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

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The remote wildness of a Scottish island blended with Celtic folklore and Hindu mythology: Jasbinder Bilan’s Aarti & the Blue Gods (Chicken House) is a gem for readers of eight-plus. Aarti lives alone with her exacting, cruel aunt, cut off from the world and her own history – until a boy washes up on the beach, and she makes an extraordinary discovery. Deftly interweaving the tangible and the numinous, this richly layered adventure confirms Bilan’s striking, original talent.

From Scavengers author Darren Simpson comes The Memory Thieves (Usborne), a tense sci-fi thriller. In the Elsewhere Sanctuary, young residents, including Cyan, submit to Dr Haven’s memory modifications to escape deep-rooted trauma – but when Cyan finds a cryptic message carved into a whale skeleton, and sees a new arrival resist the regime, he begins to rebel, too. Simpson combines fast-paced visual storytelling with a complex, thought-provoking message about coming to terms with the past.

My Beautiful Voice by Joseph Coelho. Illustration by Allison Colpoys

A philosophical standalone, Poison for Breakfast (Rock the Boat) from Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, is narrated by the author, who realises one morning that he is investigating his own murder. Or is he? Reading this little book feels like opening a window to let in air and light. It’s filled with curious information and powerful feelings, and is humorous, sad, meditative and rapturous by turns – with ambiguous questions to be mulled and savoured.

For seven-plus, Maddy Yip’s Guide to Life (Andersen) by Sue Cheung follows the eponymous heroine on a quest to discover her talent. Everyone else has one, so surely she must too … but thwarted by distressing clumsiness, disgusting cakes and defiantly fleeing guinea-pig assistants, will Maddy ever discover her unique gift? A highly illustrated, frequently hilarious start to a new series.

Written by Geoffrey Faber’s granddaughter Polly, and published, naturally, by Faber, The Book Cat is illustrated with bright-eyed charm by Clara Vulliamy. It’s the fanciful account of Morgan, wartime street kitten turned purrfect publishing house cat under the auspices of TS Eliot. Morgan then trains other kittens as writers’ companions to get them out of London – a sweet feline twist on the classic evacuee story.

The Book Cat by Polly Faber. Illustration by Clara Vulliamy
The Book Cat by Polly Faber. Illustration by Clara Vulliamy

A picture books for five-plus, the gorgeous My Beautiful Voice (Frances Lincoln) by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Allison Colpoys, is a story that unfurls as delicately as a flower, infused with Colpoys’ glowing swirls of colour. The shy narrator doesn’t speak in class – until her teacher Miss Flotsam provides the perfect conditions for her to write a poem, and then to recite it, in her newly discovered beautiful voice.

In picture books for younger readers, two very funny counting books stand out. In 10 Silly Children (Pavilion), new talent Jon Lander takes us joyously from sensible activities – sitting still, having a bath, cooking, gardening – to fold-out flaps in which extreme silliness holds sway: think dressed-up lions and feasts of worm pie. It’s all conveyed in playful, free-feeling hand-drawn sweeps of colour, while solemn injunctions not to open said flaps give the book a conspiratorial feel, perfect for reading aloud.

And Ten Delicious Teachers (Walker), by Ross Montgomery and Sarah Warburton, features a handful of heedless educators who have missed the last bus home and take a shortcut through the forest – to the delight of the hungry, brightly coloured monsters who pick them off, one by one. Funny and irreverent, it’s easy to imagine this one being a huge hit at school storytime.

Also from Walker, Ergo, by Alexis Deacon and Viviane Schwarz, is the deceptively simple story of a little yellow chick discovering that she is not the world, and neither is her eggshell. Ergo’s progress from certainty to doubt, exploration to new discovery, is comic, engaging and profoundly thought-provoking, for readers of any age.

Teenagers roundup

The Upper World Paperback – 19 Aug. 2021

The Upper World
by Femi Fadugba, Penguin, £7.99
When teenage Esso somehow starts seeing glimpses of the future, he is haunted by a vision of a bullet fired in an alley; but can the future possibly be changed? Fifteen years on, Rhia is filled with questions about her parents and the moment that ensured she never met them. Does Dr Esso have answers for her – or is his talk about time travel just disturbed rambling? From the streets of Peckham and Streatham to the unearthly strangeness of the Upper World, this superbly original debut, written with extraordinary ambition and panache, effortlessly blends theoretical physics with all-too-human tragedy.

The Climbers by Keith Gray

The Climbers
by Keith Gray, Barrington Stoke, £7.99
Sully is the best tree climber in the village, until the boy who calls himself “Nottingham” appears. No one climbs Twisted Sister without at least seven falls, but Nottingham succeeds on his second attempt. Angry and unsettled, Sully challenges Nottingham to a race – be the first to climb the impossible tree, the tree without a name. But will one of them make it to the top without tragedy? Spare, brief, limpidly clear, this novella from a multi-award-winning author distils the thin-skinned, painful sensitivity of teenage boys, desperate both to stand out and fit in.

The Sound of Everything by Rebecca Henry

The Sound of Everything
by Rebecca Henry, Everything With Words, £8.99
Complex, challenging Kadie has been bounced from foster home to foster home, betrayal to betrayal. But though the noise of the everyday often threatens to overwhelm her, she has a talent for music – one that prompts her to forge an unlikely alliance with Dayan, also a gifted musician. As envious girls begin a campaign of online hate against her, can Kadie bring herself to trust Dayan and let him in? A brilliantly assured first novel, evoking all the stored-up, defensive hurt of the serially rejected child.


