There’s a bewitching range of new children’s books this autumn, from Halloween reads to YA novels about bullying and poetry. Many of them are by Irish authors and illustrators, from well-known favourites such as Oliver Jeffers and Judi Curtin, to talented debut writers like Flora Delargy and Freddie Alexander.
Up on the Mountain by Peter Donnelly (Gill Books)
Peter Donnelly is best known for his much-loved picture books featuring the Irish President. This is something different. It lists what happens one day on a family nature walk “up on the mountain”, collecting leaves, listening to birds, watching squirrels. As the children lie in bed at the end of the day, they ask if can they visit the mountain again.
The simple words are brought to glowing life by the striking illustrations that are full of small creatures for children to pick out, like ladybirds and bees. A gentle book that showcases Donnelly’s great talent as an illustrator. Age 3+
I Can Make a Train Noise by Michael Emberley and Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick (Neal Porter Books)
“I can make a train noise, I can make a train noise.” Read it out loud and see how it sounds! This clever book is all about sounds and imagination. A young girl is sitting in a café with her family and uses her imagination to transform the space into a whizzing, hooting, clickety-clacking train. The illustrations are full of details, from a fantasy city with skyscrapers made up of kitchen graters and ketchup bottles (a nod to Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen perhaps) to the curve and sweep of the Dart tracks between Killiney and Bray, the sea a bright summer’s blue. Lively, original and lots of fun, it’s a must for all train lovers. Age 3+
There’s a Ghost in This House by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins)
Oliver Jeffers is one of Ireland’s greatest picture-book talents and in his latest he uses translucent paper to make ghosts appear and disappear, great fun for young readers.
A girl invites us inside her house and shows us around. “I haven’t had visitors for quite a while,” she says. She asks us to help her find the ghosts that people say live in her house. It’s a simple premise but the book’s illustrations make it something very special indeed. Each page is carefully designed so the ghosts appear and disappear like magic. It’s largely black and white, with pops of colour used for the girl’s dress and body, making it a sophisticated visual treat.
Picture books are many children’s first experience of art and Jeffers’ artwork is world class. Share this book with a child today, you’ll enjoy it just as much as they do. Age 4+
Big Dance by Aoife Greenham (Child’s Play)
Pippa is worried. She doesn’t have a special dance to present at the Big Dance. She tries and tries to find her own personal moves, ones worthy of the other creatures but fails until she learns to just be herself and not worry so much about everyone else. A charming debut from an Irish author/illustrator featuring bright, exuberant illustrations. Age 4+
TOP CHOICE: When I See Red by Britta Teckentrup (Prestel)
“I’m furious. I’m seeing RED. I’m filled with rage. A storm’s ahead.” It’s not often you find abstract expressionism in a picturebook, but it works perfectly in this magnificent, wild book all about rage. A young girl is blinded by fury but even in the eye of her ‘anger storm’, she can see that change is ahead. She howls, hollers and roars; she is “a furious dragon you cannot ignore!” But after she’s let it all out, the air is clear and she feels free. “My journey starts here,” she says on the last page.
I was an angry child, a child who was often told to calm down or sent outside to shout at the wind, so this book affected me deeply. I love the book’s message — that anger can be a powerful thing and harnessed properly can transform the world. The illustrations are incredibly powerful: slashes of black against a dark red background, thundering swirls of dark blue, splatters of sea foam, white against dark green; and finally the pale blue of a post-storm sky.
This is not a book for every child, but for some children (and adults) it could be transformative. It’s a book I will treasure. Age 4+
Rescuing Titanic by Flora Delargy (Wide Eyed Editions)
This outstanding debut by Belfast author/illustrator Flora Delargy is the lushly illustrated story of the ‘quiet bravery’ of the Carpathia, the small ship that rescued more than 700 Titanic passengers in 1912.
Each spread is carefully designed, from the cutaway of the ship, showing each layer of the interior in fascinating detail, to the stunning night scenes complete with towering icebergs as the ship powers towards the Titanic as fast as it can, and the colours, shapes and textures of the artwork are a feast for the eyes.
I don’t often cry while reading non-fiction, but this powerful story, beautifully told, brought me to tears. A must for fact fans of all ages and already one of my books of the year. Age 7+
Cluasa Capaill ar an Rí by Bridget Bhreathnach, illustrated by Shona Shirley Macdonald (Futa Fata)
Another book with stunning illustrations, this time a retelling of Labhraí Loingseach, the king with horse’s ears. This much-loved traditional tale is brought to new life with crisp prose (in Irish — and I’m grateful for the publishers for providing me with a translation to supplement my limited Irish) and glowing, mystical illustrations. Age 7+
Polly Pecorino: The Girl Who Rescues Animals by Emma Chichester Clark (Walker Books)
“Some people can pass a fly drowning in a puddle… and some can’t. The ones that can’t are rescuers.”
