This bleak November, curl up with a story â€“ whether about monkeys, Mary Poppins, sentient trains, revolutionary France or romance across borders.
For picture book lovers there is Pandora (Frances Lincoln), by the award-winning Victoria Turnbull, the tale of an inventive vixen who lives alone, â€œin a world of broken thingsâ€, until a wounded bird falls from the sky. Compelling detail, tender, subtle colouring, economical text and pure emotion â€“ loneliness, grief, hope and eventual joy â€“ add up to a book of quiet but considerable power.
There are more birds in Marie-Louise Fitzpatrickâ€™s wordless Owl Bat Bat Owl (Walker), in which a family of owls squabble with the bats on their branch until a common peril unites them. Intensely expressive, humorous and touching, it invites the reader to turn the book upside down and see things from a bat perspective too.
Picture book royalty Quentin Blake and Emma Chichester Clark collaborate, meanwhile, on Three Little Monkeys (HarperCollins), the hilarious saga of Hilda Snibbs and her three beloved simians, who trash a different room whenever she leaves them unsupervised. Despite her growing wrath and desperation, Hilda is distraught when she thinks the monkeys have left home â€¦ Look out for rich textures, hidden objects and the creative use of loo paper.
Thereâ€™s more unstoppable anarchic fun in Danny McGee Drinks the Sea (Hodder), from Andy â€œMr Gumâ€ Stanton, and boasting Neal Laytonâ€™s splendid wild-haired illustrations. After Danny makes a successful attempt to drink the whole sea, can anyone stop him swallowing things? Full of playful, boomeranging, sometimes unnerving rhymes and a brilliantly disconcerting twist, itâ€™s ideal reading for anyone who doesnâ€™t know when to stop.
Mary Poppins fans will thrill to the delicate die-cuts and monochrome magic of Mary Poppins Up Up and Away (Thames and Hudson), for readers aged five and up. Here, textile designer HÃ©lÃ¨ne Druvertâ€™s intricate silhouettes are overlaid on stark London scenes and starry skies, with simple couplets launching the reader upwards, alongside Jane, Michael and the practically perfect Poppins herself, in a delightful addition to a well-loved canon.
Revisiting another classic, the authorised Winnie-the-Pooh sequel, The Best Bear in All the World (Egmont), should please even fanatical devotees. A stellar team of authors, including Paul Bright, Brian Sibley, Jeanne Willis and Kate Saunders, strike Milneâ€™s graceâ€‘notes sweetly but without slavishness in tales of a new visitor to snowy Hundred Acre Wood, a dramatic role for Christopher Robin and an investigation of the â€œsauce of the Nileâ€. Mark Burgessâ€™ sensitive â€œdecorationsâ€, strongly in the EH Shepard vein, but with added dragons, lions and vivid colour, unify and brighten the whole handsome collection.
Also from Egmont, Whatâ€™s Below? is a thoughtful feat of â€œpaper engineeringâ€, perfect for young naturalists, with terse, tantalising text from Clive Gifford and many-layered images from Kate McLelland. Itâ€™s an invitation to imagine and investigate the secret world beneath pavements, waves, sand and snow.
For eightish and up, the David Walliams juggernaut returns this Christmas with The Midnight Gang (HarperCollins), illustrated by Tony Ross; slightly less overblown than Walliamsâ€™ last two outings, this story of convalescing children contending with a wicked hospital matron remains heavy on stereotypes and light on characterisation, although it will appeal to longstanding fans.
Those after more challenging illustrated fiction should try The Song from Somewhere Else (Bloomsbury), a collaboration between AF Harrold, author of The Imaginary, and artist Levi Pinfold. Francesca â€œFrankâ€ Patel is worn down by constant bullying â€“ but she doesnâ€™t want help from Nicholas Underbridge, who smells wrong, looks weird, and is the largest boy in school. When Nick invites her home, though, Frank hears strange music; at its source, she discovers a secret that changes her perception of Nick for ever â€“ and places her in considerable danger. Pinfoldâ€™s black and white illustrations, full of brooding silence and shadow, bring out all the menace and meaning of this extraordinary book, as moving, strange and profound as David Almondâ€™s Skellig.
There is more interdimensional strangeness in Philip Reeveâ€™s Blacklight Express (Oxford), sequel to the acclaimed Railhead, in which Zen, a human thief, and Nova, a Motorik android, ride a sentient train on an interstellar rail network beyond the ends of the known universe. A dizzying philosophical space opera from the Mortal Engines creator, it has the broad scope, richness and originality of vintage Iain M Banks.
For 12+, Catherine Johnsonâ€™s Blade and Bone (Walker) is a high-octane adventure set in revolutionary France. Sixteen-year-old surgeon Ezra MacAdam travels to Paris in search of his friends, courageous Loveday Finch and Mahmoud, the Ottoman prince she is conveying to safety. But a city in the guillotineâ€™s shadow is not safe for an English girl, nor anyone with a strong sense of justice. Packed with fascinating insights into the medical practices of the time, including experiments on guillotined heads, Johnsonâ€™s novel is pacy, gruesome and thought-provoking.
Back in the present day, The Sun Is Also a Star, the second novel from Everything, Everything author Nicola Yoon, is the story of Daniel, on his way to an important interview, and Natasha, about to be deported. An accidental meeting, a burst of attraction, and the two have fallen in love. But what chance do they have against parental opposition and the remorseless countdown of the clock? Told in alternating voices, with incidental points-of-view skilfully interwoven, this is both a swooning YA romance and a clear-sighted interrogation of racism, familial pressures and the inhumanity of a system that sees statistics rather than people.
Finally, Holly Bourneâ€™s beloved Spinster Club trio return for one last bow in â€¦ And a Happy New Year? (Usborne). At Amberâ€™s NYE party, thereâ€™s no call for tears. Lottieâ€™s having a great time at university â€“ even if her housemates mock her ideals. Evie is deeply in love â€“ never mind that her boyfriend may be on the point of OCD relapse; and Amber wouldnâ€™t dream of keeping a secret from her friends. Resisting the lure of the pat happy ending, Bourne vividly evokes the rollercoaster sorrows and joys of teen friendship in a characteristically mordant, funny and moving novella.
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