There is a treasure trove of new stories out there to keep young readers off their screens during the Easter holidays and beyond
One of the most popular reasons children read is for escapism and this season there are lots of books that will help them do just that. Young readers can immerse themselves in worlds of dragons, magical islands, underwater adventures and much more. I’ve read my way through dozens of terrific new books this season and here are some of my favourite titles published between January and March.
FIDGET THE WONDER DOG by Patricia Forde and Rachel Saunders
Fidget is a lively fellow. He’s not one to sit by the fire; instead he’s ‘a jump on granny’s bed dog, a barking, laughing, crazy dog, a dash around the kitchen dog’. When Fidget gets lost, his young owner is distraught. But Fidget is resourceful and manages to find his way back home.
The lyrical text, written in first person, is a pleasure to read out loud and the illustrations by Rachel Saunders add layers to the story that children will enjoy picking out. The girl has two mums and it’s great to see a wide range of families being represented in contemporary picture books.
Also out is Imagine by Patricia Forde and Elina Braslina (Little Island), a bright and colourful picture book all about the power of the imagination, featuring a little girl and her grandmother. Both age 3+
FINN’S FIRST SONG: A WHALEY BIG ADVENTURE by Gerry Daly
The O’Brien Press
Gerry Daly is the creator and illustrator of the popular picture book Where Are You, Puffling? and he is back with another book about wildlife, this time featuring a small humpback whale.
Finn is swimming north towards the Irish coast with his mother. When they get separated, other ocean animals help him to find his own special way of communicating with his mum. Daly has moved towards a less cartoony and more painterly style in this book, which suits the underwater scenes perfectly. Age 3+
HERE BE DRAGONS by Susannah Lloyd and Paddy Donnelly
A knight goes in search of a dragon, armed with a map and bundles of confidence. Although he walks over a dragon’s back and into a dragon’s mouth, all skilfully shown in Donnelly’s pictures, he remains oblivious and cannot find a dragon. Luckily a damsel in distress manages to save the foolish knight after he walks into the dragon’s mouth.
Donnelly is from the north of Ireland and has already made quite a splash in the picture book world with his vibrant, lively style. In Here Be Dragons he uses the page turn in a wonderfully theatrical way and children will love ‘reading’ the pictures and being one step ahead of the knight at all times.
Also out this month is Hom, a picture-book about a boy who washes up on a tropical island where he finds a new friend. Illustrated again by Paddy Donnelly and written by Jeanne Willis (Andersen Press). Both age 3+
GUINEA PIGS GO GARDENING by Kate Sheehy
Bob and Ginger are guinea pigs and in this bright, child-friendly hardback that blends fact and fiction they show the reader how to plan, plant and harvest a vegetable garden. Their vegetables start to grow but disaster strikes when slugs, birds and weeds threaten their new plants. But patience and hard work win out. Sheehy lives in Dublin and her illustrations are colourful and lively. Age 4+
MILO IMAGINES THE WORLD by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson
Christian Robinson is one of my favourite US illustrators. He is an innovative, brave artist and his artwork for Milo Imagines the World is bold, confident and full of interesting textures and perspectives. Milo and his big sister are taking the train to visit their mother. On the way Milo imagines the story behind the other passengers and draws what he dreams up in his sketchbook. But the blond boy in the clean white trainers he thinks lives in a castle is in fact on his way to the women’s prison, just like Milo. Full of life, hope and love, this is a remarkable picture book with a strong, lyrical text and outstanding illustrations, not to be missed. Age 4+
SCOUT’S BEST DAY EVER: A DOGGY ADVENTURE AROUND IRELAND by Jennifer Farley
The O’Brien Press
Scout the dog promises to send Cat a postcard every day from his trip around Ireland with Dad and Daisy, a little girl. He visits Cork city, Thomond Park in Limerick and Loughcrew in Co Meath, loyally posting Cat a card from each destination. But there’s so much more happening in each destination than in the text that is captured in Farley’s lively, bright illustrations. Children will love picking out the details and ‘reading’ the extra story elements using the pictures. A good book to share or for slightly older readers to tackle for themselves. Age 5+
BEAUTIFUL EGGS by Alice Lindstrom
An unusual large-format board book about people from different traditions and cultures and how they decorate eggs. These include the Czech Republic and its kraslice, Easter eggs decorated with tiny pieces of straw to form a pattern, to Greece’s kokkina avga, hardboiled eggs dyed red and decorated with dried leaves and flowers. The illustrations are strong and colourful and this would make the perfect Easter gift. Age 5+
THE ELEPHANT by Peter Carnavas
Olive lives with her father and grandfather. When she starts seeing an imaginary grey elephant following her father around (a metaphor for his depression), she is determined to get rid of it. But how can she shift something so big and heavy? With time, kindness and help from her grandfather and her best friend, Albert, she manages it. A warm, life-affirming book about caregiver depression written with honesty and care, with attractive line drawings by the Australian author, this would make an ideal read aloud for a thoughtful child. Age 8+
STICK BOY by Paul Coomey
If you have a young reader who loves Dog Man and Tom Gates, this illustrated book by Corkman Paul Coomey is a perfect addition to their bookshelves. Stick Boy is starting a new school but he does tend to stick out — a ‘2D boy in a 3D world’ — and soon the bullying starts. Luckily he has some new pals to help him cope, plus a rather interesting shape-shifting skill. There’s also a mystery to solve involving strange ‘HomeBots’.
