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

·5-min read

This month, readers of eight plus with a taste for apocalyptic fiction will relish Polly Ho-Yen’s How I Saved the World in a Week (Simon & Schuster). Billy’s fierce, unusual mother taught him fire-building and foraging, hammering home the rules of survival before a disastrous accident forced them apart. Now Billy’s dad says Mum was ill, and the skills she taught are no longer needed – but when a mysterious virus breaks out, and the infected overrun the cities, Billy may be humanity’s last hope. This tense, haunting zombie thriller perfectly balances terrifying peril with emotional depth.

Set in a damaged, flooded world to which hope is just beginning to return, Nicola Penfold’s second novel, Between Sea and Sky (Stripes), follows Pearl, who lives on a floating oyster farm with her sister Clover, and Nat, visiting them for the summer from the mainland – with a secret in his luggage that could overthrow everything. Atmospheric, memorable, extraordinarily gripping, this is storytelling at its finest.

In nonfiction, Abigail Balfe’s A Different Sort of Normal (Penguin) is a funny, fascinating illustrated memoir that conveys – via joyous tangential leaps, vivid doodles and informative notes – how it felt to grow up autistic and undiagnosed. Skilfully immersing the reader in Balfe’s feelings and memories, exploding misconceptions and stereotypes along the way, it’s both a rewarding and highly entertaining read.

Readers seven and up who like building – and the science of rubber-band racers, miniature catapults and balancing birds – will be instantly absorbed in Mr Shaha’s Marvellous Machines (Scribble), illustrated by Emily Robertson in engaging watercolour. With recycling-bin materials, step-by-step instructions and “Mr Shaha says …” paragraphs exploring energy transfer and efficiency, this gorgeous book celebrates the sense of accomplishment found in making something for yourself.

From the CLiPPA-winning Kate Wakeling comes a second volume of poetry, Cloud Soup (Emma), illustrated by Elīna Brasliņa with squiggly, cheerful charm. Both limpidly welcoming and profoundly meaningful, some of these poems, on subjects from weird cakes to good ideas, bodies, dust and Antarctica, will surely stay with their enthralled readers for ever.

A gleefully energetic graphic novel for five-years-olds and above, Mark Bradley’s Bumble and Snug and the Angry Pirates (Hachette) features extrovert Bumble and cautious, retiring Snug, as they set off on an ill-fated picnic, inadvertently acquiring some pirate treasure – and precipitating a giant octopus attack. Acid blasts of colour and surreal dialogue are sure to prompt ear-to-ear grins.

In picture books, Abie Longstaff and Lauren Beard’s indomitable stylist marks a decade of haircutting with The Fairytale Hairdresser and Red Riding Hood (Puffin). In this bright, enticing adventure, Kittie Lacey must save Red’s Granny from Von Grimm, a wolf with a nefarious plan: to win Fairyland’s baking competition by passing Granny’s cake off as his own. Punning signs and a mouthwatering array of cake-themed outfits instantly invite small readers to lose themselves in its pages.

Lo Cole’s We Want a Dog (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky) is a delightful catalogue of canine attributes. With stark, crisp outlines and a palette of black, white and red, Cole’s images effortlessly evoke smelly, swift, hairy and demanding pets, while his text moves with an indefatigable spaniel bounce (“One that races? One that chases? One that digs in muddy places?”) towards a slyly amusing sting in the tail.

Finally, What If, Pig? (HarperCollins) by Linzie Hunter is the endearing story of a conscientious, kind, but catastrophically worried pig, who fears his guests won’t enjoy the party he’s throwing – and cancels it in a fit of nerves. With the reassurance of his loving friend Mouse, however, Pig overcomes his anxiety – and when all his guests share their worries too, the bash becomes a resounding success. Funny, adorable, and a gift for children who struggle with social interaction.

Teenagers roundup

Afterlove by Tanya Byrne (Hodder, £7.99)
Ash Persaud has just fallen in love with Poppy, her first “proper” girlfriend, when tragedy intervenes. After a fatal accident on New Year’s Eve, Ash becomes a reaper, guiding the souls of dead teenagers towards whatever awaits them in the afterlife. But when she unexpectedly encounters Poppy again, she realises she’d do anything to spend a few more days with her – whatever the cost. From the award-winning author of Heart-Shaped Bruise, this poignant supernatural romance, filled with pin-sharp characterisation and mordant humour, pits the ardent brightness of first love against death’s grey, anonymous limbo.

The Summer We Turned Green by William Sutcliffe (Bloomsbury, £7.99)
Thirteen-year-old Luke thinks his family couldn’t be more conventional. Then, to general consternation, a group of climate protesters move in across the road, and Luke’s sister Rose joins them. Dad sets out to bring Rose back, but is soon seduced by drums, mead and totem-building himself – and when Luke befriends Sky, one of the protesters’ children, his own loyalties and perspective begin to shift. Hilarious, acutely observed and deeply felt, Sutcliffe’s new novel is part biting satire on nimbyism and adult complacency, part impassioned call: take action now, before it’s too late.

Girl (in Real Life) by Tamsin Winter (Usborne, £7.99)
Eva’s entire life has been documented online, on her parents’ wildly successful YouTube channel. But now she’s a teenager, and increasingly uncomfortable with the scrutiny she faces. When she asks her parents to scale it back, they just don’t listen; and when an embarrassing post about her first period goes viral, Eva decides to take matters into her own hands. She will end the channel – by sabotage, if necessary … Ideal for those of 11 and over, Winter’s funny and thought-provoking third novel vividly evokes the sense of powerlessness and exposure on the flip side of viral fame.

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