal.
The warmth of family shines from the pages of Grace and Family written by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Caroline Binch (Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 0868 9, £8.99), the sequel to Amazing Grace. In this picture book for slightly older readers, Grace journeys to Africa to meet the father she only knows from letters and photographs; during the visit she learns more about herself and her family and the power of love to cross continents. The story is told with honesty and sensitivity and the glowing illustrations, cover and endpapers included, reflect the warmth and colour of Africa.
Finally, a picture book for older readers full of the sophistication of text and illustration we expect from Chris Van Allsburg. The Sweetest Fig (Andersen, 0 86264 498 4, £8.99) is a story of sweet revenge tautly told and illustrated in muted colours and almost surreal style. The story of Monsieur Bibot, a dentist, begins when a poor woman offers him two figs as payment, promising they will make his dreams come true. He believes this when, on the morning after he’s eaten the first fig, he finds himself walking his dog in his underwear – just as he’d done in a dream. He’s determined to use the second fig to make himself rich but the dog has other ideas. Like other Chris Van Allsburg titles, this is a book to look at again and again.
For children about to start school, there’s nothing better than Kaye Umansky’s Sophie stories. In the first, Sophie and Abigail (Gollancz, 0 575 06016 6, £7.99; 0 575 06017 4, £3.99 pbk), Sophie Rabbit enters school feeling nervous and alone. She soon finds a friend and settles in. The stories are happy and fun and illustrated with great charm by Anna Currey. We now have ‘Colour Jets’ and the one that made me laugh most is Even Stevens F.C. (A & C Black, 0 7136 4187 8, £5.99; Lions, 0 00 675084 2, £3.99 pbk) by Michael Rosen and John Rogan. Wayne is mad about football and because of injuries he gets to play for Even Stevens, the Shakespeare Street team – they all live in houses or flats with even numbers. Miracle follows miracle as the team make it to the first round of the FA Cup – and in fact all the way to Wembley. A strong story with the sort of imaginative leap that will delight young football fans. The mix of text, speech bubbles and illustration follows the very successful ‘Jets’ formula that works so well.
Grown-up looking stories for newly independent readers are sometimes hard to find. Charles Ashton’s The Giant’s Boot (Walker, 0 7445 4106 9, £6.99) is a good one with its mix of fantasy and family problems. Ritchie finds a boot that once belonged to a giant; it’s been lost for thousands of years and has turned to stone. There’s tension and magic in this well-told story as Ritchie returns the boot to the giant and brings about a satisfactory conclusion. Peter Melnyczuk’s atmospheric black-and-white illustrations really complement the text. Completely different in mood is Creepe Hall (Walker, 0 7445 2455 5, £6.99), a story of vampires, ghosts and werebeavers! Oliver’s parents have gone to the Himalayas and he has to spend the time with relatives he’s never met. There are many shocks in store for Oliver but once he gets used to life without television and gets to know the strange inhabitants of Creepe Hall, he has the kind of holiday he’ll never forget. A fast-moving story – loads of fun, written with style and humour – plus illustrations to match from Hunt Emerson.
Moving up the age-range, Paul Zindel’s Loch (Bodley Head, 0 370 32430 7, £8.99) offers suspense and a touch of horror. Luke Perkins, camping with his family on the shore of Loch Ness, wanders out alone one night and sees the Loch Ness Monster – but who will believe him? This claim earns him the name Loch. Ten years later he’s by another lake where his father is involved in a dangerous project. Here is an action-packed story with powerful descriptions of huge sea creatures and, although the monsters attack, our sympathy is with them as they fight to survive the threat of man and modern weapons. A book that may well appeal to young male readers generally unwilling to pick one up.
I’ve always loved long reads so couldn’t resist the first part of a new trilogy. His Dark Materials, Book 1: Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (Scholastic, 0 590 54178 1, £9.99) is a book for serious readers. This is gripping, thought-provoking and extremely frustrating at the end, as it could be months, even years, before Book 2 is published! It’s set in a world in some ways like our own and in an unspecified time; a time when everyone has their own personal daemon, a living creature often able to change shape, linked to them. Daemons are very sympathetic and able to reflect the feelings of their particular human. Lyra’s daemon is a moth at the start of the story and Lord Asriel’s a snow leopard. The lives of these two characters are connected in way that becomes apparent well into the story and Lyra’s journey to reach him is the content of Book 1. Overhearing conversations and concern for her missing friend, lead Lyra to take a journey that demands all her strength and brings her into contact with animals, people and places beyond her imagination. Read this powerfully written story and you, too, will be waiting for Book 2.
