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Fiction for older children reviews: from sleuths to woolly mammoths | Books

Key stage 2 children are routinely taught about the differences between narrative types – legends, or science fiction, or rags-to-riches stories. One might argue, however, that most books in middle-years fiction ultimately boil down to some sort of quest.

Intrepid children are bounced into various adventures this spring, with epic sweeps or humorous bents by turn. Author Jenny Pearson is a primary school teacher in the north-east of England, and if her caper of a debut, The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates (illustrated by Rob Biddulph, Usborne), plays a little fast and loose with a deus ex machina, the clue is in the title: “super miraculous”.

Fact fan Freddie and his two buddies, Charlie and Ben, all have reasons to sneak off on an unscheduled trip to Wales: to evade a health regime, or a preening stepmum, or to track down Freddie’s biological dad. Dodging villains and riding rusty girl’s bicycles, this sleuthing-trip-cum-crime-solving spree has all the fizz of Jeremy Strong – and an intervention from the afterlife.

Oxford lecturer Struan Murray makes a splash debut with Orphans of the Tide (illustrated by Manuel Šumberac, Penguin), and effortlessly joins the ranks of the most skilled world-creators. A strange boy is cut out of the belly of a whale in a half-drowned city governed by a harsh religion (shades of Philip Pullman here).

The Inquisitors think he is a “Vessel” – a human host for the monstrous Enemy that plagues this lonely island civilisation. But Ellie, an orphaned inventor, knows he isn’t, and struggles to save him from the witch hunt. Unpredictable, filled with plot twists and shades of moral grey, Orphans of the Tide is both gripping and original – it demands a sequel.

Michelle Paver knows all about those. Having written six books in the prehistoric Chronicles of Ancient Darkness saga in the 00s, then another series, Gods and Warriors (and an adult novel), she returns to her earlier characters – Torak and Wolf – after a decade. Viper’s Daughter (Zephyr) picks up where 2009’s Ghost Hunter left off, with Torak and Wolf forced to follow Torak’s runaway companion Renn to the icy, forbidding north – a place full of deceit and dangers, not least woolly mammoths. Meticulously researched, atmospheric – a dish of rotten guillemot features – and relentless, this instalment deservedly introduces Paver to a new generation of readers.

Nizrana Farook, author of The Girl Who Stole an Elephant: ‘positively rustles with the textures of rural Sri Lanka

Nizrana Farook, author of The Girl Who Stole an Elephant: ‘positively rustles with the textures of rural Sri Lanka. Photograph: Nosy Crow

Children’s fiction is not immune to the debates over representation and cultural appropriation currently raging through adult fiction. With these sensitivities in mind, two adventures set in distant climes stand out. After a career as a children’s books editor, Ele Fountain lived for a time in Addis Ababa and subsequently published 2018’s Boy 87 – a multi-award-winning refugee story set in an unnamed country.

Her second, Lost (Pushkin), follows cosseted brother and sister Lola and Amit as they gradually slide into penury when their father fails to return home from a work trip. Isolated from friends and family, they join the ranks of street children living off their wits in the city’s railway station.

I’m presuming the author herself has never lived on the street, but Fountain writes about this fictitious situation with verisimilitude and verve. Novels are works of imagination, and this book’s compassion overrides any questions about the “right to write”.

That said, Nizrana Farook’s debut, The Girl Who Stole an Elephant (Nosy Crow), positively rustles with the textures of rural Sri Lanka. It introduces an author keen to write a love letter to her culture, and upend preconceptions too. Her cunning heroine, Chaya, is a nimble, stubborn jewel thief who overreaches one day and pushes herself, her friend Neel, and a visiting merchant’s daughter, Nour, into a desperate flight from the king’s soldiers. In the jungle are leeches, and bandits, and the possibility of a revolt against the tyrannical king. More like this, please.

To order any of these books for a special price click on the titles or go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

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