The trend for acclaimed novelists of adult fiction to sidestep into picture books shows no signs of abating. Both Maggie O’Farrell and Zadie Smith have had triumphs in recent years and now, 40 years (and umpteen books) since being named one of Granta’s best of young British novelists in 1983, Rose Tremain joins in with Iron Robin (Puffin, 18 May), a beautiful story inspired by a tiny metal bird she found in a junk shop in southern France, with illustrations by Richard Jones.
You can understand the allure: children’s publishing is booming and the task of conjuring a whole world in a slim clutch of pages must seem a tantalising exercise in efficiency and imagination for authors more accustomed to turning in dozens of chapters. Still, it’s a very particular skill and many efforts don’t make the grade.
Thankfully, Tremain’s debut is first class. When Oliver finds a little rusty bundle in a field one day, his mum cleans it off, and the metal bird they discover starts slowly coming to life. Named Iron Robin, the bird manages to survive the fiery tongue of Oliver’s soft toy Draggi before being thrown on to the school roof and lost by some older kids. Months pass, but when a storm hits the school he ends up saving the day. Longer than the average picture book, Iron Robin combines everyday childhood themes with a pinch of fantasy, all brilliantly visualised by Jones’s expressive artwork. The approaching storm depicted as a thundering mass of galloping horses and a warrior raining down silver arrows is particularly striking.
Meanwhile, Fly Boy, the children’s debut from novelist and poet JJ Bola, seems a natural extension of his previous writing for adults on issues including masculinity, home and identity. Bola has a background in youth work and a belief that “we need to redefine what manhood means”. In Fly Boy (Simon & Schuster, 25 May) he uses minimal lyrical prose to present a young child who, overwhelmed by shouting and chaos at home, longs to fly away. Instead, he lashes out at school, continuing the cycle of violence, before a calming friend teaches him “you can’t fly angry”. Clara Anganuzzi’s primary coloured illustrations depict Fly Boy with hot red wings in contrast to his friend’s blue ones and, in the wrong hands, the entire project might have felt trite, but its heartfelt simplicity is powerfully direct, just right for its young audience.
Genteel readers may wish to skip over the next book, about Amy, an excitable piece of sweetcorn with a look of SpongeBob SquarePants who is swallowed on a kid’s pizza slice and ends up coming out of his bottom. The latest from junior doctor turned comedian and memoirist Adam Kay, with illustrations by cartoonist and comedian Henry Paker, Amy Gets Eaten (Puffin) is the frank and funny digestion-themed follow-up to the pair’s bestselling children’s guides to human anatomy. Perfect for potty training and beyond.
Of course, you don’t need to be a literary star to publish a cracking debut picture book (though all those contacts surely help!). Farah Loves Mangos by new author-illustrator Sarthak Sinha (Flying Eye), about a young girl obsessed with the fruit from her grandpa’s tree, is like a dose of bottled sunshine. Farah’s infectious smile alone, beaming from the lively cover, ought to ensure it bounces off the shelves.
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