The Beast from the East may have delayed spring, but at least we have great new kids’ stories from north, south, east and west.
Abi Elphinstone’s Sky Song (Simon and Schuster, £6.99) returns us to winter in a sparkling fantasy about an Ice Queen who has stolen the voices of men, women and children to gain control of the Tusk tribe. Eska is trapped immobile under a glass music box in Winterfang Palace, unable to remember who she is. Accidentally freed, she is helped across an icy landscape by Flint, regaining memory and powers. Terrifically exciting for nine-plus readers, its natural companion is Sinead O’Hart’s The Eye of the North (Stripes, £6.99). Eccentric Emmeline Widget smuggles herself on to a villain’s ship with a boy called Thing. Her quest involves a mythical monster, lost parents and a freezing voyage conjured up in crystalline Celtic prose that gleams and crackles like purest ice.
From the east, we have The Beast Player, the best-selling Japanese author Naho-ko Uehashi’s first appearance in English (Pushkin Press, £8.99). Many bright children of 11-plus become obsessed by Japanese culture and this has the authentic strangeness of a society preoccupied with tradition, responsibility, honour and power. Erin’s family care for the fearsome serpents at the core of the kingdom’s army. When the beasts suddenly die, Erin’s mother is executed but manages to send her daughter to safety. How Erin learns to speak with serpents and saves her country is a spine-tingling fantasy that should delight boys as well as girls.
For younger readers of nine-plus, Robin Stevens’s A Spoonful of Murder carries her Murder Most Unladylike mysteries (Puffin, £6.99) into new heights. When her grandfather dies our narrator, Hazel Wong, must return to Hong Kong from the English boarding school to which she has been adapting and get sleuthing on home territory. The culture shock is on best friend Daisy this time, and the life of 1930s Hong Kong multimillionaires (and their criminal counterparts) is fabulously evoked in the course of a kidnapping. The series is meticulously plotted and consistently delightful, and I can’t recommend it enough – not least in its being about friendship between an English girl and a Chinese one.
There’s a different kind of alienation in The Wild Robot (Piccadilly, £6.99) when Roz the robot is shipwrecked. With only wild animals for company, Roz must learn how to understand their language and ultimately become very special to them. A heartfelt story for ages six-plus about how even the oddest of us can find friends – we need Peter Brown to tell his fellow Americans how what seems strange and threatening can turn into love and joy.
To the west, fairyland has been getting steadily darker, with America’s strain of gothic supplanting its teenagers’ taste for dystopia. Holly Black (best known for “The Spiderwick Chronicles” series) offers The Cruel Prince (Hot Key Books, £12.99, 13-plus), already snapped up for movie fame. Its narrator, Jude, sees her mother and father murdered by her mother’s first husband, a faerie nobleman who then adopts Jude and her sister. Mocked for being mortal, determined to become a warrior rather than a bride, Jude must outwit her especial enemy, the charismatic Prince Cardan. The writing is terrific, as is the quasi-Jacobean plotting.
Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood (Penguin, £7.99) is a stellar debut in a similar vein. Alice’s reclusive grandmother is the author of a cult book of fairy tales. When her mother is kidnapped, the book leads Alice into the supernatural hinterland of her grandmother’s stories, where the creepiest aspects of fairy tales turn out to be true. As rich as the darkest chocolate, and addictively delicious for ages 13-plus.
From South Africa, Jaco Jacobs’s A Good Day for Climbing Trees (Rock the Boat, £6.99) is instantly engaging, funny and robust. Our narrator Marnus’s sassy younger brother is renting their handsome eldest sibling out for kissing lessons, billed as a “self-esteem workshop”. Marnus is sick of being ignored, but when Leila asks him to help prevent a special tree from being cut down, it’s the start of a joint rebellion. Ideal for eight-plus boys.
Also from South Africa, Mary Watson’s The Wren Hunt (Bloomsbury, £7.99, 13-plus) draws on the ancient winter game of hunting the Wren, in this case a real and deadly version that takes place each year in a local forest. The boys who pursue Wren don’t know she’s an augur and an enemy; Wren is an undercover spy for her family, trying to discover a secret on which their survival rests.
Gripping and romantic, it shares the idea of violent adolescent initiation into adult life with the sensational Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi (Macmillan, £7.99, 13-plus). Magic has disappeared from Orisha, where different magical powers once ruled different clans; but it remains in one or two people, including our orphaned narrator, Zélie, who must stay hidden from the ruthless king. If your teenager loved Black Panther then this will hit a sweet spot, with much-needed and emotionally engaging African superheroes.
With all this, how do our local, sustainably sourced British stories fare? Pretty well, actually. Helen Grant’s Ghost (Fledgling Press, £9.99) is about a girl brought up in a remote Scottish castle by her grandmother during the Second World War. But when handsome Tom arrives, lonely Augusta discovers a very different truth, in a twisty atmospheric tale reminiscent of the finest Ruth Rendell for ages 12-plus.
Another Scottish setting comes with Natasha Farrant’s The Children of Castle Rock (Faber and Faber, £6.99), this time the location of an unusual boarding school where children are sent off unsupervised for three days of orienteering. Unputdownable, funny and wise, it’s an unconventional treat for nine-plus readers.
My top pick, however, is Fiona Shaw’s Outwalkers (David Fickling. £10.99). The English government can track anyone via a chip implanted from birth. But Jake, escaped from his Academy orphanage, is bound for Scotland with his beloved dog, Jet. This is a great, heart-stopping adventure for 12-plus about a burning hunger for freedom that shakes the soul with its contemporary political echoes. It has a moral compass that should put it bang in the centre of our kids’ imaginations.