Ahead of today’s announcement of 2021’s Bath Children’s Novel Award we proudly present (in alphabetical title order) the opening pages of the five shortlisted novels
It was the sort of dream you know to be a dream, safe in its strangeness, and Bell didn’t flinch as the ground fell away. She was climbing the ruins of a crystal city, tumbled and shining under a vast blood-orange moon; the stones glowed, lights darting inside them like deepwater fish, pulsing under her hands. Wind hissed in her face, waves smashing black cliffs far below; but Fern was there with her, paws quick and sure on the luminous crags, red fur rusty in the moonlight, and her lolling dog-grin kept Bell looking up and ahead instead of down. She couldn’t see the other dogs but she could sense them, scuffling somewhere in the rubble. Soon, she knew, she’d reach the top – the summit of this broken tower – and she’d see the whole great glittering sprawl of the city. All of it, soon.
When the scream came it shook the sky with the force of a crashing plane, tearing the dream down the middle. Fern leapt for Bell as she lost her balance and she reached out blindly, woke in panic in her bed – quilt bunched up around her legs, the ghost-feel of the dog’s warm breath still fading at her fingertips, Jess’ voice crying out from down the hallway and her own heart pounding fiercely in the darkness.
Another scream, high and whimpery. Bell reached wearily for the earplugs under her pillow; but then she remembered how drawn Mum’s face had been last night, how tight Dad’s smile was, how flat they’d been with each other – too tired even to be snappy – and in the time it took for Jessie to cry again she had thrown off the quilt and stood up.
She met Dad slumped in the doorway to his and Mum’s room, one hand snared in his dark hair, Mum mumbling “David…” in a weak voice from the bed behind him.
“It’s okay,” Bell whispered. “I’ll go.”
David Haynes stared at Bell, his lean face unreadable in the dimness, and for an instant she caught that flicker of mistrust, puzzlement, fear – why not you, why never you? – and felt the banked heat of her own angry helplessness rising up to meet it. Then her father sighed, patted her shoulder clumsily, and shuffled back to bed as Bell took a deep breath and went on down the hall.
By the glow of her soft owl-shaped night light Jess was kicking and thrashing, head burrowed out of sight; she moaned as Bell untangled her, her face scrunched up against the pillow.
“Jessie, Jess. It’s okay, it’s me, it’s Bell. Jessie.“
It took ages; it always took ages; the nightmares stuck like tar. Bell talked gently, stroking Jessie’s face and arm until she sat up babbling and staring, strands of brown hair plastered to her forehead, and flung her arms tightly around Bell’s neck.
Bell lay down with her, tucked the blankets close. “What was it this time?” It wasn’t always right to ask, but sometimes it helped.
“Room – scary room – window, a face looking in…”
Jessie gave a violent shiver, and Bell hugged her. She went quiet and Bell braced herself; when she spoke next, plaintive, she asked what she always asked. “Why don’t you get them, Bell?”
The Chrysalis Queen peered through the portal, past the swirling stars and smoky galaxies, into the forbidden Universe. Somewhere, her next victim was walking, talking, breathing… unaware this was their last day to enjoy such indulgences. This would be the eleventh child in eleven years to join her collection. And yet the curse burned as black as ever, suffocating her realm, withering her creatures. She sighed softly, and her wings fluttered, raining down a haze of tiny scales. Perhaps this year, she would find the precious child that would lift the curse. Suddenly, her antennae twitched and her black eyes gleamed. A buzzing had caught her ear.
* * *
Which to start with? Sabre-toothed rabbit hearts, spider monkey intestines, or octopus brains?
Hearts, guts, or brains.
Most visitors found the museum’s specimen collection creepy, with its rows and rows of pickled animal in glass jars on cold metal shelves, paling into ghosts of themselves in amber fluid. The chemical tinted air made people’s stomachs turn.
But Luca Braithwaite was no visitor. She’d lived with her two paleobiologist mums and sister, Zoe, in the basement flat of the Natural History Museum all her twelve years. So she didn’t bat an eyelid at having a diplodocus skeleton watching as she did her homework, or a Giant Panda replica to hang her coat on.
Luca eyed the jars of preserved animal parts and twitched at the lost potential for mischief. A rabbit heart snuck into a head-teacher’s desk draw. Intestines looped around the reception desk like a Christmas garland. Brains fired by catapult at museum visitors lined up to make a complaint.
Luca sighed and picked up her cleaning cloth. She was already inches away from being grounded for the whole summer for using her flying-windmill kick on Brenda the Biffer. Who had totally deserved it, by the way. For once she’d better stick to what she was here to do. Chores. Rabbit hearts, she decided. She sprayed the jar with cleaning spray and started rubbing.
