UK Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell last month launched the ‘Libraries that Change Life’ initiative, calling on the Prime Minister to set aside a set aside of £ 100million a year to invest in libraries primary schools. She points out that the government has introduced a bonus of several million pounds for sports and physical education in schools; why not something similar to promote reading among young children?
Of course, as the UK economy begins to recover from the effects of the pandemic, Treasury coffers may not be full enough to make this dream come true. It would be good to think, however, that political leaders might find that developing a love of books offers as many long-term benefits as acquiring a habit of exercising regularly.
The main characters of Patience Agbabi’s The thief of time (Canongate, £ 6.99) are successful on both fronts, being as literate as they are proficient on the athletic field. They are also neurodivergent, most notably narrator Elle, whose autism is described with precision and sympathy. Plus, they’re all Leaplings, born February 29, which gave them the opportunity to jump back in time.
This comes in handy when a valuable item known as Infinity-Glass is stolen from a museum. The quest to retrieve it takes our heroes back to 1752, where they meet Samuel Johnson and his servant Francis Barber, and involves the infamous 11 “lost” days when Britain moved from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. The mystery is solved with clues relating to both the pun and arithmetic, making it the sequel to last year. Infinity, just as intelligent and pleasant as its predecessor.
No less intelligent and pleasant is Last Emperor’s Gate (Scholastic, £ 6.99). Roguish tearaway Yared lives in an Afro-futuristic world where his uncle, Moti, teaches him skills such as languages and self-defense, which his young ward cannot understand. Yared prefers to play the augmented reality game The Hunt for Kaleb’s Obelisk, until one day the game becomes real reality and he fights for his life against high tech soldiers and a monster, aided by his compatriot the Ibis and his companion bionic lioness Besa.
Everything moves at a breakneck pace, thanks to co-authors Kwame Mbalia and Prince Joel Makonnen. The latter is, in this case, the great-grandson of Emperor Haile Selassie, and the plot of the novel is inspired by his own royal heritage as well as Ethiopian culture and folklore.
There is little thrill and overflow in Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s latest episode, Noah’s Gold (Macmillan, £ 12.99). What there is, on the contrary, is a lot of spirit and heart. Eleven-year-old Noah pulls up on his older sister’s school geographic trip, and a satellite crash sees the children stranded on an uninhabited island off the Irish coast. Worse yet, their teacher disappears. Worse yet, there is no internet which means they have to learn to survive without any outside help. But it’s not Lord of the Flies. Rather, it’s a funny, exhilarating story about cooperation and ingenuity, with a subplot of Blytonesque hidden loot.
Steven Lenton, who provided the illustrations for Noah’s gold, performs writing and drawing tasks alone Genie and Teeny make a wish (HarperCollins, £ 6.99). It’s a quick and energetic read, in which Grant, the goof-prone genius, befriends the stray puppy Teeny. The couple are captured by Lavinia Lavender, a crazy old lady who loves to turn dogs purple and enter them into talent competitions. With its juicy designs and typographical deceptions, the book is absurd and silly in every good way.
For some more serious content, let’s turn to three picture books. Bok’s book (Wren & Rook, £ 14.99) sees its author – the late astronaut Neil Armstrong, no less – imagine the life of a piece of moon rock he collected on the lunar surface and brought back to Earth, in a nice piece of anthropomorphization which is calmly informative because superbly illustrated (courtesy Grahame Baker Smith).
Christian Borstlap Is there life on your nose? (Prestel, £ 12.99) entertainingly sings the praises of the humble microbe, while At the sea (Thames & Hudson, £ 12.95) by Helen Kellock offers a sustained marine metaphor for accepting grief, her moody watercolor art pushing the reader to an uplifting end.
Finally, those who appreciate the work of Diana Wynne Jones will be happy to hear about a new reissue of her 1990 novel. Castle in the air (Folio Society, £ 39.95). This is an accompanying volume of the same publisher’s edition of the best-known book of which it is a sequel, Howl’s moving castle, with Marie-Alice Harel once again offering a delicately evocative art. Jones, who died in 2011, was one of Britain’s leading fantasy authors for young readers. Neil Gaiman cites her as an influence, and in his 1977 novel A lovely life she wrote – 20 years before JK Rowling, if not as lucrative – about a wizard boy attending a school of magic. She more than deserves the luxury Folio Society treatment.
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