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The great escape: The best books for young bookworms to get lost in

Sarah Webb takes a look through some of the best new titles this year that will keep your young ones entertained for hours during the summer holidays

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Grandad's Camper. Artwork by Harry Woodgate, copyright Andersen Press

Grandad's Camper. Artwork by Harry Woodgate, copyright Andersen Press

The Vanishing Lake by Paddy Donnelly

The Vanishing Lake by Paddy Donnelly

Take Off Your Brave by Nadim. Illustration byYasmeen Ismail

Take Off Your Brave by Nadim. Illustration byYasmeen Ismail

Bad Panda by Swapna Haddow and Sheena Dempsey

Bad Panda by Swapna Haddow and Sheena Dempsey

A barn owl as illustrated in Remarkable Creatures book by Aga Grandowicz

A barn owl as illustrated in Remarkable Creatures book by Aga Grandowicz

Nen and The Lonely Fisherman by Ian Eagleton, illustrated by James Mayhew

Nen and The Lonely Fisherman by Ian Eagleton, illustrated by James Mayhew

The Last Bear by Hannah Gold

The Last Bear by Hannah Gold

Maybe... by Chris Haughton

Maybe... by Chris Haughton

The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. by Jen Carney

The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. by Jen Carney

The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold

The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O'Donoghue

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O'Donoghue

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Grandad's Camper. Artwork by Harry Woodgate, copyright Andersen Press

It’s been a remarkable season for new books for children and teens, one of the strongest ever and it’s great to see Irish writers up there with the best. Summer holidays are the ideal time for curling up with a good book and there are some brilliant new titles for all ages. Happy reading!

Age 0 to 4

Top Choice: Maybe... by Chris Haughton (Walker Books)

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Maybe... by Chris Haughton

Maybe... by Chris Haughton

Maybe... by Chris Haughton


Set in a red and purple jungle, Maybe is the story of three little monkeys who are told to beware of the tigers in the mango field but are determined to go there regardless. As warned, tigers appear, big and orange with fiercely snapping teeth, but the monkeys manage to scramble up the trees to safely.
Like some of the greatest traditional fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, there is a genuine sense of threat in Maybe
, real conflict and real drama which will resonate with children and adults alike. Another outstanding book from one of Ireland’s most accomplished picturebook author/illustrators. Age 3+

Eoinín by Muireann Ní Chíobháin and Róisín Hahessy (Futa Fata)
An attractive Irish language board book about a small lamb who is trying hard to fly his new kite. With lots of opportunities for interaction from the child, from pulling the kite out of a tree, to blowing the kite up into the sky, this book is great fun. The bright, warm illustrations are perfect for this younger age group and also help tell the story, which is useful for adults who (like me) might need a bit of help with the Irish but would like to give it a go. Age 3+
Also for this younger 3+ age group, a sturdy new board book edition of the much-loved picturebook by Peter Donnelly, The President’s Glasses (Gill Books).

Mindi and the Goose No One Else Could See by Sam McBratney, illustrated by Linda Olafsdottir (Walker Books)
“Once there was a girl called Mindi who was afraid of something that no one else could see… a big goose,” so begins this charming picturebook. Mindi’s parents try everything they can to help her get rid of the imaginary goose but nothing works. When a wise local farmer suggests a solution, they are all ears. His plan is clever and simple and there’s a terrific twist at the end of the tale.

McBratney’s text is beautifully written and the illustrations are gently coloured and full of expression. He sadly died last year but his books, like the much-loved Guess How Much I Love You will leave a lasting legacy. Age 4+

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The Vanishing Lake by Paddy Donnelly

The Vanishing Lake by Paddy Donnelly

The Vanishing Lake by Paddy Donnelly

The Vanishing Lake by Paddy Donnelly (Yee Hoo Press)
Paddy Donnelly is having a busy year. This is his third book published in 2021 so far and he’s also designed covers for several high-profile children’s books. This is his debut picturebook as author/illustrator and the outstanding illustrations and charming story make it a real winner.
Set on the north coast of Ireland, the book was inspired by the real vanishing lake near his childhood home of Ballycastle, Loughareema. It tells the story of a young girl who loves visiting the lake with her grandfather and his pet otter. Grandad creates all kinds of funny, clever stories to explain why the lake sometimes disappears and there’s a terrific surprise towards the end for the reader. Age 4+

Also recommended:
What Happened to You? by James Catchpole, illustrated by Karen George (Faber)
A book about being physically different which encourages empathy and kindness, with lively illustrations. Age 3+

