Wherever you stand on comedians writing children’s books, some are more worthy than others. Step forward Simon Farnaby, late of the Horrible Histories TV series, screenwriter of Paddington 2 – and a potential heir to Jeremy Strong. Farnaby’s debut children’s novel, The Wizard in My Shed: The Misadventures of Merdyn the Wild (Hodder, £12.99), combines the dark ages with a very modern caper. The yuck factor is strong in this one.
Renegade warlock Merdyn is subject to a miscarriage of magical justice, being exiled from the year 511 to the present day. His spell-casting might just be the solution to young Rose’s problems though, and pratfalls and explosions abound as Merdyn’s desire to avenge his fate entwines with Rose’s agenda. Farnaby’s skill is evident not just in the gags, but in how he ties up loose ends. Consider the audiobook: Farnaby’s delivery will make this hoot of a debut even funnier.
History takes centre stage this autumn. Robin Scott-Elliot retired from an illustrious career as a sports journalist to write the atmospheric The Tzar’s Curious Runaways, much praised last year. His second outing, The Acrobats of Agra (Everything With Words, £8.99), is another circus thriller that plays out amid an ugly Raj skirmish in 1857.
Young Beatrice has already had several safety nets cruelly whisked away; she’s sent to India to live with an icy aunt when her beloved Scottish grandmother becomes too frail to care for her. But as rebels advance and Europeans retreat to the fort, Bea joins forces with Pin, a sparky young servant fed up with his lot, and a French circus performer and his tiger, in an escape bid – only to find even greater peril outside. This vivid adventure takes a panoramic view of why unhappy people might do brazen things.
The complexities of the human heart are the unexpected stars of Windrush Child by Benjamin Zephaniah (Scholastic, £6.99), who needs no introduction. Unlike many children’s books, the story of how young Leonard leaves Jamaica to travel to Manchester in the 1950s actually takes Leonard all the way through his teens into adulthood, the rough alternating with the smooth. The emphasis here isn’t merely on his status as a new boy in an all-white school, but how complicated love and loyalty can be. It ends in a howl of hurt, with a child who arrived on his mother’s passport denied his rights as a citizen.
Brand New Boy by David Almond (Walker, £10.99), who wrote Skellig and several other fine tomes, takes the “new kid” trope further than usual. When George joins a deeply ordinary school somewhere in the north-east, Daniel and his friend Maxie are intrigued – and later galvanised. When George’s ear falls off, it’s clear that he is no ordinary boy. Cleverly disguised as a heist, Almond’s moving page-turner ponders nothing less than humanity and free will, and how to have a great time in the woods.
Katharine Orton’s last book, Nevertell, combined history and fantasy, themes she takes up once again for Glassheart (Walker, £7.99). The second world war may be over, but Nona has lost everything. She and her “Uncle” Antoni – a kind craftsman who has taken her in – restore stained glass windows and don’t talk about their damage.
But soon Antoni falls into a trance state, and a stranger glimpsed in the glass unsettles Nona. Before too long, magic rears its head and a battle between the worlds is raging, in which Nona’s stubborn nature and odd powers are both an asset and a liability. Orton’s fantastical world is creepily drawn; even better is her understanding of grief, suffering and healing.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave has been on a run of hits since 2016’s The Girl of Ink & Stars. Set in Siena during the time of a smallpox plague, A Secret of Birds & Bone (Chicken House, £12.99) finds Sofia and her little brother slipping out to the city against their beloved mother’s stern orders – only to find she has been taken prisoner.
Soon, Sofia and her sibling are captive too. As Sofia struggles to understand the significance of her mother’s secretive work – crafting beautiful items from bone for the wealthy and powerful – she discovers vicious magpies and authoritarian might all ranged against her. This is another page-turner that enchants with its magic realism and originality.
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