From picture books for toddlers to gritty novels for teens, the best books to encourage reading over Easter
The Easter holidays beckon - time to eat chocolate eggs and enjoy some of the cracking books out this season. From lighthouses to haunted houses, there is something great out there for every young reader.
This year sees even more picture books and illustrated books coming from all the Irish publishers, something to be celebrated. It's fantastic to see Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick's The Sleeping Giant back in print. It's a much-loved picture book with fine watercolour illustrations and, thanks to O'Brien Press, future generations of children will now get to read about the Kerry island that looks just like a huge sleeping man.
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When Sadness Comes To Call
By Eva Eland (Andersen Press)
This picture book about sadness stopped me in my tracks. It packs an emotional punch right from the opening spreads, depicting a little girl who opens the door to 'Sadness', a large, green shadowy creature. "Sometimes Sadness arrives unexpectedly," the text reads. "It follows you around… And sits so close to you, you can hardly breathe." The book explains how to listen to Sadness, and "if you don't understand each other, just sit together and be quiet for a while". It's a gently profound book with a hopeful ending, ideal for talking about feelings with young children. It's hard to believe that this is Eland's first book, her distinctive mixed-media illustrations - coloured pencils and print - remind me of US master illustrator Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon, simple yet exquisite. Outstanding, don't miss it. Age 3+
By Inese Zandere, Translated by Catherine Ann Cullen, Illustrated by Reinis Pētersons (Little Island)
All Better! is Little Island's debut publication for younger children. It's an interesting collection of linked poems all themed around illness and hospitals. Written by a Latvian poet and translated by an Irish one, there are rhymes about thermometers, blood samples and germs that children who have grown up with Julia Donaldson's rhymes will enjoy, especially if a trip to the doctor or the hospital is on the cards. The illustrations are strongly coloured with blurred outlines. Unfortunately, the blurring gives the impression that the pictures are out of focus and may send some parents reaching for their glasses, but bravo to Little Island for taking a brave first step into books for younger children. They have just won the Irish Small Press of the Year Award and it will be interesting to see what this ambitious team have planned next. Board books for babies and toddlers? You never know! Age 4+
Where are you, Puffling? A Skellig Adventure
By Erika McGann, Illustrated by Gerry Daly (O'Brien Press)
Little Puffling is lost and all the animals on Skellig Michael work together to help her parents find her. While the storyline is not all that original, it's still a charming tale in the 'lost child' tradition, with busy, cartoon-like illustrations. Children will enjoy finding the tiny puffling on each page and the back-end papers show the names of each of the animals illustrated, from kittiwakes to confer eels, a nice touch. Age 3+
By Sophie Blackall (Orchard)
I pored over Sophie Blackall's story of a lighthouse, its keeper and his family who live there. The book's format is fittingly tall and narrow and the illustrations, rendered in Chinese ink and watercolour, are full of exquisite detail, from the whale-shaped weather vane on top of the lighthouse to the anchor pattern on the dress of the lighthouse keeper's wife, to the tiny ships his baby daughter plays with.
Based on a real lighthouse Blackall stayed in on the northern tip of Newfoundland, this is a charming and evocative chronicle of a bygone time. Age 4+
Charlie Changes into a Chicken
By Sam Copeland, illustrated by Sarah Horne (Puffin)
Charlie McGuffin has a problem - he keeps transforming into animals. But as his clever friend Flora works out, it only happens when he's stressed. Unfortunately, that's not great news as his brother is in hospital and Charlie can't stop worrying about him. Plus Dylan, the school bully, has seen Charlie changing and is determined to use it to destroy him. But the friends have a plan. Whip-smart writing full of word play and puns, plenty of toilet humour (literally in one scene) and lively line drawings by Sarah Horne make this a real winner for young fans of David Walliams. Age 7+
Dave Pigeon (Royal Coo!)
By Swapna Haddow, Illustrated by Sheena Dempsey (Faber)
Dave and his friend Skipper are back with another (mis)adventure, this time at the 'Human Palace' to try and find party leftovers. However, as often happens with Dave, their plan meets a number of ridiculous hitches, including being arrested for stealing the face of royal pigeon Prince Raju. This avian romp is illustrated with witty aplomb by Irish illustrator Sheena Dempsey who has carved out quite a name for herself as the go-to artist for books for young readers. Age 6+
Top choice: Early readers
Jasper & Scruff
By Nicola Colton (Stripes)
Irish writer and illustrator Nicola Colton has produced a wonderfully warm and funny book about two unlikely friends — a fancy cat called Jasper and a stray dog called Scruff who takes a liking to the cat. Jasper’s dream is to join the ‘Sophisticats’, a group of highly refined cats who come together to dine and talk about culture. They invite themselves to his house to see if he’s Sophisticat material but are horrible guests, sneering at his hosting and cooking. Nothing seems to please them until Jasper has an epiphany and, with Scruff’s help, presents them with Caramel Cake with a difference.
