Since I started studying for my Masters in Writing for Children, my eyes have been opened to the wonderful world of children’s books and all that I have been missing out on over the years. Since September, aside from Terry Pratchett, 90% of what I have read is a book marketed at children or young adults and, let me tell you, I don’t feel like my reading experience has been left lacking at all.
I’ve discovered some amazing new authors, re-discovered some old favourites and generally had a lovely time, which I want to share with all of you now. A word of warning; once you get over yourself, as I did, and embrace children’s fiction, you might find you don’t have a lot of time for anything else. This article will focus on middle grade books (aimed at 8-12 year olds) and the next one will be all about YA.
5. Cogheart – Peter Bunzl
This is the newest book on the list, published last year, but I can say it is unequivocally my favourite middle grade book I have read so far. Set in a steampunky Victorian past, our heroine Lily sets out to discover why her father is missing and why men with silver eyes are stalking her. The world of ‘Cogheart’, filled with zeppelins and mechanicals (mechanical robot people) who do all the jobs no one else seems to want to do, is a real delight and a great example of steampunk in general. Malkin, Lily’s wisecracking and grumpy mechanical fox, will definitely be your favourite, although I was also quite taken by Mrs Rust, Lily’s mechanical housekeeper and nanny.
Aside from the sheer creativity of the whole thing, what impressed me most about ‘Cogheart’ is that Bunzl doesn’t shy away from some quite scary and upsetting scenes, or discussing the impact of those scenes on the young characters afterwards. ‘Cogheart’ has a sequel due out later this year and I’ve already marked it on my calendar.
4. Two Weeks with the Queen – Morris Gleitzman
I’ve read a lot of Morris Gleitzman these past few months, and I am continually impressed with his ability to tackle difficult subjects in a way that is often funny, completely truthful without being scary and so moving that every book so far has had me crying at least one time. His ‘Once’ series focuses on the Holocaust and its impact throughout the life of a ten year old boy who lived it, whilst ‘Two Weeks with the Queen’ covers AIDS and gay characters in so sensitive a way that you would think it was written today and not twenty seven years ago.
Twelve year old Colin is sent from Australia to England to stay with family whilst his younger brother fights serious illness back at home. Colin wants nothing more than to go back, and on his various attempts to have London doctors talk to the Australian ones, he meets Ted, a gay man visiting his partner Griff in hospital. Griff is dying of AIDS, a fact that the story does not shy away from, and as Colin gets to know his new friends, he realises that he may have to accept his brother’s illness.
Gleitzman is always unflinchingly honest in his books and this one is no exception, but I also don’t think any child reading it would ever feel like they had been patronised. Gleitzman has a lot of faith in his young readers and their ability to empathise and learn, and this is something that I really try to remember in my own writing. If you feel like having a good cry, ‘Two Weeks with the Queen’ is the way to go about it.
3. Wonder – RJ Palacio
In my recent March book recommendations, I mentioned ‘We’re All Wonders’, a picture book that I was particularly looking forwards to. ‘Wonder’ is the big brother of that book, the original novel that Palacio wowed everyone with back in 2012. Ten year old August Pullman has a rare facial deformity that means he has always been home educated. The novel opens with August about to start at a school for the very first time, and covers his learning to fit in, become less self-conscious about his face and dealing with the bullies who try to force him out.
‘Wonder’ could be a very bleak story, but Palacio refuses to allow it to be so, balancing every moment of dark with one of light. August makes a lot of very good friends at school and has teachers who are supportive and sympathetic, as well as a very loving family. He is bullied for a while, and it is painful to read because we all know it is so truthful of any school system, but he comes out of the other side strong and still as kind as he ever was.
‘Wonder’ is a book that a lot of people should read for a lot of different reasons, and I couldn’t possibly list them all, but for me it was refreshing to see a ‘disabled’ character treated as nothing less than a hero in his own right.
2. Murder Most Unladylike – Robin Stevens
A murder mystery for kids! That was enough to sell me this book even before I picked it up, but I was impressed with what I found once I did. Main characters Daisy and Hazel have their own secret detective agency at their boarding school, but few interesting cases until their science teacher is found dead. Everyone thinks she had an accident, but Daisy and Hazel set out to find the truth before anyone else can muscle in on the case.
I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for ‘boarding school’ books, way back to when I used to mainline Enid Blyton when I was at primary school, and this one was very reminiscent of that time for me. I also love a good murder mystery, and this covered all the bases there, with a twisty turny plot that even I couldn’t see the end of, so a young reader probably wouldn’t figure it out either. I’ve read murder mysteries for adults with less opaqueness and I loved it. Daisy and Hazel are funny, endearing characters and star in at least five more books, a couple of which are sitting at the very top of my to-read pile.
1. A Boy Called Christmas – Matt Haig
The front cover of my copy of this book tells you to ‘Believe in the impossible’, and it occurs to me now that any young reader who picks this up whilst still believing in Father Christmas will be totally enchanted by this ‘biography’ of the big man himself. How I wish I could have read this when I was that age. It would have been magical!
As it is, ‘A Boy Called Christmas’ charts the ‘true story of Father Christmas’, beginning with his life as an eleven year old called Nikolas. When his father goes on a trip to find elves and doesn’t come back, Nikolas sets out to find him and discovers lots of impossible things along the way. Nikolas is a charming character, as are many of the people and creatures he meets on his journey, especially a certain reindeer who decides to follow him.
Haig is a very funny, accomplished writer and it shows here, in a book that is perfect in pretty much every way and largely difficult to put down. I read this at Christmas and I recommend you save it for that time of year, to get the full effect. I myself am keeping the next in the series, ‘The Girl Who Saved Christmas’ for a more festive time of year!