The remote wildness of a Scottish island blended with Celtic folklore and Hindu mythology: Jasbinder Bilan’s Aarti & the Blue Gods (Chicken House) is a gem for readers of eight-plus. Aarti lives alone with her exacting, cruel aunt, cut off from the world and her own history – until a boy washes up on the beach, and she makes an extraordinary discovery. Deftly interweaving the tangible and the numinous, this richly layered adventure confirms Bilan’s striking, original talent.

From Scavengers author Darren Simpson comes The Memory Thieves (Usborne), a tense sci-fi thriller. In the Elsewhere Sanctuary, young residents, including Cyan, submit to Dr Haven’s memory modifications to escape deep-rooted trauma – but when Cyan finds a cryptic message carved into a whale skeleton, and sees a new arrival resist the regime, he begins to rebel, too. Simpson combines fast-paced visual storytelling with a complex, thought-provoking message about coming to terms with the past.

My Beautiful Voice by Joseph Coelho.
My Beautiful Voice by Joseph Coelho. Illustration by Allison Colpoys

A philosophical standalone, Poison for Breakfast (Rock the Boat) from Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, is narrated by the author, who realises one morning that he is investigating his own murder. Or is he? Reading this little book feels like opening a window to let in air and light. It’s filled with curious information and powerful feelings, and is humorous, sad, meditative and rapturous by turns – with ambiguous questions to be mulled and savoured.

For seven-plus, Maddy Yip’s Guide to Life (Andersen) by Sue Cheung follows the eponymous heroine on a quest to discover her talent. Everyone else has one, so surely she must too … but thwarted by distressing clumsiness, disgusting cakes and defiantly fleeing guinea-pig assistants, will Maddy ever discover her unique gift? A highly illustrated, frequently hilarious start to a new series.

Written by Geoffrey Faber’s granddaughter Polly, and published, naturally, by Faber, The Book Cat is illustrated with bright-eyed charm by Clara Vulliamy. It’s the fanciful account of Morgan, wartime street kitten turned purrfect publishing house cat under the auspices of TS Eliot. Morgan then trains other kittens as writers’ companions to get them out of London – a sweet feline twist on the classic evacuee story.

The Book Cat by Polly Faber. Illustration by Clara Vulliamy
The Book Cat by Polly Faber. Illustration by Clara Vulliamy

A picture books for five-plus, the gorgeous My Beautiful Voice (Frances Lincoln) by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Allison Colpoys, is a story that unfurls as delicately as a flower, infused with Colpoys’ glowing swirls of colour. The shy narrator doesn’t speak in class – until her teacher Miss Flotsam provides the perfect conditions for her to write a poem, and then to recite it, in her newly discovered beautiful voice.

In picture books for younger readers, two very funny counting books stand out. In 10 Silly Children (Pavilion), new talent Jon Lander takes us joyously from sensible activities – sitting still, having a bath, cooking, gardening – to fold-out flaps in which extreme silliness holds sway: think dressed-up lions and feasts of worm pie. It’s all conveyed in playful, free-feeling hand-drawn sweeps of colour, while solemn injunctions not to open said flaps give the book a conspiratorial feel, perfect for reading aloud.

And Ten Delicious Teachers (Walker), by Ross Montgomery and Sarah Warburton, features a handful of heedless educators who have missed the last bus home and take a shortcut through the forest – to the delight of the hungry, brightly coloured monsters who pick them off, one by one. Funny and irreverent, it’s easy to imagine this one being a huge hit at school storytime.

Also from Walker, Ergo, by Alexis Deacon and Viviane Schwarz, is the deceptively simple story of a little yellow chick discovering that she is not the world, and neither is her eggshell. Ergo’s progress from certainty to doubt, exploration to new discovery, is comic, engaging and profoundly thought-provoking, for readers of any age.

Teenagers roundup

The Upper World Paperback – 19 Aug. 2021

The Upper World
by Femi Fadugba, Penguin, £7.99
When teenage Esso somehow starts seeing glimpses of the future, he is haunted by a vision of a bullet fired in an alley; but can the future possibly be changed? Fifteen years on, Rhia is filled with questions about her parents and the moment that ensured she never met them. Does Dr Esso have answers for her – or is his talk about time travel just disturbed rambling? From the streets of Peckham and Streatham to the unearthly strangeness of the Upper World, this superbly original debut, written with extraordinary ambition and panache, effortlessly blends theoretical physics with all-too-human tragedy.

The Climbers by Keith Gray

The Climbers
by Keith Gray, Barrington Stoke, £7.99
Sully is the best tree climber in the village, until the boy who calls himself “Nottingham” appears. No one climbs Twisted Sister without at least seven falls, but Nottingham succeeds on his second attempt. Angry and unsettled, Sully challenges Nottingham to a race – be the first to climb the impossible tree, the tree without a name. But will one of them make it to the top without tragedy? Spare, brief, limpidly clear, this novella from a multi-award-winning author distils the thin-skinned, painful sensitivity of teenage boys, desperate both to stand out and fit in.

The Sound of Everything by Rebecca Henry

The Sound of Everything
by Rebecca Henry, Everything With Words, £8.99
Complex, challenging Kadie has been bounced from foster home to foster home, betrayal to betrayal. But though the noise of the everyday often threatens to overwhelm her, she has a talent for music – one that prompts her to forge an unlikely alliance with Dayan, also a gifted musician. As envious girls begin a campaign of online hate against her, can Kadie bring herself to trust Dayan and let him in? A brilliantly assured first novel, evoking all the stored-up, defensive hurt of the serially rejected child.

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