Fiction and non-fiction for older children – reviews | Children’s books: 8-12 years old
Piers Torday and Kiran Millwood Hargrave probably don’t need to be introduced, having become powerful voices in children’s books in recent years. Both are convincingly adding to their storage space this summer.
Best known for The last savage trilogy, a dystopian saga in which dumb humans and talking animals make common cause against disease and the totalitarian regime, Torday returns with a prequel: The Savage Before (Quercus, £ 12.99). Mandatory reading for anyone who has fallen in love with the ingenious Defender of the Wild Kester and his fearless faun gang, it explains how the dreaded Red Eyes – and Kester – came to be. Torday’s themes are becoming more and more relevant.
Multi-award winner Millwood Hargrave, meanwhile, is teaming up with her illustrator partner, Tom de Freston, in Julia and the shark (Orion, £ 12.99). Julia’s parents are scientists, and while her father repairs a Scottish lighthouse, her mother is obsessed with stalking a Greenland shark (pictured with dreamlike fluidity by De Freston). When it comes to Millwood Hargrave, the shark is also symbolic of all that is hiding, hidden: why is the psychological state of Julia’s mother so fragile? It is a story of courage, understanding and compassion, presented in so many ways. A word of caution: continuing to make sharks symbols of terror is doing the species a disservice.
Robin Scott-Elliot and Darren Simpson aren’t as well-known, but equally deserve their growing stacks atop bookstore tables. I loved Simpson’s debut in 2019, Scavengers; Memory thieves (Usborne, £ 7.99) – aimed at older middle years – doesn’t disappoint. The two protagonists of Simpson live on a mysterious island sanctuary, where they came voluntarily to recover from trauma. The famous dune buggies Cyan, Ruby and Teal, their bad memories regularly erased using the Lethe method. Of course, this goldfish brain existence cannot last: Cyan discovers messages encoded in bleached whale bones, and the Method is definitely not suitable for a newcomer. Pacy, deep and original.
Retired sports journalist Robin Scott-Elliot is a fan of historical children’s adventure. His last, Hide and seek (Everything With Words, £ 7.99), brings to life the courage of young people who risked everything in the French resistance during World War II. Young Amélie Dreyfus is playing hide and seek when the soldiers come looking for her Jewish family. A much more dangerous cat-and-mouse game ensues as she starves to death, makes common cause with the Resistance agents, and ultimately outshines an entire group of British spies with her cunning and courage. Who to trust, asks Scott-Elliot.
While Scott-Elliot fictionalized true derring-do tales, young debutant David Farr (screenwriter of The night manager, The ghosts and Hanna) was inspired by his actual German Jewish maternal ancestors in the fictional kingdom of Krasnia, ruled by a cruel, child-hating autocrat.
The book stolen dreams (Usborne, £ 12.99) follows young Rachel Klein and her brother Robert, whose librarian father is sent “far east” for hiding a book credited with supernatural powers. President Charles Malstain will stop at nothing to get this strange book, and the siblings must use all their cunning to keep it safe and understand its uses as they are pursued, befriended, and betrayed. Confidence comes and goes as the plot considers dreams and awakening, life and death.
Children’s literature has exploded in recent months: two current books stand out. Emmy-winning creative producer Abigail Balfe has written and illustrated an extremely engaging, entertaining and informative story about neurodivergent. A different kind normal (Puffin, £ 8.99) has plenty of cat and poo jokes, but also readable breakdowns of not only the autism spectrum, but gender and sexuality as well. The first children’s book in rapper Stormzy’s #Merky book stable is Superheroes: Inspirational Secret Force Stories (£ 16.99). Written with intensity by the poet Sophia Thakur and illustrated in a flexible superhero style by Denzell Dankwah, these are collectible card-like portraits of Bipoc characters from the already famous (Dina Asher-Smith, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Ian Wright) to those who work more discreetly behind the scenes (creative technology partnership Comuzi, Prof Frank Chinegwundoh MBE, youth leader Tanya Compas). School librarians – it’s your turn.
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