Coomey’s text is fast-paced and jaunty, perfect for younger readers. He doesn’t shy away from the reality of serious topics such as bullying, managing to inject each scene with plenty of both humour and empathy, and the robots/super villains plot strand will delight this younger age group. His cartoon style illustrations make this an attractive, fun read for even the most reluctant of readers. Age 7+
I TALK LIKE A RIVER by Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith
I Talk Like a River is based on poet Jordan’s Scott’s childhood experiences with what he calls his ‘bad speech’ days. The book begins: “I wake up with the sound of words each morning all around me… And I can’t say them all.” At school the boy hides at the back of the classroom, hoping he won’t have to talk. After school one day his father takes him to the river and explains to the boy how his voice talks like a river, “bubbling, churning, whirling and crashing”, and it helps the boy accept his stutter. “This is how my mouth moves,” the boy says. “This is how I speak.”
Smith uses the double-page spreads like a master, moving from intense close-ups of the boy’s eyes to blurry impressionistic images of the classroom (perhaps seen though the boy’s tears), to a magnificent fold-out, four-page spread of the boy standing in the shining river — strong, confident, happy, free. The combination of the powerful, lyrical, deeply personal text and the extraordinary artwork produces something truly magical. Not to be missed. Age 5+
DARWIN’S DRAGONS by Lindsay Galvin, illustrated by Gordy Wright
It’s 1835 and Syms Covington is a cabin boy on the HMS Beagle, helping Charles Darwin with his Galapagos research. When he falls overboard during a storm and washes up on an unexplored island, he makes a remarkable discovery — there’s a dragon on the island.
Blending exploration, natural history and fantasy, this is a beautifully written, gripping story which I flew through. It has short chapters, making it a perfect choice for reading aloud at bedtime. The illustrations by Gordy Wright include a map of the voyage of the Beagle, showing places mentioned in the book. I love maps in books, so added marks for this. Highly recommended. Age 9+
ME, MY DAD AND THE END OF THE RAINBOW by Benjamin Dean, illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat
Simon and Schuster
Archie Albright knows something is up. His recently separated parents are arguing like never before and his dad is definitely hiding something. It’s only when he hears them fighting that he finds out the truth — his father is gay and his mother wants him to tell Archie. When a Pride march leaflet falls out of his dad’s pocket, Archie decides to go to London for the march and find out how he can help and support his dad. This story deals with themes of family, friendship, acceptance and love, as well as being a cracking adventure tale and is a welcome addition to LGBTQ books for younger readers. Age 9+
THE STORM KEEPER’S BATTLE by Catherine Doyle
Bloomsbury Children’s Books
The final instalment in the Storm Keeper’s Island trilogy is action-packed from the first chapter and never lets up. It’s a roaring, twisting, hurricane of a book, and brings this terrific fantasy adventure series to a fitting close. Fionn Boyle is the island’s protector and last hope. He must fight the mighty Morrigan and save the island and its people, but is he brave enough to face this terrifying foe? Start with the first book and get lost in Doyle’s imaginative world. The clever blend of Irish mythology, adventure, friendship and magic makes this a standout trilogy. Age 9+
THE KIDDS OF SUMMERHILL by Ann Murtagh
The O'Brien Press
When their mother dies leaving them orphans, it’s up to Nancy Kidd to keep her family together and her siblings out of the dreaded industrial schools. Nancy takes a job in a factory where she meets Karla, a Jewish refugee from Poland. Karla and Nancy become friends and together they come up with a brave plan to help a boy already in an industrial school to escape.
