A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Words – at least the words I am capable of writing – can’t do justice to this extraordinary book. Famously, the idea for the book came from the late Siobhan Dowd, developed and brought to fruition by Patrick Ness. It’s a deeply moving and imaginative story about Connor, who is visited by a monster as his mother is horrifically weakened by illness.
It’s the kind of book you read wide-eyed and open-mouthed, turning each page with a sense of wonder, anticipation and dread – knowing you are reading something masterful, something that is permanently changing the wiring in your brain. The ending left me reeling; it had almost a physical effect, the equivalent of a literary jab to the solar plexus. A stunning book.
Stig of the Dump by Clive King
A first read of a classic, although it’s a familiar story because of the TV series from the early eighties (I remember watching this on the settee, custard cream in hand – just home from school). The book leaps along from the moment Barney tumbles in to the chalk pit and finds and then befriends Stig, a mysterious cave-boy inexplicably transported from the stone age to a more modern Britain. There are some dramatic set pieces but the most moving and beautiful part is when Barney walks through the valley and back through time to join Stig and his tribe. It’s gently and carefully done – this is no whizz-bang Back to the Future – guiding the reader to think about nature and friendship, and how such timeless things should pass from one generation to the next.
The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars
A short and beautifully written story about Tom, a city-dweller reluctantly dropped off at his Auntie’s farm while Mum and Dad escape to Europe for a holiday.
Putting aside my envy at Mum and Dad’s child-free jaunt, this is an evocative story which shows Tom discovering and learning to love his bucolic surroundings, as well as the mysterious Midnight Fox.
The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall
An absolute favourite from my childhood, re-read for the first time in 30 years or so. It’s as good as I remember, if not even better.
Westall brilliantly recreates the grimness of war-time Britain – the constant fear of enemy bombs, the clumsy night-time sprints to the Andersen shelter, the stoicism and dogged pointlessness of the Home Guard. Scenes etched on my brain from decades ago – the discovery of a downed German pilot, Chas and Bodser’s brutal and bloody fight, the stealthy theft of the machine gun – are as vivid as ever.
This, I suppose, is how the Second World War must have felt for many children; a peculiar mix of giddy freedom (no school!), fear and loss – held together only by the bonds of family and friendship.
The Silver Sword by Ian Serrailler
The story of a family torn apart by conflict, and the treacherous journey the children make across Europe to find their parents when the war finally comes to an end.
It’s a pulse-racing adventure and a story of determination and optimism. The plummy dialogue dates the book slightly, but the narrative remains exciting and fresh.