As autumnal darkness gathers, Emily Haworth-Booth examines the night’s fears and beauty in a thought-provoking picture book, The King Who Banned the Dark (Pavilion). A little prince, frightened of the dark, grows up into a king who wants to get rid of it altogether. With the help of advisers who whip up a popular panic about the threats lurking in darkness, he installs an artificial sun, prescribes anti-dark hats and appoints light inspectors to reign over a perpetually sleepless nation — until his people rebel. Haworth-Booth’s pencil-shaded artwork is pleasing, while her text warns gently but firmly against responding too readily to fear.
Antje Damm’s The Visitor (Gecko), translated from German by Sally-Ann Spencer, is another absorbing riff on fear, shadow and colour. Reclusive Elise is so scared of the world that she never goes out; but one day a paper plane drops through her window — and a little boy appears, desperate to use the bathroom. The miniature sepia scenes of her house, filled with cardboard furniture, are gradually brought to life by washes of colour as her small visitor begins to dispel Elise’s anxious loneliness.
Jane Ray’s jewel-bright illustrations shine like the flourishes of an illuminated manuscript in Saviour Pirotta’s The Unicorn Prince (Orchard), featuring a crumbling castle, a dauntless heroine and an enchanted prince. Gorgeous gowns, wild dreams, transformations and galloping moonlit freedom are also thrown into the mix.
For five and up, the elegant curlicues of Rory Dobner’s The Ink House (Laurence King) usher the reader into an abandoned artist’s mansion, built over a reservoir of magical ink. Here a hibernating fox called Freddie Foxglove is joined by many other curious creatures; inspired by the house’s atmosphere, they immerse themselves in artistic pursuits before celebrating at the Annual Ink House Extravaganza. Intricate and strange, the illustrations have a hint of Aubrey Beardsley in their sweeping curves and twining vegetation.
More down to earth is Ten Nasty Little Toads (Zephyr), Steve Cole’s compendium of cautionary tales about repellent children. Whether they are Disgusting, Shouty, Unhealthy or Nasty-Natured, his protagonists – illustrated in gleeful colour by Tim Archbold in the vein of Quentin Blake — meet their comeuppances with plenty of horrible humour, and a touch more redemption than Roald Dahl might have offered.
A rude and defiant young heroine returns as a (mostly) responsible grownup in Jacqueline Wilson’s My Mum Tracy Beaker (Doubleday), illustrated by long-time collaborator Nick Sharratt. Tracy may not have achieved all her wildest dreams — and still struggles to manage her anger issues — but she’s a warm and funny if anarchic parent, especially as seen through the eyes of her daughter Jess. Wilson makes their story of hard times, whirlwind romance, heartache and hope just as involving as the original books.
For eight and up, in Race to the Frozen North (Barrington Stoke), Catherine Johnson tells the astonishing true story of Matthew Henson — believed by many to be the first explorer to reach the North Pole, but denied official recognition because of his skin colour. From his lucky break as a ship’s cabin boy to his Arctic excursions, learning Inuit languages, Henson’s tale of adventure and injustice is gripping. Katie Hickey’s black and white landscapes run subtly across the foot of each page.
PG Bell’s debut, The Train to Impossible Places (Usborne), is bursting with influences, particularly Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, but has a crazy, pacy charm all its own. When a steam train called the Impossible Postal Express shows up in her living room, Suzy, who is mad keen on physics, is appalled by its improbability. But curiosity soon sweeps her aboard on a mission to deliver the mail — and save the Union of Impossible Places into the bargain. Magic snowglobes, troll bridges and pirate ghosts pack this funny fantasy, brought to life by Flavia Sorrentino’s illustrations.
There is more extraordinary world-building, as well as tough ethical decisions, in Wundersmith (Orion), Jessica Townsend’s superlative follow-up to the unmissable Nevermoor. Once accepted into the Wundrous Society, Morrigan Crow believes life will be filled with excitement and new skills – instead, as a rare and dreaded Wundersmith, she is taught to shun her powers and see herself as corrupt.
For teenagers, Scott Westerfeld returns to the post-apocalyptic dystopia of the bestselling Uglies series with Impostors (Scholastic), a nail-biting story of identical twins raised to present the appearance of one perfect girl — a cultured socialite and secret assassin. When Frey, the invisible “spare”, is sent as a hostage to a rival territory in her sister’s stead, the deception wears steadily thinner.
Sharply comic and sad by turns, Susin Nielsen’s No Fixed Address (Andersen) is another superb book from the author of We Are All Made of Molecules. Felix’s mother Astrid alienates friends and loved ones — that’s how they have wound up living in a camper van. But if Felix can hide the truth long enough to win Canada’s biggest TV quiz show, perhaps they will have a home again. Themes of dysfunctional parenting and the shame and uncertainty of poverty are handled with the deftest of touches.
Finally, from the award-winning Alex Wheatle comes Kerb-Stain Boys (Barrington Stoke), a novella as appallingly riveting as a car crash in slow motion. When Caldonia Lake, the coolest girl in year 10, puts down Briggsy and Terror, they are spurred to devise a plan: to rob the Crongton Broadway post office. Toy guns, face masks — what could possibly go wrong?