Polly is a ‘rescuer’ who can talk to animals and loves working in Happy Days Zoo. When the owners, Mrs and Mr Snell, come up with a dastardly plan to steal a baby bear cub and put it on display to encourage people to visit the zoo, Polly is outraged and decides to rescue the tiny bear and bring him home to the woods, risking being eaten by the terrifying wild bears.
Beautifully written, with enchanting, delicate pencil illustrations by the author, this would make a magical book to share at bedtime. Age 7+
The Little Squirrel Who Worried by Katie O’Donoghue (Gill Books)
A comforting story about a little red squirrel who is worried about leaving its safe, warm home. But gradually, with the help and advice of lots of its animal friends, it learns to overcome his fears. O’Donoghue is a child therapist and she brings her experience to the story, which includes relaxation techniques (explained by various animals) for dealing with anxiety. With watercolour illustrations by the author, it’s a soothing book for sharing with children of five and above.
TOP CHOICE: Rabbit & Bear: A Bad King is a Sad Thing by Julian Gough, illustrated by Jim Field (Hodder Children’s Books)
I’ve long been a fan of the terrific Rabbit & Bear books and this is the best one yet. Rabbit, with the help of his friend, Bear, chases off Wolf, who is trying to eat him. But little does he know there is an even greater threat to the forest on the way — the huge and scary Icebear, who demands all the animals become his slaves and build him a palace or he will eat them.
And the only animal with the wit and cunning to get rid of the terrifying Icebear is… Wolf. Will Rabbit have the courage to find Wolf, apologise and beg for his help? The text is perfectly pitched for young readers but is also full of depth and wisdom, and the illustrations are outstanding.
Do yourself a favour, pick up this clever, funny book today and read it to a child. It will do you both the power of good! Age 5+
Jacqui Hurley is back with Girls Play Too: Book 2 (Merrion Press), featuring lots more inspirational women from the world of sport, from surfer Easkey Britton to Paralympic swimmer Nicole Turner. Bright, colourful illustrations from a range of Irish artists make this an attractive book to share with children aged six and older.
Shay Given and Jason Sherlock’s sporting lives are examined in two well-researched and accessible new books by Natasha Mac a’Bháird and Donny Mahoney (The O’Brien Press); and ‘King Henry’ by Paul O’Flynn tells the inspirational story of Henry Shefflin, one of the greatest hurling players of all time (Gill Books). All age 8+.
Tabitha Plimtock and the Edge of the World by Erika McGann, illustrated by Philip Cullen (The O’Brien Press)
Tabitha is kind, brave and clever, but her family only see her as their Cinderella-like servant. Every day she has to climb down the cliff face of the ‘Edge of the World’ and barter for food with her friends who live in ‘wall pockets’ in the cliffs.
But her community’s way of life is under threat from strange creatures who live at the bottom of the cliff — and it’s up to Tabitha to save everyone, with the help of an eccentric doctor.
Written with confidence and huge imagination, with some terrific world-building and lively, detailed illustrations, this Irish fantasy-adventure is a real winner. Age 8+
Lily’s Dream by Judi Curtin (The O’Brien Press)
Set in Lissadell House in Sligo in 1914, this historical novel is narrated by a young housemaid, Lily, as she navigates her working life and rather tumultuous friendship with Maeve de Markievicz, daughter of the famous Countess.
War has broken out and Lily’s friend, Harry, the footman at Lissadell, has just joined up. The narrative includes his letters from the trenches, a clever way of introducing the World War I plot strand to the book. Curtin is the queen of friendship tales for young readers and the history in the Lissadell series gives her charming books extra depth. Age 9+
Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve (David Fickling Books)
Utterly Dark lives on the shores of the Autumn Isles with her guardian, the Watcher of Wildsea. The Watcher’s job is to keep Wildsea safe from the strange and terrifying force that lurks under the sea, the Gorm. When the Watcher dies, Utterly must take on his role until a new one arrives. But the new Watcher is her reluctant uncle, who does not believe the old myths and puts everyone in peril with his disbelief. It’s up to Utterly to help save Wildsea but there’s a secret at the heart of her being that turns everything on its head.
Reeve has created a magical world in Wildsea and an unforgettable heroine in Utterly. His writing is both lyrical and powerful. This is fantasy adventure at its very best. Age 11+
No Ordinary Joe by Siobhán Daffy (Little Island)
Based on Siobhán Daffy’s own childhood, this book explores what it’s like to live with a brother with special needs. Dan’s brother, Joe, loves lots of things, from chips to music, but he also loves escaping from the house and running away, a constant worry to his family.