Nancy Farmer is well known in the USA and I was very excited by The Ear, The Eye and The Arm (Orion, 1 85881 147 3, £10.99), the first of her novels to be published here. Set in Zimbabwe a hundred years from now, it follows, in almost picaresque fashion, the journey of Tendai, Kuda and Rita, the children of General Matsiki, the country’s Chief of Security. The children live in a protected world until one day they trick their father into giving them Pass Cards. The General and his wife consult the mutant detectives Ear, Eye and Arm for help and these three are always just a step behind the children. This is a huge novel, in one sense a fantastic adventure but, on a more serious note, extends the different ways in which we already live to show an even greater economic and social disparity. So much happens in this strongly written book – it’s not easy, but it’s a worthwhile and rewarding read.
Melvin Burgess tackles a difficult subject in Loving April (Andersen, 0 86264 527 1, £9.99), an exceptional novel, both brutal and sensitive, with strong characters. Tony and his mother, abandoned by his father, suddenly find themselves poor and forced to live in an awful house close to April, ‘the mad girl’. April, of course, is not mad; she’s deaf and hardly able to speak. She lives in fear and isolation and, as she grows up, finds herself more and more threatened and abused by local boys. An extraordinary relationship, not understood or accepted by anyone else, develops between April and Tony. Against all the odds this well-crafted book ends with a note of optimism as April finds someone who understands her needs and gives her hope for the future.
There really are some tough novels around for teenagers this year and Robert Cormier’s In the Middle of the Night (Gollancz, 0 575 05983 4, £10.99) is the kind of uncompromising book we expect from him. The themes are justice, revenge and guilt as 16-year-old Denny finally realises why his family are always moving and why he’s not allowed to answer the ‘phone. Eight years before he was born his father, then a teenager, was working in a cinema when a fire broke out and 22 children were killed. One child, badly injured in the accident can never forget and, as no one has ever been convicted and found responsible, she delivers her own kind of justice by making the ‘phone calls just before each anniversary. Denny defies his parents and answers the ‘phone and the breaking of a 25-year pattern begins. This is a tautly written, terrifying and compulsive novel: it shows how hatred and a need for revenge can turn the mind.
You can’t help but notice the cover of Make Lemonade (Faber, 0 571 17502 3, £9.99) by Virginia Euwer Wolff, another American writer published in this country for the first time. Fourteen-year-old LaVaughn wants to earn money for college and so responds to a notice on the school bulletin board, ‘Babysitter Needed Bad’, and her involvement with single-parent Jolly, two-year-old Jeremy and baby Jilly, begins. Jolly is 17 and as she says, ‘I can’t do it alone‘ for the third time, LaVaughn finds herself agreeing to babysit so that Jolly can work the evening shift at the factory. The story is warm and compulsive as LaVaughn takes on the family and sticks with them even when there’s no money to pay her. She offers a kind of optimism reflected in her attempts to grow a lemon tree from lemon pips. But, against all the odds, she helps Jolly to take some control of her life. This is a very special book; it reflects the lives of a growing number of young people in our inner cities and is both disturbing and cheering. There are young people like LaVaughn who take on the problems of others, and by telling her story in a form of naturalistic monologue it becomes very accessible to teenage readers. Forget your preconceptions about the novel and read this one.
When Kingfisher published Michael Rosen’s A World of Poetry some years ago, I carried it around with me constantly. Now I can recommend another of their superb anthologies, Classic Poems to Read Aloud (1 85697 253 4, £10.99) selected by James Berry. This book looks inviting, is one to hold close and to dip into – a real celebration of poetry. James Berry’s sense of rhythm and feeling for words are reflected in his choices which range through time and cultures from Homer to the youngest poet included, Grace Nichols. On the way there are English classics, a creation story from Mali, a Navaho Indian poem, excellent pieces of contemporary verse, the words of Muhammad, the Buddha and Jesus and much more. A book for everybody; there’s something here for every child and every adult to read aloud, savour and enjoy – the experience will be enriching.
Wendy Cooling now works freelance, as a book and reading consultant.