Fiction for older children reviews – magic and morality, beyond Marvel

The Marvel takeover of childhood often seems all-encompassing. Really, though, Stan Lee’s stable has long embellished Norse and African myths. Some great new books riff on those riffs – parents might just sell these to a reluctant bookworm on their parallels to Marvel.

Writer-illustrator Louie Stowell’s terrific Loki: A Bad God’s Guide to Being Good (Walker Books, £7.99) imagines the Norse god portrayed in the Marvel films by Tom Hiddleston as a mischievous, petulant 11-year-old, banished to naughty-step Earth to atone for his misdemeanours. Often laugh-out-loud funny, this is an irreverent romp through practical moral philosophy, like Netflix’s The Good Place with more snarky cartoon snakes. A talking diary backchats Loki throughout.

Next: Wakanda, the setting for the Marvel film Black Panther. Based initially in the US suburbs, Jamar J Perry’s Cameron Battle and the Hidden Kingdoms (Bloomsbury, £6.99) is an assured debut starring three friends who discover an ancient and powerful book.

While stalking an unfamiliar creature into a sea cave during a full moon, they wake up in another version of their own lives

Filled with lore, it is also a portal to Chidani, a supernatural Igbo realm where, unbeknown to young Cameron, the Battle family has been tasked with ensuring stability between the worlds and maintaining Igbo heritage, ruptured by slavery. The fight has already taken the lives of his parents. With his friends Zion and Aliyah, Cameron learns magical warrior moves and becomes enmeshed in a godly power struggle. Gripping and fast-paced, this is also a novel that foregrounds acceptance and queerness via the emotional tenderness between tweenage boys.

Multiverses? Ross Welford, always excellent, has one of those. Into the Sideways World (HarperCollins, £6.99) introduces 12-year-old Willa, whose parents operate a run-down campsite, and new friend Manny, an impulsive foster kid recently arrived at school. War is imminent. While stalking an unfamiliar creature into a sea cave during a full moon, they wake up in another version of their own lives, but somewhere else – Willa is Mina, her sister is a brother, her parents don’t fight. War is over, the climate catastrophe averted. Can they get back? Do they want to get back?

‘Old-fashioned fun’: Jummy at the River School by Sabine Adeyinka. Photograph: Chicken House Books

There are new iterations, too, of other solid formulas. Sabine Adeyinka provides an enthralling twist on the boarding school novel: Jummy at the River School (Chicken House, £6.99) is set in Nigeria in the 90s. Scatty Jumoke yearns to attend a prestigious boarding school; she gets the grades, but has to leave her clever but economically disadvantaged friend Caro behind. Adeyinka’s debut is full of old-fashioned fun: midnight feasts and sporting escapades, plus crocodiles, minus mobile phones. But justice is at the heart of this book. When Caro does turn up, it is to work as a maid to the haughty matron. It takes pluck and creativity for Jummy to resolve things, and this book will have kids salivating for Nigerian snacks such as puff-puff and chinchin.

Hannah Gold, the author of the bestselling children’s hardback debut of 2021, The Last Bear, is back with another lyrical page-turner about solidarity between humans and animals. Exit bear, enter The Lost Whale (HarperCollins, £12.99), illustrated once again by the great Levi Pinfold.

In sort-of repeating herself, Gold actually remains original – young Londoner Rio is banished to stay with a grandmother he barely knows in California when his mother is taken in for a mental health intervention. Scared, angry, Rio feels guilty at having (he thinks) failed his mother. Gold is fantastic on the anguish of young carers – and the magnificence of large cetaceans, whose presence Rio can sense before anyone else can, making him very useful on whale-spotting tours. But the whale he knows best, White Beak, seems to be calling for help: what can he do?

Kelly Yang, author of the ‘sensational’ New from Here. Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP

Finally, a story that has only just begun to be told. American author Kelly Yang is better known for YA, but New from Here (Simon & Schuster, £7.99) is a sensational middle grade book about a family disrupted, then healed, by the pandemic.

Knox Wei-Evans and his family are Asian Americans living in Hong Kong when a new virus is discovered in Wuhan. It’ll pass, says his dad, who’s got some masks, somewhere, from Sars. Soon, though, the three siblings and their mum are dispatched back to the US to ride it out, bumpily – just what happened to Yang and her brood. The virus follows.

This is a warm, sensitive, deep-dive of a family story, full of kid logic (inadvisable garage sales, secret LinkedIn profiles), bitter sibling rivalry, Knox’s HD-born intensity and the imperative to stand up to racism. Is essential reading to process what we’ve all been through.

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