Fiction for older children reviews – tales of the cities

London and New York both feature strongly in stories from both sides of the pond, while Room author Emma Donoghue makes her children’s fiction debut

In the UK, you wouldn’t want under-12s to have much contact with doormen – ours being burly negotiators who remove the ill-behaved from nightclubs.

In New York, however, doormen are the guardians of gracious apartment buildings and, thus, civilisation itself. One such building is the star of The Doorman’s Repose, by Caldecott Medal winner Chris Raschka (Faber, £11.99), an urbane collection of New Yorker-ish short stories. It begins with a new doorman – who, disastrously, knows nothing about baseball – taking up his post. Otis, the elevator, plays matchmaker; Liesl, the boiler, loses her va-va-voom; the mice are into jazz and psychotherapy, and the humans in these droll, Lemony Snicket-like stories are only slightly less variegated.

Dave the doorman will be familiar to fans of the Timmy Failure series – he’s the boyfriend of Timmy’s mother, and a figure Timmy dislikes. I’ve been wary of Failure, until the sixth instalment, The Cat Stole My Pants, by Stephan Pastis (Walker £9.99), won me over. Failure is not just another Wimpy Kid, but a deluded, megalomaniacal child detective. Pastis milks these traits for every drop of comedy value. The family are in Florida, ostensibly for Doorman Dave and Mom’s honeymoon, but really so that Pastis can make Ernest Hemingway references, send Timmy’s polar bear sidekick to Cuba and let a six-toed cat steal Timmy’s trousers.

The cultural differences between the US and the UK are rife in this batch of books. In Jacob Sager Weinstein’s The City of Secret Rivers (Walker, £9.99), Hyacinth Hayward is the innocent American abroad in London, wondering why in the 21st century Brits still insist on separate hot and cold taps. She finds out: mixing hot and cold water unleashes a powerful ancient magic.

Thus begins a harum-scarum ride through London’s sewer-land, where Hyacinth becomes enmeshed in an almighty battle for control of the underground river-magic. Villains ooze, mudlarks speak Victorian cockney and London’s history is reconfigured to fit the plot of this excellent thriller.

It’s the other way around in Robin Stevens’s The Guggenheim Mystery (Puffin, £9.99): three British kids are loose in New York, taking the wrong subway, but not taking “no” for an answer. These aren’t just any kids, but the protagonists from The London Eye Mystery, the hit 2007 novel by the late Siobhan Dowd.

Stevens is the veteran author of award-winning mysteries and Dowd’s trio – Ted Spark, his sister Kat and their cousin Salim – are safe in her hands. Well, unsafe: Salim’s mum is being framed for an art heist, and the three go awol to catch the real crook. Ted, whose high-functioning Asperger syndrome is sorely over-stimulated by the Big Apple, remains their secret weapon of deduction.

Cultural misunderstandings are, once again, the engine of The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue (Macmillan £10.99), author of Room. Yes, that Room – but this is a children’s book, albeit an unusual one.

Donoghue’s debut children’s novel features an 11-strong blended Toronto family, the Lotterys, where two romantically involved dads and two coupled-up mums co-parent a bevy of kids named after trees. Thanks to a lottery win, no adult works. Everyone is home-schooled, speaks in in-jokes, and Sumac, the middle girl who is learning Sumerian, is the only sensible member of the family.

Into this chaos drops Grumps, the estranged elderly father of one of the dads. Everyone needs to make accommodations: for cigarettes and white bread; for a man with dementia coping with the loss of his freedom and this bunch of hippies. You could say the book was about family, but actually it is a hoot spending time in this Utopia. A sequel is planned.

Unusual would also describe The Milk of Dreams, a compendium of children’s drawings and tales by the British-Mexican surrealist Leonora Carrington (Faber, £11.99), who used to paint them on the walls of her house. You wouldn’t normally include a picture book in this age range, but everything here is deeply weird: spider-eating children, vultures in jelly. Unsettling and fascinating, it is a reminder of how far we have come in children’s publishing from the dark days of fairytales, where witches and giants routinely ate their readers’ peers.

Contributor

Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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