This is a hard time to be a child. The world is already so painfully opaque for children; a pandemic is a bitter addition. There are, though, books that will help. There are books that will teach children the world is enormous, that history is still alive; books that teach young people osmotically, secretly, in the form of adventures that grab them by the wrist and pull them off their feet. We’re in, I think, golden times for children’s fiction – there are books being published every year that tell children, loudly or quietly, through good jokes or wild escapades: dig deep for the bravery that you did not know you had: reach for your edges and push. Archimedes yourself.
Catherine Johnson is the grand master of historical fiction for children; her prose is warm and wise and utterly gripping. I love her Freedom, about Nat, born into slavery on an English-owned plantation in Jamaica, and his journey to London – and Race to the Frozen North, an account of Matthew Henson, an African American who was among the team of Americans at the pole in 1909. The latter is published by Barrington Stoke, which specialises in dyslexic-friendly, short texts.
For children whose passion is the environment, The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, with illustrations by Levi Pinfold, is a lovely thing: the story follows April, who travels with her father to an Arctic outpost and meets a polar bear. What child does not long to do that? And, another kind of escape: EL Norry’s Son of the Circus is perfect for children with an itch to run away to spit and sawdust and rearing horses, in a fictionalised account of Pablo Fanque, the first black circus proprietor in Victorian Britain.
A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll is set in contemporary Scotland, and tells the story of Addie, an 11-year-old who, on hearing about the witch trials in her town, campaigns to establish a monument to their memory. The intensity of Addie’s feeling for the persecuted women stems in part from her autism, in a beautiful and fiery debut from a writer who is herself autistic.
For sharp wit and sheer delight, Sharna Jackson is one of the most brilliant children’s fiction writers in the country. I haven’t yet met a child who has not loved her murder series, which begins with High Rise Mystery; and she is also the author of the Tate Kids Modern Art Activity Book: make your own Matisse snail, paint the shadows of a Turner sunset. I think children can find as much galvanic solace in beauty as adults; and so I love The Lost Words, by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, a book of acrostic spell-poems summoning up the natural world. Morris’s art is alchemic; a golden, shining thing.
Finally – for children in need of a shot of raw hope – during lockdown I edited The Book of Hopes, a collection of work from 132 writers and artists. It has non-fiction writing by Piers Torday (author of the magnificent Last Wild – another book, with talking animals and a bossy cockroach, perfect for lockdown); fiction by Frank Cottrell Boyce; art by Axel Scheffler … It’s a box of delights. Proceeds from the hardback go to NHS Charities Together. These are hard days to be young in, but there are books that will make the days feel shorter and the world larger, and that is wildly worth having.
The Book of Hopes: Words and Pictures to Comfort, Inspire and Entertain, edited by Katherine Rundell, is published by Bloomsbury (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.