Colton’s lively illustrations show lots of characteristic touches — from her signature white stitching on Jasper’s armchair, to the slightly wonky perspective of his house, and she has a wonderfully quirky eye for detail. I can’t wait to read more Jasper and Scruff tales in the future. Age 5+
The Star-spun Web
By Sinéad O'Hart (Stripes)
Sinéad O'Hart's last book, The Eye of the North, won much critical acclaim and she's back with another fast-paced fantasy adventure which re-affirms her place as one of our most exciting new children's writers. Orphan Tess de Sousa lives in an orphanage where she is loved and cared for. However, the swarmy Mr Cleat claims her and whisks her away to his mansion where she is looked after by his housekeeper, Mrs Thistleton, whose eyes are "like two black beetles fixed in place with pins". Meanwhile, in another dimension, Thomas is living through the Emergency in Dublin and Tess uses an instrument left with her as a baby to visit him and his world. Slowly she begins to realise why Mr Cleat is so interested in her and she uncovers his evil plan to destroy Thomas's world. It's up to her to stop him. This is a cracking book and highly recommended. Age 9+
By Sharna Jackson (Knights of)
This fast-paced murder mystery is published by Knights Of who aim to publish inclusive books. The main characters of this book, sisters Norva and Nik, are described by the publishers as "the first black child detectives" in a UK children's book. They live in a high-rise block (hence the title) and when their art teacher goes missing, they are determined to find out where he is. But when they discover his body using their "triangle of truth" method, things quickly become serious. Can they crack the crime? Full of the girls' detective notes and carefully explaining their methodology, this is an excellent read for young crime enthusiasts and fans of the Murder Most Unladylike books by Robin Stevens. Age 10+
The Little Grey Girl
By Celine Kiernan (Walker Books)
Another inventive fantasy adventure from an Irish writer, this is the second book in The Wild Magic Trilogy. Mup and her family travel to the Witches Borough to live in the castle where Mup's mum is now recognised as the new queen, displacing her evil mother (there was an almighty battle between them in book one). Mup's toddler brother is still a dog and her father is overwhelmed by the new world of witches and magic. The castle comes with its own ghosts and the little grey girl of the title, a young witch called Naomi. Naomi tells them that the castle is cursed by the old witch. Can they reverse the evil spell? If readers enjoyed the first book in the trilogy, they will certainly love revisiting Mup's wild, magical world. Age 9+
Scavenger Hunt: Cass and the Bubble Street Gang
By Erika McGann, Illustrated by Vince Reid (O'Brien Press)
Cass is a young detective and together with her gang she solves mysteries from their secret clubhouse. When they decide to enter a local scavenger hunt, they stumble upon some shady deeds at the old folks' home. A bright-as-a-button main character, plenty of puzzles to solve and lots of humour make this book a real winner for young readers. There are lively black-and-white illustrations by Vince Reid. Age 8+
Sam Hannigan and the Last Dodo
By Alan Nolan (O'Brien)
Ireland's answer to David Walliams is back with another zany tale about animal-lover Samantha 'Sam' Hannigan and her best friend Ajay. Sam and her granny run an animal shelter called Hannigan's Haven and when they are sent a mysterious package containing a live dodo, things start to get very strange indeed. Can they work out where it came from and protect it from the evil exotic-animal smugglers? Nolan's writing is going from strength to strength. Every page is full of word play and puns and his cartoon-style illustrations are full of humour and expression - and the cartoon strips add to the visual impact of the book and make them accessible to more reluctant readers. I found the type very small, but this is a minor quibble. O'Brien Press has something very special in Nolan and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next. Age 8+
By Anthea Simmons (Andersen Press)
If you have a reader at home who loves history and plucky characters, this is the book for you. Based on the story of 19th-century fossil hunter Mary Anning, it brings her tale to vivid life, from being struck by lightning to fossil hunting with her beloved father as a young girl. Mary is a fascinating character and in Simmons' hands, she rips up the page with her determination and strength. The notes at the back of the book about Mary and her work are an added bonus. Age 9+
Top Choice: 8+
By Pádraig Kenny (Chicken House)
Pog Limpkin is a friendly, furry creature who lives alone in the attic of an old house buried in the middle of the wood. When young Penny and David move to the house after their mother’s death with a still grieving father in tow, Pog decides to look out for them. They certainly need it.
There are dark forces in the forest and the family’s lives are in grave danger. But with brave little Pog on their side, they stand some chance of survival. Beautifully written, with exceptional humanity and warmth, this novel draws you in and never lets go. Kenny’s first book, Tin, was shortlisted for the Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year Award and this one is even better. A terrific book with echoes of The Spiderwick Chronicles and Five Children and It, I loved it! Age 9+
Teens and young adults
My Brother's name is Jessica
By John Boyne (Puffin)
I really admire John Boyne. He's written some remarkable books for both children and adults but he never rests on his laurels, always challenging himself to produce something new and different. He has outdone himself with My Brother's Name is Jessica, a story with so much heart that the pages practically pulse. Boyne treats the book's transgender theme with honesty and sensitivity, and his characters are beautifully drawn, especially the teenage brothers at the heart of the novel. Sam's mother is a British Cabinet minister, which makes life rather interesting even before his brother, Jason, announces that he'd like to be called Jessica. Sam (13) and Jason (17) have always been close and Sam finds it hard to understand why his brother is causing so much 'trouble' for the family and for him. But gradually Sam starts to see that the world isn't as simple as he thought.
