Books: The best children and teenagers’ fiction

Katie's Pairty. Illustration: Karen Sutherland
Katie's Pairty. Illustration: Karen Sutherland
Have your say

How will you keep your kids occupied this coming school holiday? With a good read, of course. Jane E Sandell looks at the best in children’s fiction, and Keith Gray reviews a selection of teen literature highlights

0-4 Years

New from Catherine Rayner is Abigail (Little Tiger Press £10.99). Abigail is a giraffe who loves to count but her friends are not helping her. Cheetah moves too fast to count his spots and Zebra starts eating the leaves Abigail is trying to count. But then the ladybird has an idea to help Abigail and her friends work together. Catherine Rayner’s art is warm and engaging in this gentle and beautifully drawn little story of friendship.

There are more animals in Mr Tiger Goes Wild (Macmillan £11.99) by Peter Brown. Mr Tiger lives in an upright monochrome world and he is bored, bored with being proper and polite. He wants to have fun. Then one day he has a wild idea and gradually he changes until finally he runs away to the wilderness. There is colour and freedom and excitement there but something is missing. Peter Brown’s stylised illustrations and deliberate use of colour bring to life Mr Tiger’s story. Children and adults alike will be entertained as they read this appealing and heart-warming book.

There are animals galore in Katie’s Pairty (Itchy Coo £7.99) by James Robertson and Karen Sutherland. Devotees of Katie will welcome this new Scots tale in which she prepares for a party. This sturdy square board book is ideal for sharing with young children who will love the bold and bright illustrations of Katie and her menagerie of friends. Robertson and Sutherland’s attention to detail means that grown-ups will enjoy it too.

5-8 Years

The Day the Crayons Quit (HarperCollins £12.99) seems like a simple picture book but take a closer look. Debut author Drew Daywalt and celebrated illustrator Oliver Jeffers have produced a sophisticated triumph in technicolour. One day Duncan’s crayons all write him letters that make him re-assess his colouring-in. Daywalt creates unique identities for each crayon in a few well-chosen words and Jeffers brings them expressively to life. Give this book to competent young readers who realise they’re never too old to draw.

Arthur and the Ice Rink (Phoenix Yard £4.99) by Johanne Mercier is translated from French by Daniel Hahn and illustrated by Clare Elsom. It is a short first chapter book about seven-year-old Arthur and told by him. When he goes to visit his grandparents, Arthur is disappointed that there is no ice-rink ,but he has reckoned without clever cousin Eugene. The easy and funny little tale is ideal for newly fluent readers who will enjoy both the words and the pictures.

In Horace the Haggis and the Ghost Dog (Black & White £9.99) by Sally Magnusson and Norman Stone, our eponymous hero is in danger from not one, but two, sources. Angus McPhee, the Haggis Hunter, is still trying to catch him with the help of The Cat With No Name but there is also a new danger lurking. And no-one has told Horace about the Ghost Dog. Will Horace be able to outwit all these enemies? Stone’s illustrations are full of verve and character as they depict Magnusson’s delightful story of bravery, friendship and a hint of danger.

9-12 Years

Sam Swann’s father is a make-up artist on films and Sam has grown up on sets all over the world. His father’s latest film takes them to Romania where Sam (and his dog Watson) befriend the young and demanding leading lady and foil a fiendish plot. Zombie Dawn (Walker £5.99) by Tanya Landman is funny, frightening and just a little bit gruesome. Told in a fast-paced script, with illustrations by Jay Wright, it is quirky, enticing and sure to leave readers wanting more.

Coco Caramel (Puffin £12.99) is the latest in Cathy Cassidy’s Chocolate Box Girls series. It tells the story of the youngest sister, horse mad and determined to fight for the underdog. Accustomed to campaigning, even Coco thinks she might have gone too far this time, however.

Cassidy has created a varied cast of characters each with their flaws and strengths. Whilst writing an enjoyable and positive story, she resists the temptation to offer an unrealistically happy ending, thus offering us a believable world to be a part of.

