This has been a challenging year. We have all wanted to run away, find an adventure and a bit of magic. We need some reassurance. And a sense of boldness, something to lift the spirits. Fortunately, Irish authors and publishers have come to rescue with books for young people of all ages that comfort, entertain and enchant. From picture books to young adult novels, here is a bakers’ dozen of the best.
Travel to a small northern island for a visit in Molly and the Lighthouse by Malachy Doyle; illustrated by Andrew Whitson (Graffeg, Ltd.) The lighthouse shining into her room each night lets Molly know everything is as it should be. But when it suddenly stops one night, something must be terribly wrong! She and Dylan rush off to help. This joins the first two Molly books to bring us friendship, family, courage and hope. It’s a story that really shines. (Also available as gaeilge as Muireann agus an Teach Solais.)
For a little glimpse of outdoor life, have a look at Dee The Bee by author/illustrator Dolores Keaveney (Starfish Bay Childrens Books.) This joyous, heartfelt journey through the back garden is a celebration of bees! Filled with lively illustrations and a gentle rhyming text, it brings instant understanding and appreciation for one of our most important creatures, the bee. There’s a fascinating information page, as well.
Head off to Galway with To The Island by Patricia Forde; illustrated by Nicola Bernadelli (Little Island Books.) Fia longs to go to the magical island of Hy-Brasil, where the air is filled with secrets and mythical beings. One night when all is still, a mist appears and whispers, “come away.” Before she knows what’s happening, Fia is pulled by the magic, and finds herself dancing on moonbeams and deepest seas. This wonderful story and its’ exquisite illustrations create a soothing, imaginative journey into legend. (Also available as Gaeilge as An T’Oileán Thair.)
More Irish legend awaits in Ronan and the Mermaid by Marianne McShane; illustrated by Jordi Solano (Walker Books.) Ronan was found washed up on the shore, protected by seals. He told a tale of being rescued by a beautiful lady, who sang him safely to shore. As Ronan grows, he is given a harp and can instantly play the most mesmerising music ever heard in the land. But he hears another song, sweet and sorrowful coming from the sea. In the voice of an expert storyteller and with illustrations that capture the sense of long ago Ireland, this conjures an evocative spell that brings the legend home.
Series are always a popular choice in middle-grade fiction. There is a particular satisfaction in following the created “world” through to the end. The Wild Magic Trilogy came to its’ conclusion in The Promise Witch by Celine Keirnan (Walker Books). A new school has opened for all the children and the endless winter has given way. But when the beauty of spring turns suddenly to relentless, searing heat, it becomes clear that the Old Witch has cursed them again, with something even more sinister. Witches Borough is dying, along with all Mup holds dear. There’s only one way to end this. Mup must finally face her grandmother. A gloriously woven spell; the perfect ending to a perfect trilogy.
And in another amazing finalé, Kapheus Time by Marguerite Tonery (Tribes Press) find our heroes, Elisa and Jamie journeying through the fantastical world of light one last time. When Elisa is targeted by Old Man Time to settle an old score, she finds herself in possession of the most powerful tool in the Universe. It must be returned! So the pair, accompanied by friends from myth and legend, must travel across time and finally meet their destinies. Thrilling, thought-provoking and powerful.
No one writes historical fiction quite like Irish authors. Lily Steps Up: A Lissadell Story (the follow-up to Lily of Lissadell) by Judi Curtin (O’Brien Press) continues Lilys’ story as a girl who has left home to work as a house maid. Poignantly written, with much to capture the imagination, it brings Lissadell, and indeed Ireland in 1914 to life. Lily and Nellie navigate separation from family, their never-ending duties and life in a rapidly changing Ireland while keeping their hopes and dreams alive through their growing friendship. It’s gentle narrative holds strong messages of responsibility and empathy, and is an utter joy to read.
