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Enough to tempt kids away from the TV

Published Dec 25, 2011

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Magic Beans (David Fickling Books) is an anthology of fairy tales retold by a contemporary writer. Each is perfect for reading aloud over a few bedtimes, and with wonderfully told stories by brilliant writers, including Alan Garner, Linda Newbery, Anne Fine, Gillian Cross, Berlie Doherty and Philip Pullman, parents will love it as much as kids.

Emphatically not for parents is Donut Diaries (Corgi). At the risk of perpetuating gender stereotypes, it is for boys; full of jokes about, well, the things boys tell jokes about. It’s the journal of Dermot Milligan (with help from Anthony McGowan), chronicling the rigours of being a 12-year-old doughnut addict in a new school. It is easy and plaintive and very funny, and if you’re determined to give the young boy in your life a book in his stocking this year, well this might be one he’d thank you for.

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In Ian Beck’s The Haunting of Charity Delafield (Bodley Head), we meet a young girl who lives a quiet life, suffering from a mysterious “condition” but afflicted, too, by a strange, strange dream. It’s an elegant, atmospheric tale, with frost and mystery and a bit of magic.

Lettie Peppercorn in Sam Gayton’s The Snow Merchant (Andersen) isn’t allowed outdoors either, but everything changes when this odd thing called “snow” appears in her world for the first time, courtesy of a visiting alchemist. But why is this strange man here, and what does he know about Lettie’s mother, who vanished 10 years earlier? A tale of self-discovery, family and friendship, it’s an inventive and accomplished debut.

Lost Christmas by David Logan (Quercus) is set on Christmas Eve. Young Goose (real name Richard) lost his parents in a tragic accident, and now his dog Mutt, the one constant in his life, has vanished. Goose isn’t the only one struggling, though – everyone, it seems, has lost something that matters to them.

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Sometimes dark, but with an inevitably sentimental ending, this is a vivid and touching book.

From dogs lost to dogs found, in my children’s book of the year. Before her recent death, the inimitable Eva Ibbotson had spent decades quietly producing fine books for children. Her last, One Dog and His Boy (Marion Lloyd), is one of her best. In it, 10-year-old Hal and dog Fleck face a series of challenges and adventures in order to be able to stay together, despite the persistence of some ghastly grown-ups.

For anyone who hasn’t discovered the effortless warmth and joy and pin-sharp wit that made Ibbotson great, this story of loyalty and friendship is a must.

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Some of my favourite pictures of the year are to be found in Wonderstruck, the new creation of Brian Selznick (Scholastic), best known for his astonishing The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the basis for the Martin Scorsese movie, Hugo. Like Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck uses both words and pictures, with parallel narratives. Ben, in the 1970s, gets the words, and a deaf girl called Rose, in 1927, gets the pictures. Structurally bold and visually stunning, it’s every bit as good as its predecessor.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, the award-winning author of Millions and Framed, published Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again this year (Macmillan), the first authorised sequel to Ian Fleming’s original, but my pick is another of his books, The Unforgotten Coat (Walker,), a short, lovely story about two Mongolian brothers who appear at Julie’s Liverpool school, entirely re-colour her life, and disappear again overnight. It’s funny and full of heart.

From the Mongolian steppes to India, next, in Jamila Gavin’s retellings of “Stories of Creation and the Cosmos”, Tales from India (Templar). With illustrations by Amanda Hall, these tales of Shiva, Ganesh, Krishna and Hanuman are gorgeously styled in Gavin’s expert hands, and beg to be read aloud.

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Francesca Simon’s The Sleeping Army (Faber) uses old myths, too, but does wilder, more anarchic things with them. Simon is best known as the creator of the hilarious Horrid Henry series; The Sleeping Army is her first novel for older children, and it’s fantastic. When 12-year-old Freya blows on an ancient horn on display at the British Museum, she’s torn away from her own world (an alternative present in which England is a polytheistic country worshipping the Anglo-Saxon Wodan) and whisked off to Asgard, where she’s given a terrifying mission to save the ailing gods. It’s a snappy, engaging story with good laughs.

There’s a quest of a different kind in Lissa Evans’s Small Change for Stuart (Doubleday) a small book about a small boy, and one of this year’s great delights. Stuart Horten is 10, but tiny for his age. (The nickname SHorten is unfortunate.) When his mother, a doctor, and his father, a crossword compiler who uses words such as sylvan and perambulation and matutinal, decide to move to the village of Beeton, Stuart thinks the prospect rather grim. Until, that is, he finds himself on the hunt for the workshop that used to belong to his great-uncle, a magician. It’s a finely written book crammed with exciting incident and colourful characters; something quite special.

And finally, for the older end of this age group, another story of the transit between generations. A Greyhound of a Girl is the sixth and best children’s book by the wonderfully talented Roddy Doyle (Marion Lloyd). It introduces us to Mary, her mother, dying grandmother and long-dead great-grandmother, a strong foursome who come together for the book’s culmination, an unforgettable road trip. It is lively and funny and terrifically readable, but moving and thoughtful about life and death, too.

– The Independent on Sunday

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