Kids and Teens Roundup – The Best New Chapter Books | Fiction
JThe modern scourge of famous children’s authors has honorable examples. Step forward child poverty activist Marcus Rashford, who follows his coup de 2021, You are a champ (voted book of the year at last week’s Nibbies), and its children’s book club with its middle-level fiction debut.
The beast beyond the fence (Macmillan, £6.99), the first of Breakfast Club Adventurers series, was co-written with Alex Falase-Koya and features a football-mad 12-year-old kid named Marcus. His touch has abandoned him since his most cherished ball disappeared over the school fence. An uncertain alliance forms at the school’s breakfast club to solve this and other mysteries. But a terrifying, ectoplasm-oozing beast lurks behind the fence.
There’s more than a whiff of Scooby-Doo here, but the idea – that a lot of things aren’t as they appear – is delivered in more than one way. Hats off also to Marta Kissi’s vivid illustrations – a half-eaten Nintendo Switch; the pages that turn white on black at night.
Marty, on the other hand, is an ordinary kid at another normal school, this time in Wales, where acclaimed author Caryl Lewis made her English debut. Marty’s mother has more bad days than good ones, and his peers call him Stig because hygiene and new clothes don’t happen often. But Marty’s new friend Gracie doesn’t care, and Marty’s grandfather is a nice eccentric. His latest ploy? A magic bean.
What ensues is a formidable fable, rooted in realism but rich in wish-fulfillment. Plant (Macmillan, £7.99) thrives on secret dreams, and this granddad’s wackiest plan – to go to Paris – could work, if everyone pulls together.
There are schools, and there are mysterious academies where fate sends the chosen ones. Skandar and the Unicorn Thief by AF Steadman (Simon & Schuster, hardback £12.99) is the first in a series that won Steadman a record deal for a debut children’s album. Combining elements from other blockbusters – basically it’s How to train your Hogwarts – Steadman’s trick is to make the unicorns terrifying and his plot difficult to predict.
Young Skandar wants nothing more than to hatch a unicorn egg, become a rider, and compete for glory. Unexpectedly excluded from an exam, he is taken to the island of unicorns by a mysterious benefactress and quickly learns that his newly discovered elemental magic is forbidden. Skandar’s search for answers is set against a backdrop of rampaging wild unicorns and a mysterious figure called the Weaver, bent on destroying not just the island, but the continent as well.
In Onyeka and the Sun Academy by Tolá Okogwu (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), young Londoner Onyeka struggles to understand why her mother is so strict and why her hair is so out of control. Soon it becomes clear: her hair has powers, she’s been in hiding, and her scientist father is missing. Onyeka is transported to a top-secret training school in Nigeria, where “Solari” learns how to use his superhero skills. But there’s so much more to this inventive and gripping thriller, where an abundance of 21st century technology meets old-school shenanigans and skillfully drawn characters. A Netflix movie is to come.
Equally compelling is Fakeby the famous children’s author Fountain of Elé (Pushkin, £7.99), a thriller that’s far too real for the mature age bracket. Thanks to the failure of antibiotics, children do not meet their peers outside their bubble until the age of 14, when they leave for school.
Despite this high-tech reality, Jess’ loving family life is barely tenable. Her parents are growing crops to sell to pay for Jess’s sister’s medicine, which is only getting more expensive. While Jess is at school wondering who to trust, her family falls completely off the grid, and it takes all of Jess’ illicit acquaintances and tentative friendships to get to the bottom of what’s really going on.
You can’t move for girls solving mysteries in kid-lit, and rightly so. British Library Educator JT Williams significantly refreshed the genre with Drama and danger (Farshore, £7.99), the first in The mysteries of Lizzie and Belle series. Dido Belle was really the great niece of the Lord Chief Justice who ruled on important cases during the time of slavery. Lizzie Sancho was really the daughter of Ignatius Sancho, a former African slave, Georgian teahouse owner, lettrist and abolitionist. Williams imagines what these two young black Britons might have done if they had met one night at the theater, where Sancho Sr took the stage, the first black man to play Othello.
This last piece is poetic license, but this living mystery of menace – whose atmospheric setting recalls that of Philip Pullman The ruby in the smoke series – is deeply rooted in the abolitionist milieu and resonates strongly today.
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