Fiction for older children – reviews | Children’s books: 8-12 years old


OOne of the few truly magical things that has happened in the past year is the way a footballer has shamed a government for feeding children. Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford MBE is a natural poster boy for watching tough difficulties and working dials on moral compasses. It makes perfect sense that he wrote a motivational self-help book for kids (with Carl Anka).

Quite conversational for the reluctant reader, but actually full of top-level sport psychology and no little depth, You are a champion: how to be the best you can be (Macmillan) also marks the start of a book club for underprivileged children – and WH Smith will be donating a copy to the National Literacy Trust for every copy sold.

Magic can be controversial, however. Not in the sense that American fundamentalists denounce Harry Potter, but in the sense that he sometimes provides a cheap way out of a plot. A selection of books from this season revolve around some otherworldly powers, but this is the internally consistent material of fable and legend, not just Deus Ex machina Hocus Pocus.

Efua Traoré, author of Children of the Quicksands. Photography: Boubacar Traoré

Kirsty Applebaum’s setup Life and time by Lonny Quicke (Nosy Crow) is captivating. Young Lonny is a living person, a person who can save dying creatures – moths, rabbits, humans – but pays for him with free time.

As a result, his family lives deep in a forest to protect Lonny from those who will not have his best interests at heart. A series of crises pushes Lonny into the world, where the contrast between what he has been told and the villagers’ beliefs about the living makes him let his guard down …

In Nigeria, where Efua Traoré’s protagonist, Simi, is a pampered city dweller, addicted to wifi and transported around Lagos in a middle-class bubble. Unexpectedly, she is sent to spend time in an off-grid village with a grandmother she has never met.

Children of the quicksand (Chicken House) is full of secrets and myths that we uncover alongside Simi, whose mother raised her far from the old-fashioned reach of her own mother, priestess of the Yoruba deity Oshun. Drawn to a power greater than her own will, Simi discovers a forbidden quicksand lake, what lurks beneath it, and what it means for her broken family.

Now let’s move on to Australia, where Meixing Lim does her best to fit into a baffling new culture as local skinheads put up anti-China posters and her family suffers setbacks after setbacks. There is, however, a mysterious cat, guardian of the shattered greenhouse in the garden, who only shows his fantastic treasures to those who need them most, when they need them most. A greenhouse of stars by Shirley Marr (Usborne) is full of ghosts, expanding homes, and how unexpected friends and the kindness of strangers can make all the difference. The most magical kind of magic is unforced and obvious – a childish version of magical realism, if you like.

Two reality checks balance fables and fantasies in the excellent Tic (Walker) by MG Leonard, rightly famous for her Beetle boy series. Its latest is a twisty, thriller-like tale of a mad bird boy, tyrants, and an escaped convict hiding in the nearby woods looking for the millions known to be hidden there. It all depends on who Twitch, 12, has to trust: the ex-bully, whose olive branches may be fake, or his mysterious new birdwatcher friend.

At the upper end of the age range is Something i said (Bloomsbury) by actor and comedian Ben Bailey Smith, who has a side career as rapper Doc Brown (OK: he’s also Zadie Smith’s little brother). When the gentle-mannered Carmichael – Car for short – unexpectedly gets enraged during his school talent show, the wild burns about his family and teachers go viral and he is suspended. Next thing, however, an American comedy show wants to fly him to be on TV, much to his family’s chagrin. This wise and warm book is big because it is made up of equal parts of intrigue and comedic riffs, all of which feel essential to its snorting charm.

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