As she worked, she glanced out the window at the families trickling out of the museum, and felt a pang. Not that being grounded would make much difference. Her sister Zoe was always too busy to hang out with Luca these days, so it was hard to have much fun.
Luca was almost wistful for the dreary summers of being dragged to mind-numbing microfossil exhibitions and soggy archaeological digs in Devon, eating squashed egg sandwiches. She’d even put up with listening to her mums and Zoe yabbering about ancient bits of rock as if they were the most exciting thing in the Universe. She rolled her eyes, rubbed the glass jar more vigorously, and the fleshy blob inside wobbled a bit. She lifted her head and glanced over her shoulder at the opposite shelves
Zoe had – obviously – already finished cleaning her shelves. The jars gleamed in the spotlighting, carefully ordered by estimated date of existence and aligned to within a micromillimetre of each other. Zoe had even taken the liberty of correcting some of the notes on the little cards. No doubt the curator would send her a box of chocolates to thank her.
Luca looked back to her own shelves of jars, still higgledy-piggledy and caked in dust. The curling script on the info cards meant nothing to her, and the jars might as well have been full of blancmange. She hadn’t inherited her mums’ brainiac gene, like Zoe had. But what really baked her noodle was that she didn’t even have the excuse of being the younger one. Nobody could believe it when they found out Luca was the older sister, by one year and one day exactly.
SECRETS OF THE VOLTERRE
The Alpine train line from Camenburg City to Corbeau-sur-Rive
Merle did not consider herself to be a red coat kind of person. Not at all. She was probably more of a grey or brown coat kind of person, and this red one was making her feel very uncomfortable. As if her red hair and freckles weren’t enough to contend with. And her cold. And the smell of wet boots in this stinking train carriage. Not to mention the fact she’d been banished of course—packaged up and posted off to her grandparents, alone.
Merle turned to the window and swallowed a sneeze. The train was drawing closer to the mountains, the sky darkening to a gloomy grey, swollen with snow. She could tell by the crystals of ice crackling to life on the windows outside that the temperature was plummeting.
Hearing a rustling sound from across the compartment reminded Merle that she wasn’t quite alone. A stranger sat across from her, next to the wooden door to the corridor. Merle watched the woman ferreting through her boxy handbag. It had a beady-eyed crocodile head for a clasp, and she wore several gold rings on top of her gloves. Unable to find something in the bag, the woman looked across at Merle, who frowned and examined her thumbs. How could it be Merle’s fault that she couldn’t find what she was looking for? She’d been nowhere near the woman, or her horrible bag.
Merle sighed. Everything was her fault these days. Apparently. She’d heard Aunt Constance talking to Ma from behind a door back in Camenburg. “Are you sure Merle didn’t start the fire deliberately?” she’d said. “She never did much like having a baby brother, did she? Perhaps she just couldn’t stand not being centre of attention anymore?” Like Merle had ever been centre of Ma’s attention, even before the baby came along, and Pa was always working.
Anyway, it just wasn’t true. There was no way Merle would actually hurt baby Josef, even if he was “a miracle.” And, she would never have frazzled Ma’s typewriter and all those copies of her new murder mystery novel deliberately either, even if they were more important than Merle.
What Ma should have said in reply to Constance was this: “Don’t be ridiculous! Merle would never start a fire! Who on earth would burn down half the house—and on their 12th birthday!?” Ma should have shouted it and marched out of the house, even if there was nowhere else for the family to stay. But she didn’t. She just said, “Hmmm, it had crossed my mind.”
All Merle had wanted to do was check the attic for the black-and-red bird she’d seen flying into the eaves. She’d never seen one before, even in one of her bird books. That’s why she’d had the candle, and the matches. It wasn’t her fault she’d been left with the baby.
She took a juddering breath and forced herself not to cry. It wouldn’t help. What she’d really wanted to do over the week since the fire was to wail and scream and run crashing into walls, but she couldn’t. She wouldn’t. In fact, Merle could barely even speak anymore, let alone scream. Especially not at Aunt Constance’s house where everyone spoke in whispers, and everything was spotless.
The woman’s voice jolted her upright.
THE BIRD SEA
The light from Da’s lantern is fading.
This is the first thing that Clover Hildegard realises when she awakens early on the morning of the Bird Sea. She stares intently at the pale glow as the cold air of the cottage settles upon her shoulders. The thin blankets which once covered her are now gathered in a messy pile on the floor.
The lantern radiates atop a wooden chest in the far corner of the room.