With some outstanding scenes, both funny and moving, including one where the football coach, Coach O'Brien, surprises them all (and the reader), and some cracking dialogue - and a highly emotional ending - this is a must-read for all ages, teenagers and adults alike. Age 14+
Other Words For Smoke
By Sarah Maria Griffin (Titan Books)
Teenage twins Mae and Rossa are staying with their Great Aunt Rita for the summer, but Rita is a witch and so is her ward, Bevan, who has been calling a strange owl called Sweet James from the walls of the house, coaxing it out with bones, hair and teeth. However, he wants more and the twins' lives are in danger. Slowly the horror unfolds over three twisty, emotionally charged summers as the dark forces gear up for a final, catastrophic confrontation.
This is a remarkably assured and sophisticated novel, and Griffin weaves a clever and compelling story of longing, betrayal and dark magic, moving in and out of different character's heads and using multiple timelines. She uses the second person for Bevan's voice - an incredibly hard thing to do - but she pulls it off with gusto. Creepy and thrilling, this is part haunted-house tale, part coming-of-age novel and readers who like their fiction dark and otherworldly will love it. Age 15+
By Mal Peet (Barrington Stoke)
This novel by Mal Peet in the Barrington Stoke super-readable YA series (it has a reading age of age 8) may be short, but it packs a lot into its pages. Sandie has terrifying nightmares about a huge black dog. Owning her own dog helps for many years but when he dies, they return. She's now a young police officer and one night the dog returns when she's on a call-out, but this time it's no nightmare, it's something even more sinister and dangerous. Or is it? Peet's writing is muscular and punchy, there isn't a word out of place and his descriptions are outstanding - he paints vivid pictures with his words. Sadly, he died in 2015 but he has left a body of work behind him that won't be forgotten. An exceptional novella that deserves to be read. Age 13+
By Charlie Pike (O'Brien Press)
I'm always a little wary of new dystopian YA novels as many rely heavily on what's gone before - the gladiator-like battles of The Hunger Games, the coming-of-age 'call' to fight in Peadar O'Guilín's excellent The Call and The Invasion, Patrick Ness's outstanding world building in The Knife of Never Letting Go. Jacob's Ladder does give a nod to these and many other dystopian novels, including The Handmaid's Tale (his breeding sheds and nurseries especially), but he also introduces original elements of his own, especially in the excellent premise.
Set 200 years in the future, Leon is a young warrior who is preparing for his 'Rising', where he must track and kill someone to prove he is worthy to be 'called up' by the Thule, who seem to be aliens or some sort of higher race (it's never really explained). Leon's colony, the True Path, are a community of warriors who believe they alone will be strong and brave enough to be 'saved' when the world ends. And with its searing sun and acid rain - nicknamed 'Old Sally' - that strips skin off bone, that time is fast approaching. Pike squeezes a lot of information and world building into the first few chapters, which are gripping and well crafted.
However, as he keeps adding more and more elements - from horror-movie worms, to religious iconography - things start to get complicated. We never know what age Leon is, which is a little disconcerting as he could be anywhere between 13 and mid-twenties. He feels about 16 or 17 to me, old enough to think he knows it all, young enough to be wrong about that. And therein lies the main problem with this book - there is an awful lot going on and very little is explained. Of course, many readers may relish all the unanswered puzzles, but this reader likes intricate plotting that leads gradually to an 'aha!' moment.
Pike can certainly write and there is a lot of potential here; with the right story he could produce something really exciting. This book didn't quite work for me but I will certainly read his next book with interest.
Top choice: Teens and young adults
By James Butler (Little Island)
Kevin's dad is dead and he lives with his mum and brother, Adam. But when his Uncle Davey starts hanging around the house and spending time with Adam, Kevin starts to get nervous and suspicious, especially when he finds a handgun under Adam's floorboards. He knows his uncle is bad news but why is he involving Adam in his new scheme? And what can Kevin do to protect his brother? The mother's character could have been fleshed out a little more and at times the plot seems more important than the character development, especially early on, but these are minor issues. Most importantly this book has real heart. Butler taught in a school in Tallaght and Kevin's voice rings with teenage authenticity. The plot whips along at a cracking pace and the dialogue is particularly strong, not surprising as he's an experienced playwright. It's a gritty, honest, compelling novel and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Sarah Webb is an award-winning children's writer. Her latest book, 'Blazing a Trail: Irish Women Who Changed the World', illustrated by Lauren O'Neill, won an An Post Book Award. Her new book, 'Dare to Dream: Irish People Who Changed the World', illustrated by Graham Corcoran, will be published in October