Fiction for older children – reviews

Whether all-action thrillers or tender coming-of-age stories, these novels for older children are packed with complex, chewy themes

Novels for children are overpopulated by orphans, runaways and adoptees. It's a well-worn device for removing parental oversight so that drama can unfold, not to mention seeding plotlines. As children creep up the height scale, the circumstances can become more harrowing. The older end of this clutch of novels (roughly, for 8-12) is often as thought-provoking as any written for older readers; full of brutality, complex relationships, revenge and irremediable injustice. But no sex or drugs: that's deep into teen territory.

Bird – the extraordinary debut novel by Crystal Chan (Tamarind £10.99) – juggles a possible suicide, a mute and terrifying grandfather, astronomy, geology, betrayal and love with elegance and guts. Jewel is born the day her brother jumps off a cliff. Growing up with this tragedy is not easy, since her family is the only Jamaican-Hispanic household in rural Illinois; the loss of Bird marks them out as doubly different. When a stranger arrives and befriends Jewel, it sets into motion a startling chain of events which examines the warping effects of grief without ever losing track of a terrific coming-of-age story. The best thing about Bird isn't just its cultural uniqueness – not many kids' novels are about duppies, or Jamaican evil spirits – but how this excellent book feels like it actually happened.

The Bone Dragon by Alexia Casale (Faber £6.99) drip-feeds clues about its teenage protagonist's past. Evie cannot bring herself to call her dead mother anything other than "Janet". We know Evie is recovering from an operation; she keeps the end of a rib in a jar and carves it into a dragon. We never find out how exactly she came by her terrible injuries (an adult imagination helps here). Like Bird, The Bone Dragon inhabits the cusp of the spirit realm, without really being a fantastical work. In her sleep, Evie's mentor-dragon comes alive and takes her out on the Cambridgeshire fens; her (lovely) adoptive parents are puzzled by all the mud on her shoes. If The Bone Dragon is, perhaps, a touch heavy on the conflicted inner dialogue, it packs a series of surprises and a very un-modern sense that the ugliest emotions sometimes yield the most satisfying results.

William Sutcliffe's The Wall (Bloomsbury £7.99) seems fantastical too, set in a dystopian military near-future where people are divided by an unbreachable wall. Released in hardback last year, the secret is out that this powerful novel pits unhappy teen Joshua, marooned in a plastic Israeli settlement, against his kin when Leila, a Palestinian girl from the other side, unexpectedly saves him from a mob. A paperback release will surely mean more people read this compassionate, outraged thriller with shades of Romeo and Juliet, and an excellent subplot on olive tree husbandry.

Another Evie – half-Irish, half-American, half-orphaned – bumbles her way through a New York summer in Marooned in Manhattan (O'Brien Press £6.99) in some state of culture shock. The descriptions of characters' appearances do veer towards chick-lit, but novelist Sheila Agnew (a well-travelled ex-lawyer) mixes detail – who ate which delicacy from which deli – with an unexpected riveting denouement. After all the place-setting and boy-ogling, the book turns into a persuasive action thriller when Evie outflanks the evil lawyer who is trying to repatriate her.

You can't set a murder mystery – about a mysterious scientific discovery, no less – in Victorian London without invoking the gaslight daddy: Philip Pullman. The territory is familiar from his many works: wharf-rats, sadistic powers-that-be, this new-fangled electricity. But Wild Boy (Walker £6.99) – a debut novel by Rob Lloyd Jones – stands on its own two feet: hairy ones, as Wild Boy is a freak in a show. Abandoned at birth, scorned and wrongly accused of murder, the sensitive and intelligent Wild Boy turns sleuth to prove his innocence in a thoroughly gripping tale about turning difference to one's advantage.

Finally, a different kind of brutality: Line of Fire by Barroux (Phoenix Yard Books £10.99), translated from the French, with a powerful introduction from Michael "War Horse" Morpurgo. Barroux, a Parisian illustrator, actually came upon the diary of an unknown French solider, called up in 1914, in a rubbish heap. These illustrated excerpts are from a memoir full of the cruel banality of engagement; the waiting, the sleeplessness, the lack of control over where your battalion goes next. It's a timely and very different read about the hell of war, suitable for primary on up.

Contributor

Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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