Children’s books roundup – the best new picture books and novels

Imogen Russell Williams

With normal routines disrupted and anxiety levels high, brilliant children’s books may offer a handle on difficult times, or at least a charmed bubble of escapism. This month’s crop of books for eight to 12-year-olds are particularly powerful. Damien Love’s Monstrous Devices (Rock the Boat) is a superbly assured debut, featuring 12-year-old Alex, a mysterious toy robot and a breakneck chase through Europe to discover its secret and stop its terrifying power being unleashed on the world. Alex’s dapper and imperturbable grandfather, some truly sinister villains and an effortless, atmospheric evocation of place and history combine in an unforgettable, immersive reading experience.

For non-magical adventure, award-winning YA author Nic Stone turns her hand to writing for younger readers in Clean Getaway (Knights of Media). When Scoob’s outrageous grandma kidnaps him and sweeps him away on a campervan tour of the landmarks of her past, guided by the “Green Book” that once told African Americans where they could safely travel, Scoob isn’t expecting a series of shattering revelations about his grandfather’s past, his grandma’s secret weakness, and his own father’s love. Funny, warm and highly original, it’s an exciting, poignant and thought-provoking road-trip novel.

In the anonymous city of Ele Fountain’s Lost (Pushkin), Lola lives in a comfortable apartment with her brother Amit, insulated from the danger of life on the streets – until the day her father doesn’t come home from a business trip. Evicted, penniless, separated from Amit, Lola discovers just what people will do to survive destitution – and what she herself will do to find her brother again. Fountain’s deft writing avoids heavy-handed moralising, gripping the reader with fast-paced action while quietly laying out the injustice of a world where children can starve on the streets, or be brutally beaten for sitting in the wrong place.

For comics fans of five to eight and upwards, from NoBrow, Gamayun Tales 1 collects together three of Alexander Utkin’s interconnected stories based on traditional Russian folklore, filled with warm firelight and heroic strangeness. Whether dealing with war between the Kings of the Birds and Beasts, a sly Water Spirit who seeks to acquire a human servant, or a wild duck who is really a magic-using water maiden, Utkin’s words and images weave powerfully together to create an enduring sense of enchantment.

Young crime lovers, meanwhile, will snap up Serena Patel’s lively, funny Anisha, Accidental Detective (Usborne), with zany illustrations from Emma McCann, featuring a down-to-earth, logical heroine drawn into a tall tale of a kidnapped bridegroom and a scheme to sabotage a wedding. Anisha must follow all the clues to save her beloved aunt Bindi from heartbreak – even if it does mean she’ll have to wear an itchy orange bridesmaid’s lehenga …

Jessica Sanders’s Love Your Body (Frances Lincoln), illustrated by Carol Rossetti, is a picture-book paean to the female body, spare tyres, stretch marks, armpit hair and all. Its message (“It is important to love and accept yourself exactly as you are. Do not wait till tomorrow”) and its clear, calm emphasis on the power and worth of the individual feel salutary when many books continue to celebrate only a Disneyfied, homogeneous version of beauty. Read with an adult from five and up, or independently from seven or eight.

Among younger picture-books for about four-plus, Kristin Roskifte’s Everybody Counts (Wide-Eyed), translated by Siân Mackie, ranges from one person “lying in bed counting his heartbeats”, to seven and a half billion people, “every single one with their own unique story”. Part search-and-find, part playful exploration of difference and empathy-fostering reminder of all the unique lives in the world, it’s a book to which children should return repeatedly, discovering more detail every time.

A delightful dachshund is the star of the splendidly comic and atmospheric Paolo, Emperor of Rome (Abrams), by Mac Barnett and Claire Keane. Bored by his imprisonment in an upmarket salon, Paolo seizes his chance to escape, exploring Rome’s landmarks, art and opera and outfacing wild cats and street dogs as he refuses to be shut up even by the pope: “Paolo’s wild spirit was boundless. He could not be contained.”

Finally, alphabet high jinks and criminal capers combine in The Case of the Missing Cake (Walker) by Eoin McLaughlin, illustrated with sharp, colourful charm by Marc Boutavant. When the cake on the C page goes missing, a pugnacious bear accuses several suspects (“K is for Kite. Think you’re above the law?”) before pinning the patisserie theft on Pig, who is summarily banished to page 27. But is he really the culprit? This funny, subversive book should make both children and adults snigger.

Teenagers roundup
And the Stars Were Burning Brightly

by Danielle Jawando, Simon & Schuster, £7.99
Al was going places – a talented artist, a brilliant student. But he had secrets too – and now he’s dead … Told from the dual perspectives of Al’s younger brother Nate and friend Megan, this poignant debut, drawing on Jawando’s own experience, examines the pressure-cooker stresses of contemporary teenage life, especially the toxic interaction of mental health and social media. Unflinchingly addressing the impact of suicide and the slow, painful process of recovering from loss, it isn’t an easy read, but it is a powerful one.

Devil, Darling, Spy
Matt Killeen, Usborne, £7.99
In Killeen’s sequel to his Costa-shortlisted debut, his indomitable heroine Sarah Goldstein, disguised as “good little National Socialist” Ursula, travels to central Africa on a mission to prevent the mysterious White Devil from weaponising a deadly virus for the Nazi military. Killeen raises unsettling questions about national identity and tackles racist colonial beliefs head-on. This demanding and superbly written novel is perhaps a little too densely packed with issues and information, but it’s still deeply absorbing and rewarding – a must for anyone who enjoyed Orphan, Monster, Spy.

Run, Rebel
by Manjeet Mann, Penguin, £7.99
Amber Rai’s life is ruled by fear. If she is seen with a boy, her abusive father’s wrath will follow. Her sister Ruby used to fight their dad, until an arranged marriage changed her from ambitious scholar to well-behaved wife – a fate Amber knows could soon be hers, too. Running is her only escape – and now her father wants to forbid it ... In a tightly crafted series of punchy, often heartbreaking poems, Mann’s brilliant, coruscating verse novel lays out the anatomy of Amber’s revolution, and the tentative first flowerings of hope and change.