Murtagh has an MA in local history and this novel, set in 1945, is full of historical detail, from street games to popular songs and tenement food. At times it can be little heavy on references from the time, slowing down the action, especially at the start of the novel.
Her writing has developed since her first book, The Sound of Freedom, the dialogue is stronger and her characters more rounded and ‘real’. Nancy’s first-person narration is a pleasure to read. Murtagh is fast becoming one of our most accomplished historical novelists for children and it will be interesting to see what period of Irish history she tackles next. Age 11+
Also out is Morgana Mage in the Robot Age by Amy Bond (Chicken House), a fantasy/science fiction tale about a young witch who discovers a secret that could threaten both the magic and the robotic world. Age 9+
THE VALLEY OF LOST SECRETS by Lesley Parr
This gripping and moving family and adventure story set in 1939 is ideal for fans of Emma Carroll and Marita Conlon-McKenna and would also make a great classroom reader. London brothers Jimmy and Ronnie are evacuated to a mining village in Wales where they are taken in by Mrs and Mr Thomas, a kind couple whom some of the locals treat with suspicion and hostility. When Jimmy discovers a skull in a tree he sets out to uncover the mystery around it and why it is there.
He entrusts a fellow London child, Florence, with his secret and together they try to find out the truth but the mystery proves much stranger and sadder then they ever could have imagined. This book doesn’t shy away from tough subjects such as child neglect and parental abandonment, but there is plenty of warmth and gentle humour to offset the darkness.
Wales works its magic on the at first rather spiky Jimmy — and the reader — and the setting is so strong it almost becomes another character in this compelling story. Full of heart and kindness, this is historical middle-grade fiction at its best and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Age 10+
BAD HABITS by Flynn Meaney
Alex is determined to get expelled from her American Catholic boarding school, St Mary’s, so she decides to stage a version of The Vagina Monologues in an effort to get thrown out, but it doesn’t go exactly as she planned.
This book is YA comedy gold; it’s hard to write funny books but in Meaney’s skilled hands it seems effortless. Alex’s best friend is Mary Kate, a loyal and kind girl who sticks by her wonderfully bold and brazen friend no matter what.
The story whips along at a lively pace but it’s the clever dialogue that sets this book apart; it’s outstanding and had me laughing out loud many times. It’s perfect for fans of high school films such as Book Smart and Moxie (based on a book by Jennifer Mathieu) and as well as it being hilarious it’s also a surprisingly sweet and moving friendship story. If you or your older teen need a good laugh right now, I’d highly recommend it. Age 16+
THE SAD GHOST CLUB by Lize Meddings
In this graphic novel for young teens, by making her main teen character, Sam or SJ, a sad ghost, complete with dark, hollow eyes and a sheet over his body, Meddings makes an interesting comment on the nature of being a teenager who feels different and invisible.
SJ is tired and is finding everyday life difficult. All he wants to do is to sleep. When he’s invited to a party it throws up a whole new set of worries — will anyone talk to him, what if they laugh at him? Lonely and hoping for some sort of positive experience, he bravely forces himself to go. At the party he meets another sad ghost, Socks and, slowly and painfully at first, they start to make a connection.
The black-and-white artwork in this graphic novel is beautifully nuanced and Meddings manages to pack a lot of emotion into each quirk of the ghosts’ simple faces with a flick of their mouths or a widening of their eyes, although it can be a little difficult to tell each ghost apart. An unusual meditation on the nature of teen anxiety and how it affects everyday life, it includes a useful listing of online mental health resources for teens at the back. Age 12+
GUT FEELINGS by CG Moore
Irish-born writer CG Moore has produced an original, multi-layered autobiographical verse novel about his experiences of illness as a child and young man. Each verse captures a different aspect of his life in blistering language that throbs with anger and emotion. It’s not an easy read but it is a rewarding one.
