Ruth Ennis recommends children’s fiction to celebrate Irish Book Week!
by Ruth Ennis
This year marked a distinct development in children’s books by Irish and Ireland-based storytellers. At times it feels like we are entering a new era of children’s literature in Ireland, one where variety and quality are not only encouraged but regularly celebrated by a growing audience.
From promising debut authors, to familiar names exploring unique concepts and themes in new and exciting ways, these books tell young readers that they deserve excellent stories. These six books published this year all explore new worlds that contain multitudes—worlds that are both fantastical and insightful, hilarious and vulnerable.
It says a lot that these Irish storytellers take such care in crafting worlds that young readers can find a sense of recognition in, be it through familiar settings, relationships, or experiences. All of this is to say that there is a story for everyone to be found in these recent publications.
The Wishkeeper’s Apprentice (Walker Books) is a debut from Rachel Chivers Khoo, illustrated by Rachel Sanson. Felix lives in a small town with his parents and older sister, who he is feeling more and more estranged from as she is now too grown up to spend time with him.
One day Felix meets the resident Wishkeeper Rupus Beewinkle, a magical being who grants the wishes of everyone in his town. In an attempt to thwart the dark forces compromising the villager’s wishes, Felix teams up with Rupus, becomes his apprentice, and has an adventure of a lifetime.
This book is a breath of fresh air in the world of magic for young readers. The inventive story is enriched by attentive world-building and engaging characters. The exploration of a changing relationship with an older sibling is handled with grace and honesty, and something I look forward to reading more about in future instalments. This is an endlessly fun book, with a healthy dose of adventure, danger, and intrigue on every page, supported by fantastic illustrations seamlessly woven into the story. A thoroughly enjoyable read that I cannot recommend enough. Suitable for 7+ years.
Milly McCarthy is a Complete Catastrophe (Gill Books) is a debut for author Leona Forde and illustrator Karen Harte, and what a memorable entrance into the world of children’s books they have made.
Milly McCarthy is your average ten-year-old girl in Cork, doing her very best to ensure her school wins the All-Ireland Climate Action competition. When she and her classmates are successful in earning their Green Flag, they are awarded a trip to the Fota Wildlife Park. But Milly is rarely far from a disaster (which are, in fairness, rarely within her control) and everything that can go wrong on the trip, does go wrong.
The ideal read for fans of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, this recognisably Irish story is hilariously chaotic from beginning to end. Milly is an immediately endearing protagonist you can’t help but root for. The illustrations are nothing short of outstanding and are expertly used to bring Milly’s shenanigans to life. A brilliantly produced book with creative typography that lends to its accessibility, this is a series I have no doubt will be beloved for many years to come. I’m very excited to read the recently released sequel in which Milly delves into the world of Irish dancing. Suitable for ages 7+ years.
Wider Than the Sea (Hodder Children’s Books) by Serena Molloy and illustrated by George Ermos is a verse novel about a girl, a dolphin, and an important friendship. Ró really struggles in school for reasons she can’t quite explain. The words on the pages jump all around when she reads and it leaves her disheartened in the classroom. Things are also increasingly complicated in her life outside school; her mum and dad are arguing and her best friend is becoming more distant. When the dolphin Ró regularly visits disappears, everything else in her world begins to fall apart.
The final debut title on this list, it is a welcome book for its representation of dyslexia and navigation of friendships as children grow up. The story is a gentle one, making space for concerns and fears that will resonate with plenty of young readers. It addresses complicated circumstances with nuance while refraining from committing to a fairytale ending, which I find such a testament to Molloy’s ability to trust her readers to find comfort in her reflection of a very honest reality. A heartwarming, hopeful read with accessibility and understanding at its core, I know this book will be very important to a lot of children who need to see themselves reflected in the stories they read. Suitable for 9+ years.
The Time Tider by Sinéad O’Hart (Little Tiger) is a thrilling story about a girl, her dad, an underground organisation, and facing your past. Mara and her dad live a nomadic life due to his mysterious work. When Mara learns that he is a Time Tider who must contain time Warps – pockets of time from a person’s life when they die too soon – her entire world is turned upside down.
One day her dad goes missing and she is on a mission to find him and understand the truth behind her family’s past. Intricate world-building and delicate explorations of a father-daughter relationship are at the core of this story. O’Hart’s writing is enticing and will capture the attention of confident readers, while the short and snappy chapter lengths will encourage those who may be more hesitant.
The examination of time is done through the lens of how the past impacts the present and can influence the future, and is done in a manner that is both thought-provoking and accessible for young readers. For fans of Eve McDonnell’s Elsetime, this book will inevitably call to the most curious of minds.
The Girl Who Fell to Earth (Little Island) is one of the recent publications by the newly appointed Laureate na nÓg Patricia Forde. There is a giant secret about planet Earth; it and all its humans are just an experiment. Aria is an alien from the planet Terros, a world that was built on the knowledge gained from their failed human experiment. When humans are no longer of use, Aria is sent to Earth to release a deadly virus and destroy them all.
But Aria has a secret; she has human DNA, and the more time she spends on Earth, the more she realises that destroying humans is a terrible mistake. A fascinating science-fiction novel that explores what it means to be human, through the concepts of friendship, community, kindness, and hope.
This is pacy page-turner that will grip any reader from beginning to end. It is always refreshing to read other-worldly concepts set in an Irish landscape, specifically Dublin. Forde successfully dismantles and investigates the most vulnerable aspects of humanity through fantastical circumstances – something readers of Forde’s Wordsmith and Mother Tongue are already familiar with. An engrossing read that will be appreciated by readers 11+ years.
Lastly, In Between Worlds (The O’Brien Press) by revered historical-fiction writer Nicola Pierce follows the story of Maggie as she survives the unthinkable. When her world and family are torn apart by the Irish Famine in the 1800s, she transitions from a life in the workhouse to a new future as she journeys across the seas to set up a new life in Australia.
This book is well-researched and carefully crafted while handling a difficult part of Irish history with such sensitivity. It is easy to get lost in a story focusing on the horrors of a famine, but Pierce strikes an expert balance of humanising tragedy while refusing to loosen that grasp of hope in the darkest of moments. Much of the time we spend with Maggie is learning about her relationships with her brother and friend, and building a rich understanding of her connection to a sense of home.
Pierce’s ability to navigate devastating circumstances with an earnest sense of possibility is commendable. A brilliant read that I could not put down, this book comes with the highest of recommendations. Suitable for ages 11+ years.
The worlds of these stories are a wonder to behold. They are built on a curiosity to uncover and appreciate the fundamental aspects of what makes us human; from humour to hope, from courage to compassion. I have no doubt that every young reader will have no trouble finding a world in these books that they can allow themselves to truly get lost in.