Magazine article The Spectator

Recent Children's Books

Magazine article The Spectator

Recent Children's Books

Article excerpt

Martin Stewart's Riverkeep (Penguin, £7.99) has a list of books and writers on the cover: Moby-Dick , The Wizard of Oz , Ursula Le Guin, Charles Dickens and, less ambitiously, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and Skellig. And, right in the middle, Riverkeep. Pff, you think: they wish!

But you know what? Having read the book, there are elements of all these authors in it: Moby-Dick for the quest for a great sea monster; The Wizard of Oz for a homunculus who retains his self, even when he loses his stuffing; Ursula Le Guin for the creation of a coherent other world where magic is part and parcel of things; and perhaps Dickens for a dank, watery atmosphere.

Riverkeep is what the hero's father does; he fishes corpses from the river for decent burial and expects his 15-year-old son to do the same. But that's before a peculiar creature jumps into him and starts to devour him from inside. The only remedy is the gland of an enormous sea monster which has appeared down the coast. And so begins a voyage in which our teenage hero accumulates fellow travellers, from the dirty-minded homunculus to a woman nursing a baby made out of mandrake root, plus a waif, along with his possessed father, eating fish heads.

I know: you're thinking weird, magic realism... get me out of here. But I can only say that it's a cracking, startlingly original story (and given the copycat character of so much children's fiction, that's quite something). It would be an extraordinary book by any author -- but it is Martin Stewart's first.

Kenneth Oppel's The Nest (David Fickling Books, £10.99) really is peculiar. It's about a boy, his sick baby brother and a conspiracy by a sinister queen wasp to create a changeling, a perfect version of the flawed infant. I was persuaded to give it a go because of the illustrations by Jon Klassen, famous for his deadpan picture books for young children, but it seems he does suggestive and sinister too (an example is reprinted on p. 4 of this magazine). There's something Hitchcockian and creepy about the story, but it's actually heartwarming: we're all flawed, is the gist.

Francesca Simon is well known to anyone with young children for her Horrid Henry books, but recently she's made a foray into Scandinavian myth -- and for sheer unpleasantness of religion, it's hard to beat that of the Vikings. The Monstrous Child (Faber, £9.99) is dark. It tells the story of Hel, Queen of the Underworld -- like Prosperpina, only monstrous. But she cuts a rather poignant figure, and ultimately it's a redemptive story. …

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