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Children’s and teens roundup: the best new picture books and novels

The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes.
The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes. Photograph: PR

The new year is off to a flying start for Young Adult fans, for whom Muhammad Khan’s I Am Thunder (Macmillan) is a must-read. Muzna’s parents want her to be their kind of good Muslim: an obedient daughter who steers clear of boys and studies medicine. Muzna, though, just wants to do something about her facial hair, write stories and have a bit more freedom. When she meets handsome Arif at school, she’s intrigued by his interest – but Arif is under the thumb of an older brother with a sinister agenda. Will Muzna be drawn in, too? With its superb heroine, pitch-perfect dialogue, and sensitive examination of extremism preying on naivety, this assured, hopeful debut feels unprecedented and essential.

Across the pond, 17-year-old film-maker Maya also considers rebellion in Samira Ahmed’s Love, Hate & Other Filters (Hot Key), featuring a love triangle that sidesteps cliche with its resonant detail and astute characterisation. Maya’s choices – between family and ambition, “suitable boy” and long-term crush – are interwoven with the build-up to a terrorist attack, and the unthinking Islamophobia it unleashes, in this occasionally melodramatic, intensely readable novel.

Also from Hot Key, The Cruel Prince, first in a new trilogy from Holly Black, stands out amid a plethora of fairy-court fantasies. When their human parents are butchered in their home, Jude and her sisters Taryn and Vivi are taken to Faerie and raised there by the assassin, surrounded by danger, glamour and deceit. As she comes of age, Jude fights to find where she belongs – and whether she can ward off the enmity of Prince Cardan, cruellest of the old king’s sons. Complex, nuanced characters, frank sensuality and thorn-sharp, intricate storytelling all conspire to ensnare.

Little Whale by Jo Weaver
Little Whale by Jo Weaver. Photograph: Hachette Children's Books

In Emily Barr’s contemporary thriller The Truth and Lies of Ella Black (Penguin), meanwhile, Ella has always struggled with “Bella”, the wicked alter ego she believes must remain trapped beneath her well-behaved surface. But when some mysterious news causes her family to travel unexpectedly to Rio de Janeiro, she discovers a use for her dark side after all. Evoking Ella’s intoxicating new surroundings while skewering the facile assumptions of “poverty tourism”, Barr’s second YA novel is a fast-paced, dramatic search for answers to the secrets of the self.

Readers of eight to 12 are in luck, too, as Lisa Thompson follows up The Goldfish Boy with a new standalone, The Light Jar (Scholastic). Nate and his mother have left her controlling partner Gary to hide out in a deserted cottage – but now Mum has failed to return from her trip to buy food. That’s when Sam, a glowing boy who seems familiar, shows up … and a girl called Kitty, with her own puzzle to solve. This story of a flight from domestic abuse and a boy’s rediscovery of his inner resources is poignant and multilayered.

From Pushkin, a Brazilian classic, My Sweet Orange Tree by José Mauro de Vasconcelos, is published in a new translation by Alison Entrekin. This tender, joyful, often brutal little book stars Zezé, a precocious and deep-feeling five-year-old, his chaotic and impoverished family, his beloved sweet orange tree Pinkie, and his former arch-enemy and substitute father “Portuga”. It will suit thoughtful readers of 10-plus down to the ground.

Attack of the Snack.
Attack of the Snack. Photograph: Hachette Children's Books

Anarchic aeronauts and plucky poultry are the order of the day in Emma Carroll’s Sky Chasers (Chicken House). Starring Magpie, a light-fingered, loyal and intelligent heroine, alongside kindly Pierre, a cockerel called Coco and a duck called Voltaire, with a cameo by Marie Antoinette, it follows the fortunes of the Montgolfier brothers as they strive to conquer the secret of flying – and conceal it from English spies. Soaring flight, earthy detail and the power of friendship are all to the fore in this gripping historical adventure.

Also from Chicken House comes Guy Jones’s delicately constructed debut, The Ice Garden, in which Jess, allergic to sunlight, cannot go out in the daylight unless she is “Full Hat” – swathed in fabric from head to toe. Stealing out one night for an illicit walk, she discovers a garden made entirely of ice, and a boy, Owen, who becomes her first friend – but the garden, though beautiful, is both threatening and threatened, and Jess soon faces a painful choice. Elegant, assured, sad and hilarious, The Ice Garden also features a particularly loving mother-daughter relationship.

For readers of five to eight – or those in need of new year inspiration – Rachel Ignotofsky’s exquisitely designed Women in Sport: 50 Fearless Athletes Who Played to Win (Wren & Rook) is a sensational successor to last year’s Women in Science. From Gertrude Ederle to Serena Williams, and sports from roller derby to boxing, women who trained and competed with grit are celebrated in this beautiful compendium.

I Love You, Stick Insect.
I Love You, Stick Insect.

It’s summertime in Julian Gough’s latest outing for Rabbit and Bear: Attack of the Snack (Hodder), with sunny, luminous images from Jim Field. When a small feathery projectile lands in the lake, Rabbit and Bear have very different responses to it. Xenophobia, tolerance, blueberry poo, apologising and killer burping owls are all addressed with Gough’s characteristic mix of scatological humour and richness.

For picture-book fans – especially those who have enjoyed Blue Planet IILittle Whale by Jo Weaver (Hodder) is a gorgeous, grown-up migration story, shadowy charcoal drawings evoking every ripple of the great whales’ world. In a more surreal and humorous take on the natural kingdom, Chris Naylor-Ballesteros’s I Love You, Stick Insect (Bloomsbury) features an amorous phasmid who thinks he’s found true love – but is his paramour everything she seems? Pleasingly silly, and lending itself to over-the-top performances from those reading aloud, it should raise belly laughs from small listeners.

Finally, in Ying Chang Compestine’s The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes (Abrams), a resourceful boy emperor takes on his swindling advisers, causing them to parade in rice sacks as he wins back his wealth to feed and clothe the poor. This is an appealing twist on a well-loved tale, brought vividly to life by David Roberts’s apple-cheeked, expressive illustrations.

This article titled "Children’s and teens roundup: the best new picture books and novels" was written by Imogen Russell Williams, for The Guardian on Saturday 27 January 2018 11.00am


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