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Molly and the Lockdown by Malachy Doyle, illustrated by Andrew Whitson (Graffeg)
A comforting book to share with younger children about the lockdown and emotions and feelings around it, seen through the eyes of young Molly. Strong illustrations by Whitson. Age 4+

Age 5 to 8

Top Choice: The Accidental Diary of BUG by Jen Carney (Puffin Books)

 

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The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. by Jen Carney

The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. by Jen Carney

The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. by Jen Carney

Billie Upton Green, or BUG as the children call her in school, is sharing her private diary with us. It’s actually her spelling journal but she has no intention of practicing something she hates so much!
Billie chronicles her daily life from her upcoming “bridesmaid day” at her two mums’ wedding and having to explain to new girl in school Janey McVey that yes, two mums very much can get married, to how to solve the mystery of the thief at her school. Billie is open about being fostered and then adopted but this is not an ‘issue book’ — that’s just part of her life story and it’s handled in a wonderfully straight-forward manner.
The book is full of sharp and funny observations (nothing gets past Billie) and punctuated by quirky line drawings, diagrams and cartoons. Billie is a terrific character and readers will warm to her frankness and sense of humour. Move over Wimpy, there’s a new kid in town! Age 8+

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Take Off Your Brave by Nadim. Illustration byYasmeen Ismail

Take Off Your Brave by Nadim. Illustration byYasmeen Ismail

Take Off Your Brave by Nadim. Illustration byYasmeen Ismail

Take Off Your Brave: Poems Just for You by Nadim (Age 4), illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail (Walker Books)
I was blown away by these poems by Nadim. It’s hard to believe he wrote them — with the help of his mum, Yasmine Shamma — when he was only four. They deal with all kinds of subjects and emotions dear to this young child’s heart, from having to leave his old teacher, Miss Angela, to being on a train, and what coming home feels like. Nadim says when you come home: “You take off your brave feeling/Because there’s nothing/To be scared of in the house:/No dark caves, no monsters.”
It’s a pleasure to read and the illustrations by Irish artist Yasmeen Ismail capture the joy and wonder of childhood perfectly. A real gem. Age 5+

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Bad Panda by Swapna Haddow and Sheena Dempsey

Bad Panda by Swapna Haddow and Sheena Dempsey

Bad Panda by Swapna Haddow and Sheena Dempsey

Bad Panda by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey (Faber)
Lin is the best panda in the world. She’s so cute and well-behaved that she’s taken from the panda sanctuary and shipped off to the zoo, away from her family and friends. Desperate to be back at the sanctuary, she comes up with a plan — if she was sent away for being good, if she’s really, really bad, will they return her? Along with her new friend, Fu, she sets out to be the worst panda in the world but it doesn’t exactly go to plan. A delightfully funny (and a bit rude!) story with strong artwork — a mixture of cartoon strips and lively illustrations. Age 6+

Remarkable Creatures: A Guide to Some of Ireland’s Disappearing Animals by Aga Grandowicz (Natural World Publishing)
If you have a young animal lover at home, they will enjoy this beautifully illustrated guide to Irish endangered species, from the great yellow bumblebee to the barn owl. It’s nicely designed and the short text is clearly written and includes lots of suggested craft activities and scientific experiments. But it’s Grandowicz’s illustrations that set this book apart — she captures each animal’s nature perfectly. It’s suggested reading age is 10+ but it would be ideal for a bright budding zoologist of age 7 or 8.

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A barn owl as illustrated in Remarkable Creatures book by Aga Grandowicz

A barn owl as illustrated in Remarkable Creatures book by Aga Grandowicz

A barn owl as illustrated in Remarkable Creatures book by Aga Grandowicz

Also recommended:
Declan Kirby: GAA Star by Michael Egan (Gill Books)
Written by a GAA coach and primary school teacher, this short, easy to read book featuring a boy who loves GAA is perfect for sporty children who have just started to read longer chapter books. Age 7/8+
Nen and the Lonely ­Fisherman by Ian Eagleton, illustrated by James Mayhew (Owlet Press)
A magical retelling of the Little Mermaid story, featuring a lonely young fisherman and young merman, with glowing illustrations by Mayhew. Age 5+

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Nen and The Lonely Fisherman by Ian Eagleton, illustrated by James Mayhew

Nen and The Lonely Fisherman by Ian Eagleton, illustrated by James Mayhew

Nen and The Lonely Fisherman by Ian Eagleton, illustrated by James Mayhew


Grandad’s Camper by Harry Woodgate (Andersen Press)
Grandad won’t take his beloved camper van on adventures anymore as Gramps is no longer around to go on trips with him. But can his kind granddaughter help change his mind? Lush, colourful illustrations. Age 5+.

