Fiction and nonfiction for older children – reviews

Piers Torday and Kiran Millwood Hargrave probably need no introduction, having become potent voices in children’s books over the past few years. Both add compellingly to their shelf-space this summer.

Best known for The Last Wild trilogy, a dystopian saga in which mute humans and talking animals make common cause against disease and totalitarian rule, Torday returns with a prequel: The Wild Before (Quercus, £12.99). Required reading for anyone who fell for the Wild’s resourceful defender Kester and his band of intrepid fauna, it lays out how the dreaded red-eye – and Kester – came to be. Torday’s themes only grow more relevant.

Multiple award-winner Millwood Hargrave, intussen, joins forces with her illustrator partner, Tom de Freston, in Julia and the Shark (Orion, £12.99). Julia’s parents are scientists, and while her father fixes a Scottish lighthouse, her mother obsesses over tracking a Greenland shark (illustrated with dreamlike fluency by De Freston). This being Millwood Hargrave, the shark is also symbolic of all that lurks, hidden: why is Julia’s mother’s psychological state so fragile? This is a tale of courage, understanding and compassion, exhibited in multiple ways. One small caveat: continuing to cast sharks as symbols of dread does the species a disservice.

Not as well known, but just as deserving of their growing piles atop bookshop tables are Robin Scott-Elliot and Darren Simpson. I loved Simpson’s 2019 debuut, Aasdiere; The Memory Thieves (Usborne, £7.99) – aimed at older middle years – does not disappoint. Simpson’s tween protagonists live on a mysterious island sanctuary, where they have come voluntarily to recover from trauma. The renamed Cyan, Ruby and Teal drive dune buggies, their bad memories regularly wiped using the Lethe Method. Of course, this goldfish-brain existence can’t last: Cyan discovers messages coded into bleached whalebone and the Method really does not suit one new arrival. Pacy, profound and original.

Retired sports journalist Robin Scott-Elliot is a dab hand at kids’ historical adventure. His latest, Hide and Seek (Everything With Words, £7.99), brings to vivid life the courage of young people who risked all in the French resistance in the second world war. Young Amélie Dreyfus is playing hide and seek when the soldiers come for her Jewish family. A much more dangerous game of cat-and-mouse ensues as she half-starves, makes common cause with resistance operatives and eventually outperforms a whole cadre of British spies with her cunning and courage. Who can you trust, Scott-Elliot asks.

While Scott-Elliot has fictionalised true accounts of derring-do, kid lit debutant David Farr (screenwriter of The Night Manager, Spooks en Hanna) has squirrelled inspiration from his real-life German Jewish maternal ancestors into the fictional realm of Krasnia, ruled by a cruel, child-hating autocrat.

The Book of Stolen Dreams (Usborne, £12.99) follows young Rachel Klein and her brother Robert, whose librarian father is sent “far to the east” for hiding a book credited with supernatural powers. President Charles Malstain will stop at nothing to get this strange tome, and the siblings must use all their guile to keep it safe and understand its uses as they are pursued, befriended and betrayed. Trust ebbs and flows as the plot considers dreams and wakefulness, life and death.

Children’s nonfiction has exploded in recent months: two current books stand out. Emmy-winning creative producer Abigail Balfe has written and illustrated a hugely engaging, funny and informative account of being neurodivergent. A Different Sort of Normal (Puffin, £8.99) packs in plenty of cats and poo jokes, but also readable breakdowns of not just the autism spectrum but those of gender and sexuality as well. The first children’s book out of rapper Stormzy’s #Merky books stable is Superheroes: Inspiring Stories of Secret Strength (£16.99). Written with intensity by poet Sophia Thakur and illustrated in lithe superhero style by Denzell Dankwah, these are trading-card-like portraits of Bipoc figures from the already famous (Dina Asher-Smith, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Ian Wright) to those working more quietly behind the scenes (creative tech partnership Comuzi, Prof Frank Chinegwundoh MBE, youth worker Tanya Compas). School librarians – over to you.

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