Coronavirus has touched everything, and children’s literature reflects this sooner than other forms. Many have been gripped by JK Rowling’s online children’s novel, The Ickabog (ages 6+), published in print this autumn by Little, Brown. With King Fred’s country in the grip of lies, corruption, murder and incompetence, it is a strangely relevant and darkly funny treat.
Antoinette Portis’s A New Green Day (Scallywag Press, £12.99, 3+) describes a young child’s joy in observing nature on both large and small scales. A pebble is “a mountain that moves”; lightning is “the rumble in the stomach of the storm”. Lyrical, funny and elegantly illustrated, it’s ideal to reread.
Mrs Noah’s Garden by Jackie Morris and James Mayhem (Otter-Barry, £12.99, 4+) is a delight. Everything seems dreary after the flood, but Mrs Noah patiently makes a post-apocalypse garden with seeds from her pockets and the aid of some unusual animals. Its exquisitely colourful illustrations, gentle humour and optimism that life can be renewed make this the picture book of the year. If your child has been traumatised by social distancing, While We Can’t Hug by Eoin McLaughlin and Polly Dunbar (Faber, £6.99, 3+) is gently reassuring, as best friends Hedgehog and Tortoise find ways of showing affection without touching.
Amazing Islands by Sabrina Weiss and Kerry Hyndman (What on Earth Books, £14.99) is fun for the child fascinated by facts as well as isolation. Islands can be prisons, mysteries, cities – such as Venice – and ecological niches. The clear text and bold images display a capacity for lateral thinking that bright kids of 6-10 will relish and return to.
The Umbrella Mouse and its sequel by Anna Fargher (Macmillan, £6.99, 9-12), about a little orphan mouse during the Second World War, are the best animal adventures since Margery Sharp’s The Rescuers. Bombed out of a Bloomsbury umbrella shop, timid Pip gains confidence as she joins Noah’s Ark, a band of good-hearted animal Resistance fighters. Alternatively, Michelle Robinson’s Do Not Disturb the Dragons (Bloomsbury, £5.99, 6-8) is an illustrated comic caper about two intrepid girls training to be knights in a castle where dragons nest. They break rules – and save the day.
Children anxious about school should enjoy Susie Bower’s School For Nobodies (Pushkin Press, £7.99, 9+). When adopted Flynn is sent to boarding school she discovers that being fascinated by the circus is nothing to be ashamed of. Bower’s witty, satirical prose is stronger than the ensuing mystery, but this is a promising debut.
My Name is River by Emma Rea (Firefly Press, £6.99, 9+) is a fantastically original adventure about a boy whose idyllic Welsh home is bought by an evil corporation. Desperate to save it, he travels from Birmingham to Brazil with his best friend. Rea’s flight of imagination has two sympathetic heroes risking everything while lying their heads off. Packed with ecological indignation, it is both funny and timely.
Another magnificent odyssey, this time in the wake of the First World War, is Natasha Farrant’s Voyage of the Sparrowhawk (Faber, £7.99, 9+). Lotti and Ben, traumatised by bereavement, are determined to run away from rigidly conformist England and get to France – even if it means sailing a barge across the Channel with a pregnant dog. The derring-do of classics such as Swallows and Amazons and Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea combine with the emotional intelligence of Anthony McGowan and Hilary McKay for a rich and rewarding read. “Anything. We can do anything,” Lotti says, and Farrant pushes her steely prose and thrilling narrative with all the resolution of the barge that carries them across the sea. It deserves prizes.
There are more watery adventures from Michelle Lovric, who lyrically explores the magic of Venice. The Water’s Daughter (Orion, £6.99, 11+) is a thrilling gothic fantasy about a girl who can see what once happened in a place by pressing her fingertips against its walls. When young boys start disappearing in Venice, Aurelia must use her ability to find them. This book is atmospheric and lush, for romantic adolescents stuck on staycations.
What about a robot for company? Kirsty Applebaum’s Sarah wants a dog. Instead, her parents give her a boring “TrooFriend”. She can’t lie or bully and can be turned on and off, but the longer Ivy stays in a family, the more she becomes a person. TrooFriend (Nosy Crow, £6.99, 8+) is a quirky and addictively readable sci-fi novel posing questions about friendship, independence and what it means to be human.
Robert Muchamore’s Robin Hood (Hot Key Books, £6.99) is a dystopian take on the old myth that will be gulped down like fire-scorched meats. When Robin’s coder dad is framed by corrupt cops, he escapes with the gangster Guy Gisborne into Sherwood Forest. Harrying his enemies via a mix of computer hacking, theft and flaming arrows, it’s great for today’s stir-crazy 13+.
My favourite young-adult fantasy this year is Holly Black’s outstanding trilogy The Folk of the Air. Beginning two years ago with The Cruel Prince, and culminating now with The Queen of Nothing (Hot Key, £8.99, 13+), it is narrated by Jude, one of twin sisters stolen from our world by the ruthless faerie general who murdered their parents. How she survives as a vulnerable mortal among immortals to find love and power is a complex tale steeped in the seductive weirdness of Goblin Market and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with a savage dollop of Game of Thrones. It’s tough, literate and a brilliantly immersive escape from the mundane.