Age 9+

Top Choice: The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold (HarperCollins)

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The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold

The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold

The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold


This has been an exceptional season for middle grade (age 9 to 12) fiction and there are several books I’ve read twice. But there’s only one book I have read three times and it’s Hannah Gold’s remarkable tale of a girl, her dad and a stranded polar bear.
April’s dad is a weather scientist and when he’s stationed on a remote Arctic island off the coast of Norway called Bear Island, he brings April with him, much to everyone’s horror and disapproval. April’s mum is not long dead and April hopes the trip might help them talk about this and about their future together. But she quickly realises that her dad is once again consumed by his work and she is once again alone.
She decides to explore the island and when she finds an injured polar bear and manages to help him, they become friends. But Bear needs to be with other polar bears so she forms a plan to help him.
The writing is exceptional, simple yet lyrical. Gold manages to pack an emotional punch with a few carefully chosen words and her descriptions sparkle. She also manages to pack in some weighty themes — such as climate change, grief, resilience, loyalty — but they never overwhelm the core friendship story. I hope readers fall in love with April and Bear as much as I did. Age 9+

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The Last Bear by Hannah Gold

The Last Bear by Hannah Gold

The Last Bear by Hannah Gold

When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle (Andersen Press)
Joseph is sent to stay with Mrs F in London, a gruff zookeeper with secrets she has no intention of sharing with him. He’s full of anger at his situation and as the World War II Blitz rages around him, he has to endure ridicule at school for his difficulty with reading and writing. Mrs F makes him work at the zoo, helping with the remaining animals, including Adonis, a huge silverback gorilla. At first Joseph has no time for Adonis but, as the weeks pass, he realises that Adonis is looking out for him.
The writing fizzes with emotion and Earle draws the reader in, gradually revealing both Joseph and Mrs F’s secrets. I wanted so much to stay in the book’s world, with the characters who had become real to me, so after I read the last page, I went straight back to the first chapter and started again. Age 10+

The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell (Usborne)
Set in Papua New Guinea, I still think about this book, weeks after finishing it. From the opening pages, the reader is drawn into a world of blue sea and sky, of seabirds and coral reefs, and the writing sparkles like the sun on the water. Blue Wing is told she cannot be a shark caller like the man who has looked after her since her parents died, but she’s determined to prove that she’s up to the task. When a girl called Maple arrives on the island with her father, Blue Wing is told to look after her. Gradually and reluctantly the two become friends but they are both keeping secrets from each other. With one of the smartest twists I’ve ever come across in a children’s book, this is a sensational, original read. Age 10+.

The Summer I Robbed a Bank by David O’Doherty, illustrated by Chris Judge (Puffin)
Rex has gone to stay with his uncle, Derm on Achill Island. Derm has a plan, to rob the travelling bank, and he needs Rex’s help. What could have been a straightforward heist story turns into something with real depth and heart in O’Doherty’s skilled hands. Warm, thoughtful, funny. I loved it. Age 9+

Aldrin Adams by Paul Howard, illustrated by Lee Cosgrove (Puffin)
Aldrin loves working with his dad in the family cheese shop but when the shop is threatened with closure, he’s determined to help. Aldrin has a rather unusual power, he can enter people’s nightmares, but where did this power come from and why is a super nasty villain after him? This fast-paced adventure with fantasy elements is full of puns and jokes — and the illustrations by Cosgrove add to the book’s appeal. Perfect for young readers who love funny books. Age 8+

Wolfstongue by Sam Thompson, illustrated by Anna Tromop (Little Island)
Silas is a boy who finds talking difficult and when he’s stressed, words stick in his throat. When he meets an injured wolf near his house and helps him, he gets caught up in a world of talking animals, an underground city of cruel foxes and an ancient fable of a boy who can talk to the wolves. The wolves have escaped the foxes’ city where they were slaves but when their cubs are kidnapped, they have to travel back to the city, along with Silas, a cat and a raven. It’s a beautifully written book, with wonderfully atmospheric illustrations by Tromop — but be warned, the wolves are cunning, they can turn violent in an instant and have no problem biting, maiming and killing so it’s not suitable for sensitive or younger readers. Age 11+

