Fiction for older children – reviews

The return of Lemony Snicket, the next instalment of the Wimpy Kid – and some delightful new surprises

Oh dear. It's Christmas so it must be Richard Curtis! With The Empty Stocking (Puffin £6.99), the screenwriter behind Love, Actually puts his pen to a children's story for the first time – a marketing opportunity waiting to happen. The result is as reassuringly well-executed as it is predictably schmaltzy. Rebecca Cobb's charming illustrations enliven this tale of twin girls who are getting jittery as Christmas Eve approaches. Sam is a good girl. Charlie not so much. Guess who's scared Santa's not coming? Irritatingly brilliant and truly a lovely gift for anyone aged zero to eight.

Proving that kids' books which are part of an endless series can still be full of life is Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel (£12.99 Puffin). A brand worth $550m, published in 35 languages, with 6.8m copies of this new book alone in print (the largest first run of any book this year), Wimpy Kid is hard to avoid. In this outing (book 7), Greg does Valentine's Day, where the only silver lining to his cloudy life is that best friend Rowley is even less likely to get a date than he is. "This is really good. This is really funny. Actually, it's absolutely brilliant," says Will, aged nine, who has also read books 1, 2 and 3. (The gap didn't appear to hurt.)

A six-year wait means Lemony Snicket fans will be all over this. Who Could That Be At This Hour? (Egmont £8.99) is the first chapter of four-part young adult series All the Wrong Questions, the prequel to A Series of Unfortunate Events (60m copies sold). We're in "LA Confidential for kids" territory here, as our 13-year-old narrator explores the first of the four wrong questions. "There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft." Wonderfully eccentric and addictive, no matter where you are in your Lemony Snicket journey (this was the beginning for me and I didn't feel left out). Just beautiful writing. Ideal for age nine plus.

Publisher Barry Cunningham – the man who rescued JK Rowling from the slush pile – says this is the most excited he has been about a book since Harry Potter. The Wolf Princess (Chicken House £6.99) by Cathryn Constable is a delightful, wintry, old-fashioned fairytale about three schoolgirls who find themselves in an abandoned palace in the middle of the Russian forest. Lots of opportunity for outlandishly hammy Russian accents if read aloud. The six-year-old girl in our house has been spellbound. A swashbuckling, innocent, girly tale perfect for keen readers between eight and 11. Or read it aloud to younger ones.

Punctuated by David Roberts's chaotic, enjoyable illustrations, Sally Gardner's Operation Bunny: Wings & Co, The Fairy Detective Agency's First Case (Orion £5.99), is fun, quirky and imaginative. When Emily Vole turns five, her job as the adopted daughter of the unpleasant Dashwoods suddenly becomes redundant as Daisy Dashwood falls pregnant with triplets. Instead, Emily befriends neighbour Miss String, who has all kinds of magical powers. When Miss String dies, she leaves Emily a giant cat called Fidget, a shop and a set of keys. It all leads to the Fairy Detective Agency coming back to life. With shades of Roald Dahl's Matilda, this is a marvellous, wild ride for eight- to 10-year-olds.

For the adolescent cynic in your life, Liar & Spy (Andersen £9.99) by Rebecca Stead is exactly what I would have wanted to read in my early teens. It feels sophisticated and clever and knowing without being too grown-up and dark. Georges (the "s" is silent) communicates with his mother (we assume) by leaving messages with Scrabble tiles. She's working night shifts since his father lost his job as an architect and they had to move house. Georges distracts himself meanwhile by joining his neighbour's Spy Club, where things are not quite what they seem. An intelligent, witty young adult read. Warning: 100% American. Which reminds me. Happy holidays to young readers everywhere!

Contributor

Viv Groskop

The GuardianTramp

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