Dan explains that people love Joe, “not because he’s perfect… but because he isn’t… he tugs at their hearts more and more until there’s nothing left to do but love him”. In fact, Dan does a lot of explaining (or ‘telling’ as it’s called in creative writing classes) in the first half of the book, there are few actual scenes and dialogue, but the second half is much stronger and pacier. Dan is a realistic character and his kindness and love for his brother make this a charming, heart-felt debut for age 9+.
The New Girl by Sinead Moriarty (Gill Books)
Moriarty’s first book for children was inspired by the plight of Syrian refugees, and in the book’s end papers, she asks young readers to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Those shoes belong to Ruby, a middle-class Dublin girl, and to Safa, a refugee who has recently arrived from Syria. When Ruby is asked to help Safa settle in at school, she has no idea how the ‘new girl’ will change her life and help Ruby with her own family problems.
With useful information about the Irish Refugee Resettlement Programme, this is a topical, well-researched novel. Age 9+.
TOP CHOICE: The Amazing Edie Eckhart by Rosie Jones, illustrated by Natalie Smillie (Hodder Children’s Books)
This book was recommended to me by a young reader who loved it and I was initially a bit sceptical. Jones is a well-known comedian and ‘celebrity’ books are not always my cup of tea, but I put my doubts aside and I’m so glad I did.
Edie is a clever, funny narrator who has cerebral palsy (like Jones herself), not that she lets it stop her. She captures the ups and downs of her life in her new diary in a fresh, lively voice that pulls you in from the very first page.
She is about to start secondary school and has to navigate new friendships and surprising new feelings. If your young reader likes funny, realistic books with lots of cartoon-style illustrations, they will love Jones’s cracking debut.
This is not a book ‘about’ disability, it’s a book with a smart, witty central character who happens to have a disability. Most classrooms in Ireland and many families (like my own) have children with disabilities in them, it’s part of everyday life. It’s heartening to see a wider range of characters coming through in more recent children’s novels. Age 10+
⬤ If you’d like to find more books with a wide range of characters, the new Free to Be Me reading guide produced by Children’s Books Ireland can be downloaded from their website: childrensbooksireland.ie
Starfish by Lisa Fipps (Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Random House)
Ellie has been bullied about her weight for as long as she can remember. She writes her own list of Fat Girl Rules, rules to help her live quietly, without standing out.
But when she starts talking to a new therapist and meets a new friend, things start to change. She decides she has the right to ‘starfish’ as she calls it, to stretch out, take up room and be herself.
Written in free verse, this novel makes you think hard about body-shaming in schools, the family unit and the wider community, and the thoughtless comments that adults can make to children and teenagers about their size and shape.
Ellie’s honest, heartfelt words brought me to tears several times and it’s a wonderfully immersive book. I was right there in every scene with Ellie, cheering her along. Age 12+
Baby Teeth by Meg Grehan (Little Island)
A new novel in verse from the award-wining Irish author of The Deepest Breath and The Space Between. Immy is a vampire. When she meets Claudia, she falls deeply and passionately in love, but her lust for Immy’s blood clouds everything.
The book was written during the pandemic and, in her author’s letter, Grehan explains how she tapped into her own fears and inner voices to create Immy, a vampire who carries all her past lives inside her.
An intense, immersive read from one of Ireland’s most interesting and innovative young writers. Age 15+
Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston (Orion)
“There are many more secrets in the ocean than in the sky… This is the story of the summer I lost my mum, and found a shark older than trees.” Julia moves to a small Shetland island called Unst with her dad, who is automating the lighthouse on the island, and her mum, a marine biologist.
Her mum is determined to find and track a Greenland shark, a shark who can live for more than 400 years. But all is not well; Julia’s mum is becoming more and more fixated with her shark hunt and she is not looking after her own mental or physical health. Meanwhile, Julia meets a new friend, Kin, who has problems of his own.
A beautifully written, moving exploration of family, friendship and mental health, with exquisite illustrations by de Freston. Age 11+
Tomorrow is Beautiful: Poems to Comfort, Uplift and Delight, Chosen by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)
Many people discovered or came back to poetry over the last 18 months, reading it for comfort and hope. Crossan, best known as an award-winning YA writer and ex-Laureate na nÓg, has collected some of her own favourite comfort poems in this handsome hardback and has also included some of her own poetry.
The title comes from a poem by Emanuel Carnevali: “Tomorrow will be beautiful/For tomorrow comes out of the lake” and it sets the tone of the book, a poem Crossan says ‘inspired me to get up in the mornings’ during the pandemic’. Her notes and explanations beside many of the poems give an insight into both her own life and also what the words on the page opposite her note mean to her, making each poem more accessible to both teen and adult readers.