Also recommended:
Skyborn by Sinéad O’Hart (Little Tiger)
An action-packed fantasy adventure with a circus setting and a strong cast of characters — from Bastjan, who was raised in the circus, to Crake, the strong man with a heart of gold. A prequel to her book, The Eye of the North, it can also be read as a stand-alone and is a real page-turner. Age 10+

A Short, Hopeful Guide to Climate Change by Oisín McGann (Little Island)
Some children love non-fiction and this short, easy to read book about climate change is written with lots of humour. Each chapter is packed with interesting and carefully chosen facts and there is lots of positive, practical information given, as well as eye-opening statistics. Age 11+

Noah’s Gold by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, illustrated by Steve Lenton (Macmillan)
Set on an island off the coast of Donegal, this is a funny adventure caper featuring a school trip that goes horribly wrong. Great fun. Age 9+

Cardboard Cowboys by Brian Conaghan (Bloomsbury)
Lenny is bullied at school because of his size but when he meets a homeless man called Bruce, it’s the start of an unusual and life-changing friendship for them both. Full of heart and gentle humour. Age 10+

The Philosophy Resistance Squad by Robert Grant (Little Island)
Clever book combining adventure and philosophy as Milo has to save his classmates from being turned into zombies with the help of his new questioning skills. Age 9+

Teen and YA

Top Choice: All Our Hidden Gifts  by Caroline O’Donoghue (Walker Books)
 

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All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O'Donoghue

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O'Donoghue

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O'Donoghue

I was so engrossed in this YA (young adult) novel that I read most of it in one sitting and my family had to drag me away from it to eat!
Set in a fictionalised version of Cork city, it’s the story of teenager Maeve ­Chambers, who fears she has made her ex-best friend, Lily, disappear during a tarot card reading. With the help of her new friend, Fiona, and Lily’s brother, Roe, Maeve delves deeper into the world of the tarot and the supernatural in an attempt to find Lily, finding out more about herself along the way.
Maeve is a wonderfully drawn character, messy, impulsive and not always likeable but as loyal and determined as they come, and her friendship with Fiona and burgeoning relationship with Roe are deftly handled. O’Donoghue’s writing is sharp, witty and completely immersive, and you don’t read this book, you live it. Age 15+

All the Money in the World by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald (Orion)
Penny lives with her mam in Rosemary Flats, a grand old house which is now run down. She’s an A1 student but her teachers are apathetic and accuse her of being too ambitious and overreaching. Along with her best friends, Kitty and Matt, she is teased because her clothes smell stale. Her mam, a cleaner, does her best but the flat is so damp nothing dries properly.
When Penny hears piano music being played next door and meets the reclusive elderly lady who lives there, Violet Fitzsimons, everything changes. Violet takes an interest in Penny’s academic life and teaches her piano. When she pays for Penny to attend an exclusive new school, Penny spins a web of lies about who she is and where she’s from. But slowly she begins to realise money can’t buy loyalty or true friendship. An intriguing book, full of surprises and reveals, it would suit readers of 12+ as well as younger teens.

Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar (Hodder Children’s Books)
Hani Khan and Ishu Dey go to the same Dublin secondary school but they couldn’t be more different: Hani is popular and easy-going, Ishu is grumpy and difficult. And when the two Bengali girls cook up a plan — to pretend to be dating each other — their lives start to get complicated. Jaigindar’s teen characters are beautifully drawn and it’s impossible not to root for both of the main characters. A clever, funny book about family, friendship and relationships. Age 15+

Guard Your Heart by Sue Divin (Macmillan)
Aidan and Iona are both 18, both from Derry, born on the same day, but they couldn’t be more different. Aidan is from a Republican family, Iona’s family are Unionist. When Aidan is badly beaten in a sectarian attack, Iona is a witness to what happens and contacts Aidan. So begins a remarkable but difficult friendship and relationship, but can it survive against the odds?
Although there are some pacing problems, this is a deeply affecting, powerful book, written with commitment and passion. Age 15+

Also recommended:
You’ve Got This by Tammy Darcy (Gill Books)
A fantastic life guide for teenage girls full of practical tips, advice and honest stories, written in a lively, accessible style. I wish it had been around when I was a teen! Age 15+

Sarah Webb is an award-winning children’s writer, creative writing teacher and children’s bookseller. Her new children’s novel, ‘The Little Bee Charmer of Henrietta Street’ (age 9+) will be published in September by The O’Brien Press.


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