There are many wonderful children’s books published this autumn, but for nine-plus, Jasbinder Bilan’s Tamarind & the Star of Ishta (Chicken House) stands out. When Tamarind first visits her Indian family’s Himalayan home, no one wants to talk about the mother she lost – but the wild garden hides an overgrown hut, and a mysterious girl. Could they hold the keys to her mother’s past? Bilan marries classic assurance to contemporary sensibility with a lush, gorgeous setting in a novel as vivid and original as her Costa-winning debut.
Sita Brahmachari’s When Secrets Set Sail (Orion) also interweaves past and present. Imtiaz has just joined Usha’s family – but Usha, mourning her grandmother Kali Ma, isn’t keen to welcome her adoptive sister. When Usha finds herself being haunted by Kali Ma, however, while Imtiaz is haunted by a mysterious woman called Lucky, they are drawn into the history of the Indian ayahs, or nannies, left abandoned in Britain. This is an absorbing, many layered story, set in a fabulous house rigged like a ship.
Pádraig Kenny’s dark fantasy The Monsters of Rookhaven (Macmillan) features a house filled with strange denizens, from the mysteriously dangerous Piglet to the woman made of spiders, and Mirabelle, who loves and tends to them all. The family are protected from the nearby human village – but when their defences rupture, they discover who the real monsters are. Assurance, imagination and an understated ability to pluck the reader’s heartstrings confirm Kenny as a writer of serious talent.
There’s more gothic fantasy in Harriet Muncaster’s Victoria Stitch: Bad and Glittering (Oxford University), the story of twin fairy-like “wisklings” born from a single diamond, which should make them princesses – except that the diamond is impure … This absorbing miniature melodrama is full of fraught sibling fondness between sweet, gentle Celestine and the marvellously ambitious and snooty Victoria, with Muncaster’s own enticing illustrations.
For seven or eight-plus, Katie and Kevin Tsang kick off a new series with Dragon Mountain (Simon & Schuster), a splendidly addictive romp. When Billy Chan arrives at summer camp in China, he’s not expecting to join a fellowship of four very different kids, each bonded to a different dragon. Deft characterisation, fast-paced action and delightful touches (such as the dragon obsessed with buttons) make for serious reading pleasure.
From poet Joseph Coelho, there comes the first in another new series: dark fairytale retellings in verse, with pleasingly gruesome illustrations from Freya Hartas. Zombierella (Walker), starring an undead princess and a vampire prince, should appeal especially to the dauntless young reader. For younger fairytale fans of about five, The Wolf’s Secret (Orchard) by Myriam Dahman and Nicolas Digard, illustrated by Júlia Sardà, is a lyrical, dreamy wander through some lush and terrifying woods, where a fierce wolf secretly longs for companionship.
In picture books, Alastair Chisholm and David Roberts collaborate on Inch and Grub (Walker), a consumerist caveman caper that sees the titular Stone Agers competing to acquire possessions, from fire and chairs to phones and computers, until disaster strikes. The blissful wit of Roberts’s illustrations combines to strong effect with Chisholm’s restrained text.
Meanwhile, in A Story About Afiya (Lantana) the words of the late Jamaican poet James Berry are brought to joyful life by Anna Cunha’s soft chalk pastel illustrations. Afiya has only one dress, but that dress is all she needs – each day it takes on the beautiful imprints of her memories (flowers, birds, tigers or shoals of fish), and is washed clean in time for morning.
Finally, from Pippa Goodhart and Nick Sharratt, You Choose: Fairy Tale (Puffin), the latest instalment in the much-loved You Choose series, allows children to decide which heroes they’d be, which sidekicks they’d take along, which villains they’d flee, and which magical objects they’d use in their own fairytale – sure to become a bedtime stalwart.
A Snowfall of Silver
by Laura Wood, Scholastic, £7.99
In the autumn of 1931, Freya Trevelyan runs away to London, determined to pursue her thespian ambitions. When a chance meeting snags her a job as dresser’s assistant with a touring theatre company, she rapidly finds friends and a strong sense of belonging, as well as the prospect of romantic adventure. But can the reality live up to her dreams? Rapturously witty and atmospheric, with a gutsy, likable heroine and a dusting of theatrical magic, this is the best kind of escapism: a box of chocolates in book form.
Punching the Air
by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam, illustrated by Omar T Pasha, HarperCollins, £7.99
Amal’s name means Hope, but when he’s imprisoned after a fight with a gang of white boys, he finds it hard to hold on to the future. He’s always been an artist, but there’s little scope for his talent in prison; can he preserve his unique sense of self when those in authority have decided he’s beyond redemption? This extraordinary verse novel is a collaboration between an award-winning author and a prison activist; it resonates throughout with an anguished truth.
Savage Her Reply
by Deirdre Sullivan, illustrated by Karen Vaughan, Little Island, £13.99
Aífe is the second of three sisters, fostered to a warlord in Sullivan’s fairytale. Aébh is graceful, while little Ailbhe is a warrior; Aífe yearns for status, acceptance and love. But when she marries Lir after Aébh’s death, becoming stepmother to her sister’s children, she exercises her own power on those she should fight to protect … This dark, beautiful retelling of the Irish tale “The Children of Lir”, filled with transformed swans, air demons, betrayal and forgiveness, is saturated with the power of Sullivan’s lyrical prose.