10 The Eagle of the Ninth

Chronicles Rosemary Sutcliff, OUP, 978- 0192789983, £12.99 pbk

Rosemary Sutcliff was one of the few children’s writers I loved when I was younger.

Although her plots

are wonderfully exciting and action- packed, she can be a challenging writer. Her language is intricate and relatively complex, and the reader is never spoon- fed.

All of her many books are brilliant

(her retellings of the Iliad, Black Ships before Troy was by children’s favourite bedtime reading) but I think her masterpiece is the three linked novels about the Romans in Britain, The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, and The Lantern Bearers – which are available as a single volume. They combine great learning and epic storytelling.

Orange Boy Patrice Lawrence, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-1444927207, £7.99 pbk

I read Orange Boy a couple of years ago, and was immediately seized by the style and the story. Although it has a powerful message about racism and inequality, it is in no sense a simple ‘message’ book: it’s an exciting thriller, one of those books where you can hardly turn the pages quickly enough. Patrice Lawrence is simply one of the finest writers for young adults working today.

The Call of the Wild Jack London, OUP, 978-0192743626, £5.99 pbk

The Call of the Wild is perhaps the greatest of wilderness adventure stories. Its depiction of the lives of both people and dogs (and wolves) in the wilds of Canada is often brutal: these animals (and men) hunt and fight and kill. We’re a long way from Disney: the animals are never anthropomorphised, never do anything inauthentic. And yet we come to care

desperately for the fate of Buck, a huge and pampered pet, who is stolen and used a sled-dog. After many adventures, Buck answers the call of the wild, and joins the wolves, entering into the legend of the native Americans. He still haunts my imagination.

Anthony McGowan is one of the most widely acclaimed young-adult authors in the UK and his novel Lark won the 2020 CILIP Carnegie Medal.

You’re a Bad Man Mr Gum Andy Stanton, Egmont, 978-1405293693, £6.99 pbk

The Mr Gum series are simply the funniest children’s books ever written. My wife and I used to fight over who got to read them at bedtime to our children. Although young and old both find them hysterical, it isn’t quite true to say that there are two different levels of humour – one for the kids and one for the adults. It’s more that almost every page has such

a dazzle of brilliant comic ideas, sophisticated and silly, that you feel like you’re in the middle of a comedy blitz, with every part of your funny-bone rubbed raw. But there’s also heart in there, amid the intellectual fizz, and you come to care for characters, whether a dancing bear or a schoolteacher made of gingerbread..

A Wizard of Earthsea Ursula K Le Guin, Puffin, 978-0141354910,

£7.99 pbk

I said earlier on that The Lord of the Rings was the greatest fantasy work ever written, but the Earthsea series runs it a close second. Tolkien gives us a brilliantly realised world, a rich and poetic language, and an exciting plot; Le Guin does all that, but adds characters with a little more complexity and nuance, and also sprinkles ideas that stretch the mind, and challenge

expectations. It’s a cliché to say of a book that ‘It makes you think’, but Earthsea does just that. And it’s ultimately the reader that has to answer those questions.

Tom’s Midnight Garden Philippa Pearce, OUP, 978-0192734501, £6.99 pbk

Tom’s Midnight Garden has, I think, the greatest plot of any children’s novel. Pearce gives us characters not instantly lovable, and her writing can be a little stiff and formal (I seem to recall a page with eight semi-colons!), but that story, involving the eponymous hero slipping back through time, but then also losing what he’d found, is so gripping and engrossing that no one who’s started the

book has failed to finish it. As I closed the book for the last time, I remember the darkened room resonating around me, like the silence as a piece of music you’ve loved comes to an end.

Books for Keeps No.243 July 2020 5

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