Fiction for older children review – wayward wizards and a war of the worlds

History and the mysteries of the human heart take centre stage in this month’s best tales

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.

Benjamin Zephaniah’s Windrush Child: ‘ends in a howl of hurt’
Benjamin Zephaniah’s Windrush Child: ‘ends in a howl of hurt’. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

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.

• To order any of these books for a special price, click on the titles or go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Contributor

Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Fiction for older children – reviews
Supernatural forces that enchant a Nigerian village, a life-saving boy called Lonny and a self-help title from Marcus Rashford that hits the spot

Kitty Empire

01, Jun, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Fiction and nonfiction for older children – reviews
The latest instalment of a dystopian saga thrills and Stormzy’s #Merky imprint champions national and unsung stars

Kitty Empire

24, Aug, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Fiction for older children – review
All fearless, singing, dancing, questing, fearful life is here in this batch of quality reads, says Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

30, Mar, 2013 @3:00 PM

Article image
Fiction for older children reviews – snow quests, standup and skullduggery
A well-plotted comic quest from Harry Hill, a treat of a seafaring saga, and a Dickensian dystopia in which a fox leaves an orphanage in search of home

Kitty Empire

10, Dec, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Fiction for older children reviews – half-dead and dead funny
Horrid Henry author Francesca Simon fleshes out her teenage queen of hell, while Frank Cottrell Boyce’s screwball comedy has depth

Kitty Empire

31, Jul, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Fiction for older children reviews: from sleuths to woolly mammoths
Gripping yarns spring from a submerged city, desperate street life and the jungles of Sri Lanka

Kitty Empire

10, Mar, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
Fiction for older children reviews: flying puns and dangerous games
Fowl play with the brothers of Artemis, a risky dream game and a Russian bear-girl mystery

Kitty Empire

24, Sep, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Fiction for older children reviews – many happy book returns
With a host of popular characters back this autumn, picking up from where you left off has rarely been more fun

Kitty Empire

24, Sep, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
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

Kitty Empire

23, Jul, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Fiction for older children reviews – monster quests and inner challenges
Young heroes and heroines battle adversity in the shape of undersea beasts, homophobes and fitting in at time-travel school

Kitty Empire

02, Jun, 2020 @8:00 AM