Memories, mystery, and mythology—Ruth Ennis on books for ages 8-12
As we reach the end of the year, there is no better gift than to curl up with a book that allows you to fully immerse yourself in it, be it through memories, mystery, or mythology.
These stories take you on grand adventures through worlds of old, and show how small moments of bravery grow into experiences beyond your wildest imaginings. This season has given us a wealth of excellent Irish children’s books suitable for readers ages 8-12 that they would undoubtedly enjoy getting lost in.
Alan Nolan introduces two iconic historical Irish names in The Sackville Street Caper (The O’Brien Press).
Future Dracula author Bram Stoker and fishmonger/part-time thief Molly Malone are eleven-years old and are living in 1858 Dublin. The two children come from opposite worlds and become unlikely friends when they decide to team up and outsmart Count Vladimir Grof-Constantin de Lugosi before he steals the Irish Crown jewels. Along with Molly’s gang of misfits called The Sackville Street Spooks, the kids travel all across Dublin from Clontarf to Phoenix Park and beyond.
This is a greatly imaginative concept for a historical fiction novel. The story, of course, takes liberties when pairing a young Bram Stoker with the fictional Molly Malone, but the faithful historical backdrop makes for an entrancing read.
It is perfect for any young reader with a love of Irish history, adventure, and a hint of mystery.
It is particularly enjoyable to understand Bram’s creative writing process as we see moments of inspiration for his writing appear throughout his journey. The scene where he meets his literary hero Charles Dickens is heart-warming.
Scattered with Nolan’s trademark humour throughout, The Sackville Street Caper is a light-hearted read that will make you appreciate the cobblestones of Dublin that bit more.
Across the continent and thirty years later, we find ourselves in 1888 France in Eve McDonnell’s The Chestnut Roaster, with illustrations by Ewa Beniak-Haremska (Everything With Words).
Twelve-year-old Piaf has taken over the role of chestnut roaster, working the cart since her twin brother was put into care when his memory began to fail him in the past year. Piaf has the opposite problem; she can remember every single thing in perfect detail that has ever happened to her since the day she was born.
One day, when she realises that all of the adults seem to have suddenly forgotten everything from the past year, she and Luc work to find a solution – and to solve the mystery of twenty missing gifted children – on a journey that takes them to the underground world.
McDonnell excels at creating fascinating, well-rounded protagonists with little details about their character you could spend days pouring over. Piaf is delightful; she is unique, curious, and brave, making her instantly lovable. She is one of the most interesting characters to be found in children’s fiction.
Another exciting, high-concept story with mystery rooted in every page, Piaf and Luc’s adventure covers many notable landmarks in historical Paris.
There are some genuinely spooky moments, particularly in the Catacombs, accompanied by the appropriately eery black-and-white illustrations by Ewa Beniak-Haremska.
With elegant, descriptive writing throughout that will be appreciated by more confident young readers, The Chestnut Roaster is a seriously impressive sophomore novel.
We turn to somewhere closer to home with The Book of Secrets (The O’Brien Press) by Alex Dunne.
Eleven-year-old Cat adores her Granny who tells her tales of the many creatures in Irish mythology, and Cat notes all of this information in her cherished book of secrets. She is also gifted with the Sight which connects her closely to this magical world.
On Halloween, Cat discovers her infant younger brother has been stolen by Trooping Fairies, as has the younger sister of her ex-best friend Shane. The two team up and undertake a dangerous journey to rescue them. They are challenged by intimidating creatures, from the Merrow in the lake to the headless Dullahan, and more. They are willing to rely on each other and risk everything to save their family.
This is a truly wonderful debut novel. Dunne does an excellent job of balancing the past and the present when exploring Irish mythology through a contemporary lens. With effortless pacing, this book is an absolute page-turner. While it makes for a great Halloween read and has several spine-chilling scenes, this would appeal to young readers who enjoy moderately scary stories all year round.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the story is the relationship between Cat and Shane, who were once best friends but had drifted apart after difficult changes in their lives.
The adventure they navigate together acts as a re-exploration of their friendship. It is a brilliant representation of the reality of childhood friendships, where there will be times they will grow apart, but they can always grow back together again. Dunne’s expert writing demonstrates a clear understanding of what makes a great children’s book.
Catherine Doyle’s The Lost Girl King (Bloomsbury) is another exploration of Irish mythology.
This magical realism story follows siblings Amy and Liam during the summer when they are staying with their Gran. One day, they slip through a waterfall portal and enter the land of Tír na nÓg.
But this isn’t the land of eternal youth you might be familiar with. Something has gone horribly wrong in Tír na nÓg, where it is forever daytime, the sun is chained permanently in the sky and causes great suffering, and a cruel sorcerer called Tarlock rules the kingdom. When Liam is kidnapped, Amy teams up with the mighty Fianna warriors to rescue him and uncover the secrets behind the land.
This is a brilliantly written story that will grip any reader’s attention from start to finish.
Doyle’s world-building is mesmerising, the dialogue is seamless, and the characters are endearing. Amy is a particularly likeable character, as every move she makes is filled with confidence, bravery, and a lot of spunk. There is also a superb twist in the story that young readers will enjoy rediscovering on a second read. This is an exciting take on the tale of Tír na nÓg that will appeal to lovers of adventure and grand escapades.
Lastly we have the An Post Irish Book Awards Specsavers Senior Children’s Book of the Year winner, Girls Who Slay Monsters: Daring Tales of Ireland’s Forgotten Goddesses written by Ellen Ryan and illustrated by Shona Shirley Macdonald (Harper Collins Ireland).
This is a collection of short stories about twenty-four goddesses of Ireland. Each story is accompanied with titbits of information about the goddesses’ powers, associated locations, the meaning of their name, and more. In this collection you will learn about monster slayer Bé Chuille, Macha the High Queen of Ireland, Morrígan the monstrous protector of Ireland, and many more.
These are creative retellings of pivotal moments in Irish mythology, often weaving in modern terminology throughout to resonate with a young contemporary audience.
This is a well-researched, beautifully produced book that reads like an ode to womanhood and Irish heritage that plenty of readers of all ages will enjoy.
The illustrations are simply breath-taking, masterful works of art. In particular, the artwork for Lí Ban, Fand, and Boann are stunning. A gorgeous gift book that will surely be in many Irish homes for years to come.
Irish culture, both old and new, is thriving through the medium of children’s literature. These books are brilliant additions to the ever-growing number of high-quality Irish children’s novels, and are truly the perfect reads to completely lose yourself in.
Ruth Ennis is a children’s literature writer based in Kildare. Her writing has been included in several publications and she was awarded an Arts Council Literature Bursary in 2021 and an Agility Award in 2022.