The book bounces around a lot and covers a wide range of different topics as well as health, such as his father’s brain injury and rehabilitation, and a modelling scam. The timeline is a little confusing at times, but this doesn’t detract from the overall power of the verse. The illustrations by Becky Chilcott are an integral part of this beautifully designed book, giving added visual interest to every page. Age 16+
WHAT LOVE LOOKS LIKE by Jarlath Gregory
The O’Brien Press
Ben is 17 and everything is going well for him apart from one thing — his love life. He would like to meet the guy of his dreams but so far, it’s eluding him. Set just after the same-sex marriage referendum, this Dublin coming-of-age novel covers a lot of territory, from drag queens and the Panti Bar (with a cameo appearance from Panti herself), to racism and homophobic bullying. Ben is a well-drawn and likeable character, loyal to his friends Chelsea and Soda (drag name Miss Ugg Lee), and kind to the children at the after-school homework club where he works.
In the author’s note, Gregory says he wanted to write ‘a gay story with a happy ending’ which is an admirable aim but I found the closing chapters tied up the plot strands too quickly and did not do the characters justice. I would have liked more time given to Chelsea’s story in particular as it’s an important one.
However there is plenty to like about this book; it’s highly readable and a welcome addition to Irish YA. It’s also, as far as I know, the first Irish YA novel to feature a teen drag queen and I’d love to read a book about Soda in the future. What a character. Age 16+
SHOW US WHO YOU ARE by Elle McNicholl
Cora doesn’t find it easy to make friends. When she meets Adrien at a party she ha been dragged along to, they click instantly. Adrien’s father runs an organisation called the Pomegranate Institute, where they are making holograms or ‘Grams’ of celebrities and are working towards making dead people come ‘alive’ using their technology.
Cora and Adrien are both neuro-divergent and see the world differently. On the surface this book is a compelling mystery set in an alternative present (or near future), but it’s also an exploration of what it means to be different and how others treat people who are ‘alien’.
McNicholl’s previous book, A Kind of Spark was excellent but this one is even better, her writing is exquisite and her characters sizzle with life. Age 12+
The KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Awards were founded in 1990 and are the most prestigious prizes of their kind in this country. The judging panel is made up of lecturers in children’s literature, teachers and librarians, plus award-winning British author/illustrator James Mayhew, under the guidance of chairman Dr Pádraic Whyte of Trinity College Dublin.
There is also a young judge, Sarah Fitzgerald (17) from Kinsale. “Reading my way through the treasure trove of Irish books was by far my highlight of 2020,” she says. “I was made feel so welcome by everyone, and it was clear that, as a young person my thoughts were valuable to the group.”
The shortlist they have chosen is wide-ranging and covers many different age groups and genres.
The books for younger readers on the shortlist are: Míp written by Máire Zepf and illustrated by Paddy Donnelly, a picture book in Irish about a space rover on Mars (age 4+); and The Haunted Lake written and illustrated by PJ Lynch about a boy who is pulled into a lake and is rescued years later by his true love (age 7+).
For age 10+ there is Oein DeBhairduin’s Why the Moon Travels, stories from the Irish Traveller community, illustrated by Leanne McDonagh; Pádraig Kenny’s The Monsters of Rookhaven, a Gothic fantasy adventure illustrated by Edward Bettison; and Anna Carey’s The Boldness of Betty, set during the 1913 Dublin lockout.
For teen and young adult readers there is Ciara Smyth’s witty and engaging coming-of-age novel The Falling in Love Montage; Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan and illustrated by Karen Vaughan, a beautifully written retelling of the Children of Lir story; and Hope against Hope by Sheena Wilkinson, set in Belfast in 1921.
There are lots of strong contenders for the overall Book of the Year Award but my money is on Pádraig Kenny. Mirabelle is one of the ‘monsters’ of Rookhaven and when there’s a rip in the glamour that shields the house from human eyes, orphan twins Jem and Tom stumble upon it, needing protection and shelter. Set during the aftermath of World War II, this book is written with confidence, verve and a touch of the macabre.
Sarah Webb is an award-winning children’s writer. Her new children’s novel, ‘The Little Bee Charmer of Henrietta Street’ will be published in the autumn by The O’Brien Press