Included are well-known favourites such as ‘Hope’ is the thing with Feathers by Emily Dickinson and Wild Geese by Mary Oliver, plus lots of Irish poets such as Seamus Heaney and Kerrie O’Brien, and newer voices including Naomi Rae.
It’s a terrific collection for dipping into and it might inspire teenagers to try writing their own poetry. Age 15+
TOP CHOICE: Not Here to Be Liked by Michelle Quach (Usborne)
I love realistic fiction with lots of humour, so this funny, clever YA novel was right up my street. Eliza Quan is smart, experienced and hard-working and fully expects to be voted the next editor-in-chief of her school newspaper. When handsome, popular star baseball player Len DeMartile is chosen instead, even though he has just joined the paper, Eliza is outraged and determined to make her feelings known.
She is told to accept the decision and work with him for the good of the paper, but instead she protests about the appointment at every opportunity. Her actions inspire a feminist movement in the school and a walkout. As Eliza gets to know Len better, she realises that he is not all that he seems and he also appears to like her, a lot.
From the ‘Warning’ on the back of the book — ‘This book features an unlikeable female character, intersectional feminism, and girls plotting the end of the patriarchy’ — this book hooked me in. Eliza is a beautifully drawn character, with an original voice and a lot to say.
The book explores feminism in an honest, fresh way and also talks about the expectations put on ‘children of immigrants’, who find themselves, like Eliza, helping their parents to navigate American life.
Not Here to be Liked is one of those rare things, a book that makes you laugh and think, both on the same page. A cracking read for aged 15 and above.
There are some spooktacular books out for all ages this Halloween. Young readers will love Gustavo, the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z Drago (Walker Books), the touching story of a shy ghost who finds a way to reach out and make friends, with terrific illustrations by the talented Mexican author/illustrator. Age 4+
In A Spooktacular Place to Be by Úna Woods (The O’Brien Press) the Dublin Vampire is back and this time he’s looking for somewhere he can feel more ‘spooktacular’. He travels around Ireland, from Skellig Michael to Newgrange, looking for spooky places, but in the end finds there’s no place like home. The short rhyming story is perfect for very young children and the illustrations are delightful. Don’t miss the end papers with their tiny smiling pumpkins and winking ghosts. Age 2+
The Cat and the Devil by James Joyce (Little Island) is illustrated in a suitably quirky style by Brazilian artist Lelis. Originally written in a letter from Joyce to his grandson, it’s a clever tale of villagers who work out how to outwit the devil and will intrigue older readers of 7+ and their grown-ups.
Older readers of age 8+ will love Mr Spicebag by Freddie Alexander, illustrated by Helen O’Higgins (HarperCollins). “George lived in a small town where everyone was obsessed with spice bags. Well, nearly everyone.” So begins this cracking fantasy adventure novel featuring a 10-year-old boy who has a magical talent for putting spices together to create new spells. When he is forced to work for the owner of the local chipper, the creepy Mr Spicebag, he gets caught up in a plot to take over the world by changing everyone into animals. Funny and inventive, with terrific line drawings by Helen O’Higgins, this is a sparky, confident debut, ideal for children who enjoy David Walliams. More please! Age 8+
The Peculiar Tale of the Tentacle Boy by Richard Pickard (Chicken House) is a quirky adventure tale with bite. When Marina finds a boy with crab claws for hands and tentacles for hair, she tries to help him unravel his unusual past. Age 9+
Monster Hunting for Beginners by Ian Mark, illustrated by Louis Ghibault (HarperCollins) is the perfect book for young monster lovers. Jack is a young monster hunter who must save the town of King’s Nose from ogres. Great fun! Age 8+
In The Shadows of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny, illustrated by Edward Bettison (Macmillan Children’s Books), a new monster is visiting the Rookhaven monster household for the Great Configuration, but he’s an interloper, sent there to destroy them. A sequel to The Monsters of Rookhaven, this new Gothic dark-fantasy adventure doesn’t disappoint. Age 11+
Older teens and young adults with a taste for the macabre will love Deirdre Sullivan’s new novel, Precious Catastrophe (Hot Key Books), the sequel to Perfectly Preventable Deaths.
Sisters Catlin and Madeline are back (one of them back from the dead) but once again all is not well in the strange village of Ballyfran. Deliciously dark and sinister, perfect for the witching season. Age 15+
Sarah Webb is an award-winning children’s writer and part-time children’s bookseller at Halfway Up the Stairs in Greystones, Co Wicklow. Her latest book is ‘The Little Bee Charmer of Henrietta Street’, published by The O’Brien Press