Once an author has attained a degree of shelf space, it seems fair to direct the oxygen of publicity towards lesser-known peers. But a couple of hit authors merit second fanfares. Onjali Q Rauf made a splash with the timely and compassionate The Boy at the Back of the Class in 2018. Three books later comes The Lion Above the Door (Orion, £7.99), in which intrepid year fours unravel the riddles behind a war memorial in Rochester Cathedral.
Being the two kids who look different in their Kentish village is routine for Leo – whose family hail from Singapore – and Sangeeta (India). But when Leo discovers a plaque to an airman who shares his name, the friends join battle against limited internet access, bullies and the historical downplaying of the roles of people from all over the globe in the second world war. Rauf keeps it light but goes deep, drilling down into how Leo feels about his own father’s seeming appeasement of a tormenter.
The Murderer’s Ape (2017) remains one of the most engrossing of contemporary children’s tales. Its sequel proper has finally arrived. In Jakob Wegelius’s The False Rose (translated by Peter Graves, Pushkin, £16.99) we join Sally Jones, the very human-like ape engineer introduced in The Murderer’s Ape, and her Chief as they restore their damaged vessel in 1920s Lisbon.
Strange happenings are soon afoot, though, when they discover a dazzling pearl necklace. In an effort to reunite the troublesome jewel with its owner, the two friends become enmeshed in Glasgow’s gangland. Wegelius leans towards the upper end of the age range and some characters – a mafia boss, say – would be stereotypical if not for a gender switch. But this is a righteously old-fashioned yarn with bravery, compassion and decency at its heart.
For as long as there has been wind of a climate crisis, children’s authors have responded: Dr Seuss’s The Lorax came out in 1971. As Cop26 closes, this season’s notable books combine the love for nature familiar from children’s storytelling with the environmental dystopias trickling down from older age ranges.
At the younger end, two fables throw their arms around tree trunks. In the award-winning Natasha Farrant’s The Girl Who Talked to Trees (Zephyr, £12.99, illustrated by Lydia Corry), young, peculiar Olive sets out to save her favourite oak, destined for the chop. What ensues is a magic realist sequence of linked tales in which various species give up their secrets to Olive, so she emerges strong enough to defend them all.
In Every Leaf a Hallelujah (Head of Zeus, £14.99), Ben Okri sets up a similar quest with all the authority of an established folk tale. This time the setting is African and young Mangoshi is on a more pressing mission: she must harvest a specific flower to save her mother’s life. But the forest has been ravaged and the task seems impossible until she, too, falls into a swoon and meets some chatty trees. Diana Ejaita’s saturated illustrations echo both Mangoshi’s fear and the trees’ variegated personalities.
Richard Lambert’s The Wolf Road won YA prizes last year; Shadow Town (Everything with Words, £7.99) is his first for younger readers. There is a murder early on in this dystopia whose callousness lingers in the mind – but it’s nothing Marvel fans should balk at.
Toby, whose parents have freshly split, wanders into this strange, burning kingdom chasing a cat through a tunnel. Everything is falling apart in this autocracy plagued by floods and earthquakes as well as fire. But who is this spectral girl he meets, and how can he ever get home?
Zoologist Nicola Davies’s latest, The Song That Sings Us (Firefly, £14.99), is also set in a not unfamiliar world, where a corrupt regime seeks to vanquish nature. Three siblings are snowboarding down a mountain for their very lives: they don’t understand why the Automators have come for them and their mother, but they do know that young Xeno’s ability to talk to animals will seal her fate.
Gradually, answers are revealed in this epic spanning environmental insurrection in the icy north and a showdown on a tropical island where the Automators’ deadliest weapon is set to be unleashed. If rebel plots are familiar, Davies’s is fast-paced, lyrical and utterly convinced of an electromagnetic unity that runs through all living things.