This Easter, picture-book fans have plenty to choose from, including Juniper Jupiter (Frances Lincoln), a delightfully down-to-earth superhero story from Waterstones award-winner Lizzy Stewart. Juniper has formidable powers, including super-strength, flight and modesty (her great deeds are “no big deal”). But who could possibly be strong, courageous and funny enough to be her perfect sidekick? Crammed with the warm, enticing detail of the everyday, this vivid book is absorbing.
Meanwhile, Sarah McIntyre’s The New Neighbours (David Fickling) features a tower block full of animal tenants. When a pigeon brings news to the top-floor bunnies that rats are moving into the building, they are thrilled; but as the news makes its way downwards, attitudes harden, and pigs, polar bears and yaks in turn declare rats to be smelly, thieving undesirables. What will happen when the residents finally meet the newcomers? McIntyre finds energy and humour without being preachy in this comic, layered warning against misinformation and prejudice.
For the very smallest, Jörg Mühle’s beloved bunny returns in another perfectly judged interactive board book, Poor Little Rabbit! (Gecko). When Little Rabbit hurts his arm – and there’s blood! – it falls to the reader to console him with bandages, rhymes and ear-strokes, allowing toddlers to revel in their own kindness and maturity.
Readers from five to eight should be inspired by Jamia Wilson’s Young, Gifted and Black: Meet 52 Black Heroes from Past and Present (Wide Eyed), with celebratory illustrations by Andrea Pippins. Although there is a strong slant towards the US – Wilson is based in New York – the breadth of talent and ambition showcased offers something for everyone, ranging from heads of state to singers, sporting heroes to award-winning authors.
Myth Match: A Fantastical Flipbook of Imaginary Beasts by creative partnership Good Wives and Warriors (Laurence King) elegantly combines two winning ideas: the flipbook and the mythological bestiary. Richly illustrated in brilliant, fiery colours, it allows the reader first to learn about legendary creatures from the griffin to Goorialla, and then to create still more extraordinary hybrids.
There are more domesticated magical creatures in Teacup House – Meet the Twitches (Usborne), the first in a new series by Hayley Scott, with bewitching pictures from Pippa Curnick. Stevie doesn’t want to leave her old home – but when her grandmother gives her the tiny Twitch rabbit family, in their teacup house, she is fascinated by the way they seem to move by themselves … Completely charming and immersive, it’s the sort of book that turns a child’s first independent reading into a lifelong addiction to books.
For eight to 12, Irish author Dave Rudden concludes his Knights of the Borrowed Dark trilogy in high style with The Endless King (Puffin), crammed with the morally complex, evocative writing that marked out the first two books. Denizen Hardwick and his fellow young knights have travelled to Daybreak, the remote ancestral home of their order, to continue their training. But when the Endless King falls, they find themselves, instead, facing a full-scale Tenebrous invasion – and if their stronghold falls, so does the world. The swift-paced, emotion-laden, apocalyptic action won’t disappoint fans who have been eagerly awaiting the last instalment.
There are more dark forces at play in Tin (Chicken House), a superlative debut from another Irish writer, Pádraig Kenny. Christopher is “proper” – a real boy, with a soul – but his best friends are the mechanical children who share the junkyard where he lives. When their owner/employer, the unscrupulous Mr Absalom, falls foul of two sinister visitors, Christopher and his friends are forced to undertake a dangerous journey, and meet some shattering truths head-on. Full of empathy, anger, sorrow and love, this is a robot story squarely focused on what it means to be human.
Across the pond, the Pulitzer-winning Jane Smiley combines laconic charm, a gutsy heroine pitched somewhere between Ramona Quimby and Harriet the Spy, and a loving sense of human-equine communication in Riding Lessons(Scholastic), a quiet little book in which both nothing and everything seem to happen. Ellen is bright, impatient of restraint, and desperate to ride; her parents are adopting a new baby. Can she be good at riding? Is the new horse at the stables really speaking to her? Will she ever have a horse of her own?
For young adult readers, performance poet Laura Dockrill’s fierce appetite for life has never blazed brighter than in the glorious Big Bones (Hot Key). Sixteen-year-old Bluebelle – BB – is very overweight, but chooses to love her body as much as she loves food and cooking. When her mum agrees to BB’s leaving school before A-levels, it’s on condition that she gets fitter, while the nurse insists she keep a food diary. This novel is, ostensibly, the result: a paean to feasting, family and good care of the self, and a penetrating insight into how teenage girls are taught to fear either food or fitness. Irresistibly hilarious and original, it shows Dockrill’s enormous rhapsodic charm.
There is more funny, thought-provoking feminism in Laura Stevens’s debut The Exact Opposite of Okay (Egmont), which skewers double standards and entitled “Nice Guys” with surreal, sparkling humour. When would-be screenwriter and comic Izzy O’Neill is snapped in flagrante delicto at a party with a senator’s son, she doesn’t expect a website to spring up condemning her as a “world-class whore”. As her body, morality and personality become the targets of vicious online debate, Izzy attempts to navigate budding romance and friendship troubles while tracking down the website’s originator.
Finally, another spectacular debut, Matt Killeen’s Orphan Monster Spy (Usborne), is a pulse-pounding, pitch-black Nazi espionage thriller told from the perspective of a teenage Jewish girl. Traumatised by her mother’s murder, saved by a British spy, the magnificently adaptive Sarah is sent undercover into an elite German boarding school for the future mothers of the Reich. While giving trauma and sorrow their full, deserved weight, Killeen sets a cracking pace – and pulls off the risks he takes with breathtaking panache.