1. Mr Gum And The Dancing Bear
By Andy Stanton, Dhs39. Ages 7-10.
This is the dream book for any parent who wants to get their child back in love with the English language and the myriad weird, wild possibilities it presents. Stanton really knows how to have fun with words, using oodles of ridiculously imaginative descriptions to set the scene, which progresses from the little town of Lamonic Bibber to the open ocean and, eventually, a desert island. Even though its storyline verges on the ludicrous, with a huge sobbing bear, a little girl and a wise gingerbread headmaster who’s only 15.24cm tall, it’s told in such a way that it doesn’t feel like a fairytale for toddlers: the language is sometimes intricate and tiny tots just wouldn’t ‘get’ the hilarious combination of craziness and normality (our favourite example of which is the gingerbread headmaster’s strangely banal moniker, Alan Taylor).
Scraggily drawn, harsh-looking illustrations add to the sense of menace created by the baddies, Mr Gum and Billy William the butcher, who are desperate to kidnap Padlock the Bear and make their fortune charging people to watch him dance. The fact that we laughed out loud while reading a kids’ book in an office full of grown-ups – never a good look – is testament to just how good Mr Gum And The Dancing Bear is.
By Alison McGhee and Peter H Reynolds, Dhs56. Ages 6-8.
Get the tissues in – this one is a real tear-jerker. Told with one simple sentence per page, it’s a collection of sentimental memories and hopes for the future, written from mother to child. Its beautifully shaded water colour illustrations only enhance the poignance of sentences like, ‘Someday I will stand on this porch and watch your arms waving to me until I no longer see you.’ The contemplative tone means that it’s not a book that children will want to read over and over again, but it’s certainly one they’ll keep for years to come; maybe even until they’re parents – or grandparents – themselves.
3. Ginger Snaps
By Cathy Cassidy, Dhs75. Ages 10-12.
We love, love, love this book – it serves as a great reminder to pre-teens who may be being led down the garden path by peer pressure that there is an alternative to mindless conformity. Ginger is mercilessly bullied in primary school – the hurt of which Cassidy manages to convey with an incredible accuracy – but she makes it her mission to change all that when she starts secondary school. She has made fitting in an art form, and lost any sense of personality in the process – until she meets Sam, a very cute, trilby-wearing, unashamedly weird boy, and Emily, a girl who, like her, just wants to have friends. Through them, she begins to learn that looking perfect isn’t the be all and end all and that actually, sometimes it’s cooler to be uncool.
4. Secret Agent Jack Stalwart The Theft Of The Samurai Sword: Japan
By Elizabeth Singer Hunt, Dhs26. Ages 7-9.
The Jack Stalwart series is about a young boy who is a member of a secret detective agency, who often finds himself magically transported all over the world in a quest to overthrow baddies. This time the story is set in, you guessed it, Japan. The intro pages weave in facts about the country but that, along with place descriptions, is probably our favourite thing about this book, which otherwise feels lazy. As soon as Jack finds himself in a spot of bother, he always seems to have some gadget or hitherto-unmentioned skill which saves him, removing any sense of danger or suspense.
5. Captain Underpants And The Preposterous Plight Of The Purple Potty People
By Dav Pilkey, Dhs38. Ages 6-8.
One day, in the eighth novel of the Captain Underpants series, mischievous school chums George and Harold are puzzled to find their teachers acting far more friendly towards them than is usual. It’s only when they discover clones of themselves strutting around the classroom that they realise that last time they used their time machine, the Purple Potty, something must have gone horribly wrong. The story, which is half words and half pictures, is told in an entertaining, intelligent way (some jokes are angled more towards parents than kids) and we love the home truths it observes – like the fact that parents spend the first two years of their kids’ lives encouraging them to walk and talk, and the next 16 telling them to sit down and shut up.
6. The Pain And The Great One: Cool Zone
By Judy Blume, Dhs60. Ages 6-8.
The Pain (first-grader Jake) and The Great One (Abigail, third grade) are typical young siblings – they spend all their lives squabbling jealously but deep down they’re fiercely protective of each other. We found this book a little disappointing: the short stories format doesn’t quite work, partly because they’re told by the brother and sister in turn, meaning they’re going to be pitched at the wrong age group half the time, and the storylines (involving a wobbly tooth, a teddy bear etc) just aren’t very exciting. This is a particular shame given that Blume’s past triumphs, including teen tome Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, were such mainstays of our own childhood libraries.
7. The Thing With Finn
By Tom Kelly, Dhs39. Ages 9-11.
Danny’s identical twin Finn has recently died, and this book charts his grief in a funny, heartbreaking, true way. Though this would be a particularly good read for children who have themselves recently lost someone close to them, it’s a great story in its own right: the laugh-out-loud comedy factor, vivid imagery and thoughtfulness of the protagonist make it recommended across the board. This is, quite simply, a brilliant book.
All books are available from Magrudy’s, Deira City Centre (04 295 7744)