This month ushers in a feast of funny, fearsome, folklore-laced fantasy for readers of eight to 12. The Midnight Hour (Chicken House), from storytelling partners Benjamin Read and Laura Trinder, features bold Emily, who’s lost both parents somewhere in the Midnight Hour, a dark Victorian London suspended for ever in time and inhabited by the mysterious Night Folk. As she encounters an embodied Library, a policeman with superpowers and an appalling predator, Emily grapples with what it may cost to find and save her family. Anarchic humour, rich imagination and poetic writing, interspersed with elegant line drawings, add up to pure delight – with a stowaway hedgehog as a bonus.
More wildness, witchcraft and forthright, sparky girls appear in Michelle Harrison’s A Pinch of Magic (Simon & Schuster). The Widdershins sisters, Betty, Fliss and Charlie, long to range further than their rambunctious granny’s inn, but they are trapped on the Isle of Crowstone by the dying curse of a woman of power. Can they win their freedom with the help of their birthright gifts – a bag, a mirror and a set of nesting dolls, each with its own pinch of magic? Gutsy and rude, full of warts-and-all family love, Harrison’s latest has the wry enchantment of an E Nesbit classic.
There’s nothing supernatural about Jason Reynolds’ Ghost (Knights Of), first in a four-book series already beloved in the US. Ghost’s real name is Castle, but he has changed it, desperate to be unseen and hard to catch. Since the night his father tried to kill him and his mother, Ghost has had “a lot of scream inside”, as well as an impressive turn of speed. Will joining an elite track team stop the scream from bursting out? Reynolds’ writing is simple, but its impact lasts.
For readers of about seven-plus, Sam Copeland’s debut Charlie Changes Into a Chicken (Puffin) is a stand-out star, offering belly-busting hilarity and a loving, light touch take on childhood anxiety. Worried about his big brother’s hospital stay, Charlie unexpectedly turns into a pigeon – then continues changing into random fauna whenever he’s stressed, be it by his nemesis or the imminent school play. A supportive cast of friends (fiendishly clever Flora in particular), subtly planted strategies for coping with worry, and some joyfully silly metanarrative tricks (including a publisher’s letter of apology) place Charlie head and shoulders above the competition; Sarah Horne’s wild-haired, twitch-eyed illustrations add another layer to the fun.
In Alex Milway’s Hotel Flamingo (Piccadilly), meanwhile, little Anna Dupont has inherited the run-down hotel of the title – but it’s a far cry from its glory days. With diligence, tact (especially in handling irascible chef Madame la Pig), courage and kindness, Anna soon has the Flamingo shipshape again. But will it satisfy the feline inspector? Crammed full of characterful animal illustrations with accents of zinging pink, this flamboyant early chapter book is a splendid, unpreachy testament to the power of hard work.
From Bloomsbury, Fantastically Great Women Who Worked Wonders is the third in Kate Pankhurst’s colourful picture-book celebrations of notable females; with their playful use of speech bubbles and perspective shifts, they remain significantly more engaging and inspiring than the rival Rebel Girls. This collection of pioneering entomologists, aeronauts and surgeons is not just the usual suspects – the lineup includes Sophie Blanchard, Maria Sibylla Merian and Rosa May Billinghurst.
Sophie Blackall’s Caldecott-winning Hello Lighthouse (Orchard) is sophisticated, joyous and melancholy, and evokes, via its crashing waves and seductive cross-sections, a tremendous sense of place and time. The lighthouse’s sporadic flashes of greeting (“Hello! … Hello! … Hello!”) welcome first the new keeper and then his wife, who love their tall home in all weathers, especially when their baby is born there. But once the light is automated, the family must leave. A secret fold-out at the end makes for a breathtaking conclusion to this beautiful picture book, rich in saturated ink and pellucid watercolour.
A little boy and his lovably naughty pet dragon Zibbo enjoy roaring, adventurous fun in Steve “Mr Panda” Antony’s new book, Amazing(Hodder). The hero uses a wheelchair, the supporting cast is quietly and intriguingly diverse, but this is a story about the shared joys of imagination rather than one focused on disability as something “special” to be set apart and examined. It’s a blast – especially when Zibbo gets excited about blowing out candles.
More exuberant cheerfulness blazes from The Truth About Old People by Elina Ellis (Two Hoots). “They” may say old people are slow, not bendy and not much fun – but Ellis’s noisy, bright, dynamic pages, filled with grandparents riding rollercoasters, smooching, dancing and flipping whole stackfuls of pancakes, assert that the elderly, too, can be anarchically amazing.
In YA, Fierce Fragile Hearts (Macmillan), Sara Barnard’s magnificent sequel lives up to her bestselling debut, Beautiful Broken Things. Close friends Caddy, Rosie and Suzanne are parting ways; while the former are off to university, Suzanne is living independently, alone for the first time. Navigating the legacy of her abusive childhood, including PTSD, is hard – but although there may be no quick fix, Suzanne’s strength, hard-won self-knowledge and her friends’ love will help her forge a future. Likely to induce at least one crying fit, and also dryly funny.
Told in the third-person present, Sharon Dogar’s Monsters (Andersen), an account of Mary Shelley’s revolutionary life and artistic development, is poignant, lush and satisfying – a thought-provoking book. Immersing the reader by turns in the perspectives of Mary, her step-sister Claire, and husband Percy Shelley, it demonstrates how the pain of grief, abandonment and public censure might prepare the ground for the creation of monsters. The loss of Mary’s first child is especially vivid.
The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali (Scholastic) by Sabina Khan features another strong-willed, rule‑breaking girl suffering for the freedom to love. Rukhsana’s conservative parents don’t permit crop tops, parties or alcohol – and when they discover Rukhsana has a girlfriend, she is promptly sent to Bangladesh to be married off. But she finds an unlikely ally in her grandmother … Though nuance is occasionally lacking, the book’s focused anger and defiance, and the detail of lives blighted by rigid notions of “honour”, give it considerable power.