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War in the woods

New children's books include Morris Gleitzman's 'After', Daniel Handler's 'Why we broke up' and 'The Witchtree Journals: Emily's story' by Diane Greene

    Nobody Felix cares about is safe from the Nazis. They’ve killed his parents and his best friend — and now they’re after Richmal Crompton. Well, they’re targeting England anyway, and that’s the homeland of the Just William author, whom Felix reveres as God (it’s complicated).

    After (Penguin, £6.99), by Morris Gleitzman (pictured, below left) is the latest volume of Felix’s escape story, which began in Once, when the resilient Jewish runaway slipped out of the convent where his parents had concealed him. Now it is 1945 and Felix, aged 13, is hiding with partisans in the woods and working as a doctor’s assistant, using vests soaked in vodka as disinfectant for surgery and opening tins by scoring the lids with the diamond rings of camp victims retrieved in a partisan raid.

    When Allied bombing starts, Felix and other youngsters take refuge on an island. Some of the kids are Jewish; the others are Hitler Youth. Because Felix has been hidden so long, he retains his naivety and optimism, but there is the barest flicker of Gleitzman’s deadpan humour amid the graphic gore and violent death. Such scenes would be beyond the pale of children’s fiction — if they were fiction.

    They met at a “Bitter Sixteen Party” (acerbic music, unpalatable drinks and an inedibly dark, heart-shaped chocolate cake) — how Lemony Snicket can you get? But Daniel Handler sets aside his pen name to focus on one unfortunate event in Why We Broke Up (Egmont, £12.99).

    Min, who loves old films, kitsch kitchenware and coffee, also loves jock Ed Slaterton. But now she is bringing Ed a box containing mementos of their ruined relationship. From bottle caps and a cinema ticket, to an ugly coat and a device for cubing hard-boiled eggs (each illustrated in glowing colours by Maira Kalman). Handler never quite shakes off the Snicket voice, but who would want him to? Age 13 upwards.

    Downton Abbey fans aged nine to 12 may enjoy The Witchtree Journals: Emily’s Story by Diane Greene (Autumn Leaves, £7.99). Emily falls inside her journal and travels through time, meeting her ancestors. A sort of Magic Faraway Tree meets Who Do You Think You Are?

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