Fiction for older children – reviews

The range and tone – magical to lavatorial – of titles for this age group is extraordinary

Meetings in children's publishing divisions must be strange, shrugging events, at which everyone eventually acknowledges that 9-12 publishing is, basically, a crapshoot. No one really knows what these kids want to read. At least that's what you conclude on the evidence of this wildly diverse cross-section of books for tweens.

Do 10-year-olds want to read tear-jerking memoirs of older men who revisit the villages of their youth? It's not the most promising premise, but it is proffered by Michael Morpurgo, so you are in safe hands. Homecoming is a novella about memory, loyalty, and tolerance. The young Michael is rescued from bullies by Mrs Pettigrew, an enigmatic Thai lady who lives in a railway carriage with a donkey and three greyhounds. When this hard-won Eden is threatened, Michael and his mum come out to bat for Mrs Pettigrew. Spoiler alert: it ends disastrously. But amid the tears are sweet illustrations, a deep vein of humanity and very grown-up lessons about "progress".

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat is another deceptively gentle read. It seems a little young at first – bears? really? – but swiftly reminds you of The Life Of Pi, with better jokes. Boy and bear bicker when they are lost, but muck in when bad turns to worse turns to ridiculously awful. Actively hilarious in bits, comic strip man Dave Shelton's superbly visual little tome is let down by a most unsatisfying existential conclusion.

Do 10-year-olds really want to read about the midlife crises of failing Inuit shamen? That's the gist of Soonchild, the posthumous end-work of Russell Hoban, renowned in grown-up circles for the sci-fi novel Riddley Walker. Here, "shamed man" Sixteen-Face John is going to be a dad – the Soonchild of the title – but something is amiss. John has forsaken the old ways for pizza and centrefolds, and now the Soonchild can't hear the World Songs. She is stuck, in-womb. Thus begins a quest, as lysergic as it is magic realist. You can only hope that Hoban has done his Inuit myth homework and that there is some foundation for this apparently random string of faceoffs with wise-cracking animal spirits. I like to think of myself as the kind of freewheeling reader who is not deaf to the song of the narwhal and the musk-ox. But I found Soonchild incomprehensible, and not in any magical way.

One thing is clear, however. Kids want to read diaries of (fictional, wimpy) kids. The US Wimpy Kid franchise is up to its sixth book. Here, in The Donut Diaries, deep-fried carb addict Dermot goes to Big School. Book two, Revenge is Sweet , finds Dermot framed for incidents involving poo, goths and an ex-forces PE teacher with hooks for hands. Madcap and lavatorial, it's not quite as amusing as it thinks it is but it does have a firm grasp on the ribs of its demographic.

Contributor

Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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