In another trek into the past, Chasing Ghosts: An Arctic Adventure by Nicola Pierce (O’Brien Press) takes us on board the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror as Sir John Franklin and second-in-command Francis Crozier take on the perilous, ill-fated mission to find the Northwest Passage in the Arctic…a mission from which no one returned. What makes this tale even more riveting is the strange link between this mission and a 4-year-old girl in Derry, who has lost her life to a wracking fever. As these two separate historical events collide in the most unlikely way, they become forever linked in time. You may not want to believe, but it’s all there in history. Completely consuming; historical fiction at its’ very best.
Crossing etheric borders offers a possibility of escape to strange adventures that haunt the edges of imagination and reality, sending shivers down your spine or, perhaps making your laugh out loud. In The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny (Macmillan Childrens Books) an orphaned brother and sister on the run stumble into Rookhaven, where they meet Mirabelle. She has always known she is a monster, like the rest of her family. But when the human children enter her world, they bring something far more frightening with them. A unique version of the classic monster tale, this spins a web of gothic-style adventure, knitted together with a story of friendship, family and understanding.
Elsetime by Eve McDonnell (Everything With Words) sees young mudlark Needle and young jewellers apprentice Glory cross the borders of time in a very unique work of historical fiction that blends two moments separated by 60 years. In 1864, Needle discovers a strange find while searching for “treasure” by the River Notion. It is a find that somehow propels him to 1928, where he meets Glory. Neither can quite believe what has happened, but with knowledge of an imminent tragic event that will claim the lives of fourteen people, the pair don’t have time to question its’ truth. Based on the Great Flood of London, 1928, this is a story that understands the fabric of time and all its’ weaving. Elegantly constructed, full of ingenuity and simply marvellous.
Sometimes, the borders work in reverse, bringing creatures from “over there” into our world. Wulfie: Stage Fright by Lindsay J Sedgwick; illustrated by Josephine Wolff (Little Island Books) tells a Cinderella-type story where help arrives, not from a fairy-godmother, but in the form of “the Big Bad Wolf.” Libby spends her days slaving away for her stepmother, relentlessly bullied by her awful stepbrother and basically ignored by her father. But when Wulfie emerges out of her grandfathers old trunk, he brings magical mischief with him that saves the day when Libby is accidently given the lead in the school play. The story springs onto the page with loads of laughter, just the right amount of fright and a huge dollop of heart.
From realistic scenarios to fantasy to retellings of fairytales and legends, the young adult novels produced this year have been simply extraordinary. The Gone Book by Helen Close (Little Island Books) gives us the story of Matt, who has been writing to his mother since she left the family. Letters he will never send, full of glimpses of his life that express the confusion and pain she left behind. But when she arrives back in town, Matt knows he must find her and deliver one last truth. A remarkable narrative; completely riveting and relevant; filled with compassion and soul.
The incredible storytelling and writing that is both incisive and emotive bring to life the fantasy kingdom in The Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran (O’Brien Press). As Lia rushes to claim her crown from the grasp of her dying uncle, she is well aware that she is about to inherit a kingdom filled with corruption and conspiracies. She will need advisors she can trust and a spy-master she can rely on. But falling in love with Xania was not in the plan. Trying to keep the true nature of their relationship hidden, these powerful young women may not survive the ever-deepening intrigue of the court. All in all, exceptional in every way.
Finally, we return to the canon of Irish myth and legend with a retelling of The Children of Lir; Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan; illustrated by Karen Vaughan (Little Island Books.) The tale is so entrenched in our consciousness that we believe we know it. But here we have a different perspective completely, as we hear the story told by Aife, the quintessential “wicked step-mother” who, driven by jealousy and rage, turns the children into swans. It is solely through Aifes’ eyes that we follow the children/swans’ plight, herself having been cursed to wander the world as a dark spirit; the thing that causes that unexplained sense of doom. It is a curse that is ever-lasting. This retelling, or rather re-feeling of the myth cuts away any previous caricature of past and scrapes down to the bones, revealing each character in their true nature; complex, conflicted, light and dark. It is simply sublime.