Children’s books round-up: A sensory exploration and overcoming fears

New titles from Rascal, Charlie Higson, David O’Doherty, Jim Beckett and MG Leonard

Where are you and your family going on your summer holidays? Could it be as bad as the foreign sojourn being inflicted upon Stan, the introverted hero of Charlie Higson's new novel Worst. Holiday. Ever. (Puffin, £6.99, 8+)?

Stan is the kind of kid who has a Duck It List, instead of a Bucket List: a list of “all the awful, terrible, horrible, embarrassing, dangerous, scary, dumb things you need to avoid”, which includes bungee jumping, dancing, alligator wrestling and “going on holidays with people you don’t know”.

So when his mum announces they are off to Italy with a host of strangers Stan goes into panic mode. Despite putting him in this situation, his mum has come up with some helpful strategies to avoid total disaster just in case there’s an emergency, covering everything from weird food to shark attacks.

Higson writes with sensitivity about Stan’s shyness, using humour to leaven his building anxiety. Stan may have 30 (valid) reasons not to go on holiday, but by the end of the book he has learned a lot about his ability to overcome his fears.


The protagonist of David O'Doherty's The Summer I Robbed a Bank (Puffin, 8+, €6.99), is 12-year-old worrier Rex, "the scardiest scardey-cat" in sixth class. His parents have split up, secondary school looms and he has been sent to stay with his strange Uncle Derm on Achill Island for the summer. However, Derm is just the kind of influence Rex needs to overcome his fears. He is the kind of uncle who makes extraordinary things happen, whose behaviour necessitates the invention of new words, like "shocksplosion" and "bloob". He is also, luckily, Rex's favourite person. An unlikely friendship with the fearless Kitty and a mobile bank robbery follow, as Rex learns to trust his own instincts. O'Doherty's story is rich in quirky detail and slapstick chaos, which often involves those most humorous of Irish animals: sheep!

More hilarious holiday disasters abound in Jim Beckett's The Caravan at the Edge of Doom (Farshore, £6.99, 10+). Harley is happily holidaying with both sets of her grandparents when her summer plans suddenly go awry as Pops, Gran, Grandpa and Nana explode, exposing a portal of doom in their portable loo, and their true identities as guardians of The Land of the Dead. When Harley's baby brother crawls across the threshold, Harley realises she has only 30 hours to save him. Thus begins a madcap comedy adventure with unexpected twists and a thrilling time limit that adds significantly to the pace. Olia Muza's scattered portraits offer visual glimpses of the grotesquerie of Beckett's underworld: from the Many Limbed Optimugoon to the fluffy Beast Guardian of the First Task.

The natural rather than the unnatural world lies at the heart of MG Leonard's new middle-grade adventure book, Twitch (Walker, £6.99, 7+). Jack is known as Twitch by local bullies, because of his nervous habit of blinking. The bullies might not know, but Jack doesn't actually mind the nickname: "his grandad told him a twitcher was a birdwatcher with an interest in rare birds", and rare birds are one of Jack's favourite things. Out with his binoculars in the local forest one day, Jack accidentally spots an escaped convict who is searching for the treasure he buried before he was locked away. With the help of his pigeon sidekicks, Frazzle and Scabby, Jack manages to outwit him, as well as the local bullies, and his conviction that being clever is better than being cool is thoroughly vindicated. Leonard has crafted an intelligent mystery from unlikely material, with bonus bird facts.

A bird is being born in Rascal's Pablo (Gecko Press, £10.99, 3+). He is a shy little thing, hesitant in his hatching. He starts by cracking a tiny hole, then another and another, releasing his eyes, his beak, his wings to the world, allowing each discrete part of his feathered fledgling body to acclimatise to the environment outside of his shell. In Antony Shugar's translation, the story becomes a sensory exploration and it sings. However, it is Rascal's clever illustrations with their simple layers that really help the chick to capture the young reader's heart. Even the endpapers are a visual delight.

Detailed illustrations by Nila Aye make Benjamin Zephaniah's Nature Trail (Orchard, £12.99, 2+) stand out in this knee-high journey through a back garden, underground and underlog. Aye creates dapper costumes for each animal character and even the most unpleasant of insects is rendered colourful and cute: have you ever seen a woodlouse in a top hat? You must. Meanwhile, Zephaniah's gentle rhymes keep us turning the pages until night falls and "the dragonflies come humming." It is a perfect bedtime reminder on bright summer nights that it is, indeed, time to sleep.