Itchingham Lofte returns in Itch Rocks (Doubleday £10.99) by Simon Mayo. Having, he thinks, safely disposed of the radioactive Element 126, Itch is leading a relatively normal life (if you ignore the constant surveillance from MI5). But things take a sinister turn when enemy forces converge and it is up to Itch to once more save the world from devastation. Mayo’s writing ensnares the reader in his compelling plot until it is impossible to leave the book before it is finished.


The women of the Brown family are cursed. Water is inevitably the cause of their deaths and it always happens on a Saturday. So after her mother’s own tragic demise the titular hero of Friday Brown by Vikki Wakerfield (Hot Key £7.99) is desperate, alone and attempting to out-run destiny in a story of myth-making, identity and survival. This is the UK debut for Australian author Wakefield but the cityscape and outback are beautifully rendered for a British audience.

Friday befriends Silence, a homeless city boy who introduces her to a gang of fellow lost souls and runaways. After a shocking tragedy they escape the city for an outback ghost-town where relationships within the gang start to unravel – especially between Friday and the fearsome yet seductive gang-leader, Arden. Wakefield’s prose is rich, gorgeous and raw, and I hope Hot Key have the smarts to snatch up everything she writes. It’s not often you discover such a unique and exciting voice.

Remember when Patrick Ness was that exciting new voice? Has he gone stale, decided to coast, pushed the button on cruise-control since his two back-to-back Carnegie wins? Hell, no! More Than This (Walker £12.99) is his most engaging, most demanding, most confounding book yet. Seth is dead. At least, he drowned. But he wakes in a world similar to where he used to live yet skewed, seemingly unreal and deserted. He wonders if this is his afterlife. We get glimpses of his history in flashback and tries slotting together the puzzle pieces alongside him… And if I told more than this I’d be shamed for spoiling the story’s intricate layering of secrets. Rest assured however, from the brutally harsh beginning to the profoundly graceful ending, it’s a very exciting novel.

Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk (The Bodley Head £12.99) begins with Little Hawk, a Pokanoket boy living in what is now Massachusetts when the white men have just begun to settle. His life within the tribe is vividly depicted as we follow him into a harsh and snowy wilderness on his journey towards manhood in enforced solitude. What happens on his return to the tribe is shocking. The second half of the novel follows a young settler, John Wakely, in his efforts to forge a more peaceful relationship between the settlers and the tribes. The two lives cross and re-cross in what Cooper calls ‘a fantasy set within an historical background’. Readers of my generation may find it difficult to see beyond Cooper’s maste rful ‘The Dark Is Rising Sequence’ but this is a deeply moving story from a writer of talent and power.

In Anthony McGowan’s Hello Darkness (Walker £6.99) our downtrodden hero in the wrong place at the wrong time is Johnny Middleton. He’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit, namely killing the school’s pets, and only has so long to prove his innocence before the school play is cancelled – and he’ll take the fall for that too. McGowan has fun with the noir pastiche but he’s one of our more extraordinary writers and stretches the form to fit his own needs.

Johnny is ‘off his meds’ making his wry narration an unsettling guessing game of what’s real and what’s not. There’s also McGowan’s trademark humour, wilfully near-the-knuckle, leaving no joke uncracked. Whereas wannabe noir fiction often mistakes bleakness for darkness, McGowan has empathy for his troubled protagonist. If a disturbing read can be fun, if laugh-out-loud can have heart and soul, McGowan’s got it nailed.

Take a pinch of The Addam’s Family, add just a dash of The Radleys, stir in a delicious dollop of black humour and you’re well on the way to cooking up Matt Whyman’s wonderfully flavoursome new novel, The Savages (Hot Key £6.99).

To all intents and purposes they appear to be another average suburban family with all the average trials and tribulations that entails. What sets them apart is their more- than-average taste for human flesh. Teenage rebellion comes in the form of daughter Sasha whose

new boyfriend just happens to be vegetarian. But the whole family is threatened with discovery when a well-known model goes missing from their home and a nosy private detective gets too close. It’s a rare, delectable treat, well worth devouring. I’d happily go back for seconds.