For the third and final part of the Chimney Rabbit Best of 2013, I’m covering children’s books. This was the most difficult category for me to come up with a top five, as I’ve read so many utterly fantastic children’s books this year. In the end I’ve had to cheat and include two books in one slot, so this is actually a top six.
Bubbling just under were some wonderful books like Oliver and the Seawigs, How to Train Your Dragon, The Snow Merchant, Goblins, The Great Galloon… Many of these were published very recently – it’s a great time to be a reader of children’s books.
No. 5 – Wolf Brother, by Michelle Paver
Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother is a story of the neolithic age, about 6000 years ago, and features the young orphan Torak and his rescued wolf cub, unimaginatively named “Wolf”. I wrote about it back in August on this blog, where I said:
The highest accolade I can give a children’s book is this – I wish it had been published in the 70s so I could have read it as a child. Wolf Brother is so good that I resent having to view it through the jaded eyes of a 40-something.
No. 4 – The Hill of the Red Fox, by Allan Campbell McLean
I wrote about Allan Campbell McLean’s The Hill of the Red Fox in my post about my haul of books from Hay-on-Wye. It’s a book that I first read when I lived on the Isle of Skye, where it’s set, and it was pure pleasure to come back to it 30 years later and discover it was still just as good.
No. 3 – Skellig, by David Almond
Skellig is the story of a strange, bird-like vagrant who appears in the life of Michael and Mina. It’s not so much an adventure as a lyrical exploration of magic and mystery. For me, its attraction lies in the quality of the writing. This one passage in particular struck me as being particularly fine:
An endless night. In and out of dreams. In and out of sleep. Dad snoring and snuffling in the room next door. No moon in the sky. Endless darkness. The clock at my bedside was surely stuck. All it showed were the dead hours. One o’clock. Two o’clock. Three o’clock. Endless minutes between them. No hooting of owls, no calling from Skellig or Mina. Like the whole world was stuck, all of time was stuck. Then I must have slept properly at last, and I woke to daylight with stinging eyes and sunken heart.
No. 2 – The Toymaker, by Jeremy de Quidt
Jeremy de Quidt writes dark, dark stories. The Toymaker is his first novel, and like some modern-day Grimm’s fairytale it subjects its young protagonists, Mathias and Katta, to horror and injury and nightmarish cruelty. The backdrop is a cold Germanic landscape, bitter and hostile, filled with unstoppable, fiendish foes.
It’s not for younger readers, that’s for sure.
But then, it’s not really a Young Adult book, either. Mathias and Katta are too young as protagonists for your average YA, and don’t have enough control over their own fates, despite their bravery. On the other hand, as someone who enjoys children’s books, but also has a taste for the horrific, it appealed to me immensely. Which all goes to show that the rigid categorisation of books doesn’t make much sense. Books should be allowed to find their own audiences.
No. 1 – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts in Battersea, by Joan Aiken
Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, of which The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts in Battersea are the first two instalments, are set in an alternative history in which James II was never deposed, and vicious wolves roam the English countryside.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is the story of Bonnie and Sylvia, and their efforts to thwart the nefarious plans of their evil governess Miss Slighcarp. They’re aided by their friend Simon the goose boy, and when they’re sent off to a horrible orphanage they escape and flee to London.
Black Hearts in Battersea takes up the story of Simon, newly arrived in London to learn art with his old friend Dr. Field, who finds that his mentor has disappeared and is caught up in a wicked Hanoverian plot to assassinate the King. Only the help of his Hanoverian landlord’s neglected and troublesome daughter Dido Twite saves him from disaster.
The characters are superb. The contrasting and complementary personalities of Bonnie and Sylvia in Wolves, and the irrepressible force of nature that is Dido in Battersea make the books a delight to read. The plots are convoluted but not too complex, and good hearts and honesty win out over deviousness and wickedness in the end.
I’ve no idea how I missed these books when I was growing up. Both were written before I was born, and I was aware of Joan Aiken from the Arabel and Mortimer series (shown on Jackanory, and with Quentin Blake illustrations – that’s about as high-profile as books got in the 1970s in the UK), but for some reason these books managed to evade me. What a pity. I’d have loved them when I was 10 – perhaps even more than I love them now.