Clover had lit it in the late hours of the evening after a nightmare. She’d woken with a fright, panting, her skin hot, with Da’s name on her lips. She’d almost called out, before remembering the truth.
Da’s lantern is here, but he is not.
Now, she fumbles for her boots. A faint draught wafts through a crack in the ceiling above, ambling down her neck. It still smells of night. Night, particularly in the golden months, holds the aroma of frozen rivulets. Tonight, the air smells cold. Winter is soon to come.
The door handle leading out into the garden is frigid to touch, the key missing from the lock. Clover twists the handle and, without stopping to think, steps out into the night. She tucks her bare hands deep into her pockets, allowing the door to swing gently shut behind her.
Rotting pumpkins glisten to the left, reflecting snatches of moonlight. Even in the dark, Clover can see the Longrass Field stretching endlessly outwards to nothing. The straw man that Magnus, her older brother, made for target shooting, gazes woefully down upon her from the field, covered in a white blanket. Beyond, Clover glimpses the moonlit clouds running away to the east. A velvet sky, richly blue, catches faraway stars. Below, a thin orange line runs along the horizon like a small fire.
A crack sounds above the ridge, near the entrance to the forest.
Clover tenses, knowing that wolves prowl on such nights. The wolves are hungrier this year, as if they too know that the winter is going to be long and cold.
But it is not a wolf that hunts her.
From the gaping jaws of the forest, Gray emerges, his hands buried deep in one of Da’s coats. He whistles slightly and tilts his head towards the moon. His boots crunch through the frost as he strolls towards Clover, disrupting the silence.
Clover blinks, surprised to see him at such an hour. Her bones ache with cold. She shakes her head as her younger brother approaches. “You should be sleeping.”
Her words are light and her breath is short. Sudden memories of Da disappearing, leaving, catch her unaware. It is remarkable how much Gray looks like him.
Where was Da now?
THE DOLL’S HOUSE MOUSE
‘’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was
stirring, not even a— Oohf!’
Grandpa closed the book. He laughed and looked down at his nine-year old
granddaughter, who was wriggling closer into his side. ‘Getting comfy are we, Lottie?’ he
Lottie straightened her glasses. They had gone skew-whiff as she’d burrowed in.
‘Yep,’ she said and Grandpa grinned. ‘Ready now. Please continue.’
Lottie waited as Grandpa reopened the book. She breathed in the smell of his woolly, Christmas Robin jumper. Hot buttered toast and raspberry jam. Builder’s tea and biscuits.
Old fashioned hand soap from a green soap bar. All the sorts of things that grandpas often
smell of; as comforting to her as anything could be.
Grandpa cleared his throat in a loud, silly way that Lottie knew was just for show.
Lottie looked up at the old man fondly.
‘Silly Grandpa,’ she said, and he winked at her before beginning to read again.
‘’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was
stirring, not even a —’
The old man closed his eyes. He smiled patiently. Grandpa may have lost his temper
sometimes when his cricket team lost a match. He may have become cross at the doctor’s
surgery when he was being told just how old he was getting. He may have become quiet for
a moment when something reminded him of his dear wife, Maggie (though he always
sprang back from these moments, as remembering her brought him joy as well). But one
thing Grandpa never did— ever!— was to lose his patience when it came to his Lottie.
‘Yes?’ he said slowly, once again closing the book.
Lottie’s eyebrows had knitted together above her glasses.
‘Have you read this poem to me every single Christmas Eve since I was born?’
‘I have,’ said Grandpa plainly.
‘Even when I was a baby?’
‘Even when you were a baby.’
Lottie wrinkled her nose.
‘That seems a bit silly. I couldn’t have understood a word back then. Didn’t you feel a bit
silly reading to a baby?’
‘No. I wanted it to be our tradition. It’s our special Christmas Eve tradition. Because—’
the old man grinned wider, so it reached into his eyes and made them twinkle with
mischief and excitement, ‘— if we read this poem on Christmas Eve, then it will snow on
Lottie looked to her bedroom window, out to the inky, black— and distinctly snowless—
‘But Grandpa,’ Lottie said, ‘That hasn’t worked for years. Not since I was four. It never
snows on Christmas Day anymore. The planet’s gotten too hot.’
‘Tut tut,’ Grandpa tutted, shaking his head and waggling a finger at the girl. ‘It happened
the very first time, on your very first Christmas. And, as you say, it happened again when
you were four. If we keep on believing it can happen another time— and I keep reading this
special poem to you as I did the very first time—,’ the old man added, ‘—then it very well
might happen again, Lottie. So! As long as you’ll listen, every Christmas Eve at bedtime, I
will read you The Night Before Christmas. All the way up until I’m not here anymore.’