Sinister summer reading for children

Witchcraft, murder and some unusually grotesque monsters are on offer — from Martin Stewart, Kenneth Oppel, Francesca Simon, Robin Stevens and others

21 May 2016

9:00 AM

21 May 2016

9:00 AM

Martin Stewart’s Riverkeep (Penguin, £7.99) has a list of books and writers on the cover: Moby-Dick, The Wizard of Oz, Ursula Le Guin, Charles Dickens and, less ambitiously, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and Skellig. And, right in the middle, Riverkeep. Pff, you think: they wish!

But you know what? Having read the book, there are elements of all these authors in it: Moby-Dick for the quest for a great sea monster; The Wizard of Oz for a homunculus who retains his self, even when he loses his stuffing; Ursula Le Guin for the creation of a coherent other world where magic is part and parcel of things; and perhaps Dickens for a dank, watery atmosphere.

Riverkeep is what the hero’s father does; he fishes corpses from the river for decent burial and expects his 15-year-old son to do the same. But that’s before a peculiar creature jumps into him and starts to devour him from inside. The only remedy is the gland of an enormous sea monster which has appeared down the coast. And so begins a voyage in which our teenage hero accumulates fellow travellers, from the dirty-minded homunculus to a woman nursing a baby made out of mandrake root, plus a waif, along with his possessed father, eating fish heads.

I know: you’re thinking weird, magic realism… get me out of here. But I can only say that it’s a cracking, startlingly original story (and given the copycat character of so much children’s fiction, that’s quite something). It would be an extraordinary book by any author — but it is Martin Stewart’s first.

Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest (David Fickling Books, £10.99) really is peculiar. It’s about a boy, his sick baby brother and a conspiracy by a sinister queen wasp to create a changeling, a perfect version of the flawed infant. I was persuaded to give it a go because of the illustrations by Jon Klassen, famous for his deadpan picture books for young children, but it seems he does suggestive and sinister too (an example is reprinted on p. 4 of this magazine). There’s something Hitchcockian and creepy about the story, but it’s actually heartwarming: we’re all flawed, is the gist.

Francesca Simon is well known to anyone with young children for her Horrid Henry books, but recently she’s made a foray into Scandinavian myth — and for sheer unpleasantness of religion, it’s hard to beat that of the Vikings. The Monstrous Child (Faber, £9.99) is dark. It tells the story of Hel, Queen of the Underworld — like Prosperpina, only monstrous. But she cuts a rather poignant figure, and ultimately it’s a redemptive story.

For general pleasing of younger readers, it’s hard to beat the Tom Gates books, Liz Pinchon’s combination of doodles and child-angst diary. I delegated Tom Gates: Super Good Skills (Almost) (Scholastic, £10.99), about Tom’s holiday, to my in-house readers, aged nine and 12, and apparently it’s really good and involves playing games with Post-It notes. The doodles may well corrupt your child’s drawing style, but you can’t win ’em all.

Robin Stevens’s Jolly Foul Play (Puffin, £6.99) is the latest Murder Most Unladylike Mystery, set in the 1930s and involving two girl sleuths, one Home Counties, the other Hong Kong Chinese. It’s Agatha Christie for nine-year-olds with psychological insight from our Chinese heroine. Again, there’s a murder at Deepdean School — where no sensible parent should ever leave a child — and besides the usual bloodied hockey stick there’s a bit of lesbianism. Just saying. I’m told by my child reviewer that the plot is ‘realistic’. Golly!

You might have thought that the Enid Blyton oeuvre had been exhausted, but no. The Secret Stories, written in the early 1940s and now reprinted, have the usual quota of up-for-it children, plus an exotic import: little Prince Paul from Baronia — Ruritania with a bit of Rider Haggard. In The Secret Forest (Hodder, £6.99), there’s the usual Blyton formula of getting shot of the parents by page 14, and then the adventures start. There’s lots of the future Blyton here — underground rivers, faithful retainers and very good teas. They’re cracking stories; but why put Eileen Soper’s original illustrations at the back?

Rumer Godden’s wonderful story The Dolls’ House (Macmillan, £9.99) has been reprinted, with a perceptive foreword by Jacqueline Wilson. There are lots of stories about dolls but very few that capture their dolly character; here, their dependence on the children who play with them is complete, and it matters what they’re made of. There’s real tension in the story, and what a terrific writer she was.

Child witches are standard fare post-JKR, but in the Danish Wildwitch series by Lene Kaaberbol (Pushkin, £6.99), the thing about our heroine is that she’s a nature witch, who communicates with animals. It’s amusingly Scandinavian — the coven has token men —and it’s an engaging take on the genre.

Harrius Potter, Peter Needham’s Latin translation of Harry Potter (Bloomsbury, £14.99) is obviously preposterous, and needlessly complicated by his not using capital letters to begin sentences. It’s good fun though.

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