Fiction for older children reviews – many happy book returns
With a host of popular characters back this autumn, picking up from where you left off has rarely been more fun
By: Kitty Empire
It’s easy to be sniffy about franchises, especially when they absorb all oxygen and shelf space. But there is such pleasure in catching up with characters in which you are invested.
Returnees stud this autumn’s books calendar – few bigger than Jacqueline Wilson, whose most famous creation, care-home rebel Tracy Beaker, is now all grown up with a headstrong, mop-haired daughter of her own. My Mum Tracy Beaker (Doubleday £12.99) is narrated by young Jess. She has an imaginary dog named Snapchat; she’s embarrassed by her mum’s ongoing authority issues, and horrified at Tracy’s new boyfriend, a flash footballer. It’s no spoiler to note that Tracy’s past has a way of turning up in her present, and that rehoming strays remains a strong moral theme in this cosy woolly jumper of a book about wish-fulfilment and its alternatives.
Also back is dragon-mistress Cressida Cowell. Twice Magic (Hodder £12.99) is the sequel to last year’s The Wizards of Once, and masterfully picks up this series’ tale of the errant son and daughter of two opposing clans, the Wizards (who loathe iron) and the Warriors (who despise magic), who are in turn besieged by the massing forces of the seriously unpleasant Kingwitch. Yes, it’s a quest, but with enough bounce and enchanted cutlery to catapult over a great many genre cliches. Also back is Jakob Wegelius, whose Murderer’s Ape was one of the revelations of 2017. The Legend of Sally Jones (Pushkin Press £12.99) is a short prequel to that hit novel, tracing the titular ape’s tumultuous life story. Strangely, given the often grim subject matter, it’s a picture book, though a beautiful and engrossing one, with a zing of poetic justice (look out for the banana peel).
If you are a parent, reading the lovely The Train to Impossible Places (Usborne £12.99) by first-timer PG Bell aloud, you might discern his regret at the decline of the railways and the postal service, and the threat of too much information being held in distant server farms. If you’re eight, though, this is a harum-scarum fantasy adventure crammed with quirky action. Curious Suzy, with her thing for physics, discovers a secret railway manned by trolls – of course they live under bridges, they’re engineers – and an entire parallel universe run according to the non-laws of “fuzzics”. That needs saving. By her. But even here, not all is as it seems.
Suzy is not the only heroine entrusted with the fate of worlds. Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Way Past Winter (Chicken House Books £10.99) is a slim, standalone novel that plunges straight into a superbly evocative environment of fairytale permafrost and “the sharp tang of birch-tar soap”; nature, we later learn, taking its revenge against the folly of one man (read: all mankind). Mila and her siblings are making do and mending in an unending winter – motherless since the birth of Pípa, fatherless since Papa mysteriously went walkabout, and now brotherless, since Oskar, 15, disappeared with some frightening visitors. Mila refuses to accept that Oskar has gone willingly and sneaks off to harness the sled-dogs in pursuit of answers through the dark forest.
At the upper end of the age range, where a 12-certificate film might one day be made, is The Cradle of All Worlds (Egmont £6.99) by debutant Jeremy Lachlan. Speeding trains? He’s got them. Forests with something unnerving about them? Those too, and so much more: another girl seeking missing kin; booby-trapped ruins; and whip tricks worthy of Indiana Jones. It all hinges on 14-year-old Jane Doe – an outcast, blamed for the ill-fortune that has befallen an island community since she and her father, mute and helpless, were spat out of a holy gateway from the Otherworlds. One fateful night, the gate reopens, swallowing her father up; Jane has to save him. The perils are fearsome and the body count high. But, as with Indiana Jones and Marvel films, a lot of knowing wisecracks leaven the violence.