The stand-out title this month is a picture book, Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love (Walker). When Julian sees three women dressed as mermaids, he wants to be one too; but how will his Nana react? In this bravura feat of understated storytelling, the richness of Julian’s day-to-day reality and free-floating imagination is caught in images layered with colour, movement, muscle and life, celebrating black and Latin experience. Julian invents a tail and flowing hair, and Nana’s acceptance, as she accompanies him on a wild parade of mermaids, will leave the reader filled with joy.
Nadia Shireen’s Billy and the Beast (Penguin) also celebrates the experience of those often left out of picture books, with its brave brown heroine and the outrageous array of props she stores in her huge cloud of hair. Lively, energetic, full of well-timed humour (and a sidekick called Fatcat), it’s a great story for everyone, especially those not used to seeing themselves centre stage.
Jan Fearnley, meanwhile, deliciously subverts the “sharing-is-caring” trope in the mouth-watering Oh Me, Oh My, A PIE! (Nosy Crow). When Grandma bakes a pie, it passes swiftly to a succession of thieves. With its piecrust-crisp scansion and a tinge of Hilaire Belloc, this is a delight to read aloud. There’s another roguish gran in Sophy Henn’s intoxicating Bad Nana: Older Not Wiser (HarperCollins), dressed to kill in black, white and fluorescent pink. Assuredly inhabiting its seven-year-old protagonist’s perspective, the book chronicles the naughty deeds of an unconventional nana, who challenges despotic park-keepers, shares true-crime library books with the very young, and dishes out lemon sherbets for medicinal purposes – a fizzily sweet sensation.
In a wholly different register, The Day War Came (Walker) combines Nicola Davies’s simple, hard-hitting text and Rebecca Cobb’s pencil drawings to evoke the dismaying destruction of accustomed reality for the youngest victims of conflict. Thought-provoking and poignant, it’s an excellent answer to the question of how to talk to children about war.
For history buffs of about seven upwards – assuming they’re unfazed by plentiful text – David Roberts’s Suffragette: The Battle for Equality (Two Hoots) stands out amid a plethora of Rebel Girls-type titles for its passion and elegance, and the way it situates the suffragettes’ work within a wider context. Lesser-known figures, especially working-class ones, are here given their due, while Roberts’s strong illustrations work beautifully to convey their experience in this satisfyingly meaty history.
For eight to twelve-ish readers, there is a delightful border-crossing adventure in Sylvia Bishop’s The Secret of the Night Train (Scholastic), illustrated by Marco Guadalupi, which features meditative, migratory Max, desperate to break free of her rule-bound family. But her train journey from Paris to visit Great-Aunt Elodie in Istanbul is swiftly derailed by the discovery of a jewel theft en route. Assured, pacey and instantly seductive, it has the intricately inlaid feel of a classic children’s mystery.
Anarchic black humour is rampant in Will Mabbitt’s Embassy of the Dead (Orion), the story of curious Jake, a severed finger in a box, and a Reaper whose task it is to drag Jake screaming into the Eternal Void. Encompassing a vivid, well-drawn supporting cast, from unearthly civil servants to ghosts who haunt school trophies, and beautifully balancing gore and gentleness, creepiness and cackle-out-loud gags, it’s a splendid start to a ghoulish new series, featuring artwork by the talented Chris Mould.
Pack tissues aplenty before opening Adam Baron’s Boy Underwater (HarperCollins), starring Cymbeline Igloo, a Year 4 boy who has never been swimming. When his mum has a breakdown after Cymbeline gets pushed into the pool, he goes looking for some answers about his past … Involving and wryly funny, full of tenderness, eccentricity and intriguing meditations on the function of art, this story of grief, depression and the different facets of identity is well-served by Benji Davies’s thoughtful illustrations.
For teenagers, an unusual verse novel stands out amid a steadily growing YA genre. Clémentine Beauvais’s In Paris With You (Faber) revisits Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin to imagine what might have happened to Eugene and Tatiana if they had met on the Métro, years after Eugene’s fateful rejection. Clever and sophisticated, layered with deep fondness and resonant emotional truth, this runaway French bestseller, in Sam Taylor’s elegant translation, is a poetic and literary tour de force; via its warm, involved narrator, it explores ideas of young and more grown up love with playfulness and erotic zest.
In Marisha Pessl’s Neverworld Wake (Scholastic), Bea and her former friends come to after a fatal car crash, again and again, stuck in a time loop until they can reach consensus as to which one of them should be allowed to return to life. Before they can make the decision, however, they must solve a past mystery – how and why did Bea’s beloved boyfriend die? Instantly fascinating, defying easy categorisation, it’s a book of heady and delectable strangeness.
Finally, Karen Gregory’s powerful second novel Skylarks (Bloomsbury) features strong, thoughtful Joni, whose family, as her father becomes too ill to work, have little but their love for one another. When Joni meets Annabel, she recoils from her aura of privilege – yet both sense the spark between them. What will happen when Annabel’s father threatens Joni’s family with eviction? This moving romance, with its well-drawn working-class heroine, its examination of power, politics and protest, and its clarion call to make courageous choices, represents all that’s best in British YA.
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