In alphabetical title order, we proudly present the opening pages of this year’s shortlisted children’s books…
There was a girl who loved words . . .
She found her first one, trembling and alone, in the corner of her bedroom.
She called out to the word, using her softest voice. She made herself look small to make the word feel big. She crumpled bits of newspaper onto the floor, letters for the little word to eat.
And finally, slowly, “Wisp” came to her.
She built Wisp a home of paper and made a bed of soft Kleenex. She kept him safe on her dresser.
Wisp liked to stare in the mirror and marvel at his shape—at his pointed bits and the smooth parts too.
The girl laughed and said, “You’re seeing yourself backwards!”
Wisp was hungry—always hungry!—for scraps of paper, tiny letters the girl found in magazines and in the mail. And he grew. He grew and he grew until one day, the girl found him marveling at his reflection. “Wisp” had become “Whisper.”
Corrine and the Democonch
It emerged from the mud gleaming and glorious. Corrine’s heart stopped. Could this be the treasure Siya had promised?
‘Siya, I’ve found something!’ She called to her grandfather across the sheltered Thames foreshore.
He looked up with interest. ‘Not another plastic spoon? All these things that people throw away.’ He frowned and picked his way across the grey muddy ground, carefully side-stepping chunks of red brick and flint.
Corrine held the coin out to him. ‘Is this it? Have we found treasure?’
Siya tutted and shook his head with a smile. ‘Treasure isn’t just gold Corrine. It’s all the things we love.’
Corrine rolled her eyes. She had heard this from him before. ‘I know, I know. But gold is nice too.’ She grinned.
He took the gold coin from her palm and examined it silently. He turned and rotated it, holding it far then close and exploring the picture under his fingers.
Corrine was jiggling with excitement, but when she looked to his old watery eyes, she stopped moving. ‘What’s wrong?’ Siya lowered himself to the ground as if he couldn’t hold the weight of his body. Corrine gasped. ‘You’re going to get all muddy!’ She sat down next to him and took the coin. She had never seen him cry before; he was always so bright and solid.
On the coin was a picture of a shell. A large hand cradled it below and a small hand sheltered it from above. She squinted to try and read the tiny words around the edge. The letters were strange and hard to make out.
‘Demo…c…c… I don’t know what that ‘o’ is.’
‘Democonch.’ Siya said quietly.
She glanced at him and carried on. ‘And layn…’
‘Oh. This last word is weird.’ She frowned, the coin almost touching her nose as she strained to read the word.
‘It’s an Old English word that means fellowship, geferraeden. It says Democonch and Landward in Fellowship.’ He had never lost the soft lilt of his accent from Sri Lanka. Even after more than fifty years the long vowels of his birthplace remained. His eyes sparkled at the words. ‘I’ve been looking for something like this for a long time. I promised we would find treasure but I didn’t think it would be this.’
The coin glistened, even though it was a dull grey day. ‘What does it mean?’
Siya drew a deep breath. ‘It means there were once different types of people here, many years ago.’
‘Like the people who smoked the pipes?’ Corrine had found five stems of old clay pipes in the mud that morning. Siya had said they were more than a hundred years old.
‘No, even more different.’ He smiled and Corrine noticed the fine lines in his brown skin.
Corrine couldn’t bear the suspense. ‘Please Siya, tell me,’ she pleaded.
He raised his silver eyebrow in a high arc and ruffled her hair. ‘ No, my Corrie Kela. You’ll know one day.’
Corrine jutted out her lip in protest but she didn’t argue. She marvelled at the shiny coin. ‘I can’t wait to show Anthony this. He doesn’t think there’s anything interesting about London.’ ‘Oh yes. I think he’ll find this very interesting for sure.’ Siya winked.
Niniko’s Shop of Pure Essences
Niniko yanked the glass bottle off the rooftop with a pop as the bottle’s mouth separated from the slate surface. There was the sound of air leaking like a punctured tyre, but Niniko corked the bottle swiftly and slapped on the sticker she’d prepared, labelling this bottle ‘Jealousy’.
Jealousy smelled like milk that had gone slightly rancid but still drinkable. It took a long time before Niniko mastered the distinction between Jealousy and Envy. They had smelled the same to Niniko when she was young and naive, but after she turned twelve she could tell that Envy had a smidgen more longing and a yoghurty quality, while Jealousy shared a faintly similar note with Alienation, which stung like mustard and paint mixed together. The trick was to drink milk from nuts instead because nut milk hardly ever went sour. Niniko always had to take a gulp of hazelnut milk to refresh her palate after siphoning off something as objectionable as Jealousy.
Scents of the human heart were purest at night – it was when people were sleeping deeply that their emotions were most undisguised. For this reason, Niniko had spent the first one and half years of her training traversing the city in the darkest hours with grandfather, hopping from one rooftop to the next where essences were most concentrated. Now she was good enough to go out there on her own but she had to be very, very sure of what it was that she was meant to be sucking out from the roof. Every flavour had a unique signature, and getting flavours mixed up would be a cardinal sin in their trade.
“Just because customers can’t tell if they’re being hoodwinked or not doesn’t mean they deserve anything less than absolute quality” – This was a professional motto that Niniko upheld with honour.
Niniko had to sense all the flavours, distinguish them from one another, focus her mind on what she was collecting, then she had to let go of every other thing she could see or smell or feel, and focus only on that essence – for minutes it had to be the only flavour on Niniko’s mind so that she could suck it out of the atmosphere in its purest form. Then, with absolute focus and undivided energy, she had to direct it into the empty bottle ready to be filled, concentrating it as much as possible so that customers would be buying highly concentrated essences rather than dilute ineffective ones.
Sometimes a flavour was so nasty, it made her nauseous to have to keep siphoning the foulness out of the air and squeezing it into a bottle, like how you might be forced to squeeze rotten entrails down your throat when you were already fit to burst with rotten entrails. Except in this case Niniko would have to squeeze it all into a controlled direction so the right essence was pressurised into a bottle before corking it. Sometimes it was too tempting to siphon off something really good for herself, like Confidence – Niniko always wanted to suck in some for herself instead of redirecting it fully into the bottle, but grandfather said Niniko was not to be tempted by keeping the good flavours for herself. This was the opposite of Corruption.
Being a professional essence extractor was all about skills and strength, and each year Niniko got a little better at being able to siphon, hold, squeeze and concentrate.
Niniko slid her backpack off her shoulders, inserting the bottle into it. The bottles inside her bag clinked and clanked as she skidded down the sloped roof. Foliated slate tiles were her favourite because she never slipped on those, even on rainy days like this. It had been a very successful night so far; it was four hours until sunrise and she’d already collected a lot of uncommon flavours. Grandfather would be delighted to see four new bottles of ‘Determination’ and two of ‘Modesty’. They’d be worth more than eight hundred Coins each.
The Daring Misadventures of Hiroto Okami
‘There’s a ninja in my soup,’ said Hiroto, his voice barely travelling above the din of the party.
‘It’s seaweed,’ replied his father beside him, picking with chopsticks at fried octopus.
Hiroto stared at the thing with flapping arms grasping at a tofu cube in his soup bowl. He was quite sure his father was wrong. Seaweed didn’t normally have a human-shaped body. Seaweed normally didn’t splash about like a herring trying to escape a fishing net. And seaweed rarely had two swords strapped to its back. The thing was wearing a black outfit. Only its eyes could be seen through the head covering. Eyes, yes, it had eyes – another clue it wasn’t seaweed.
With chopsticks, Hiroto gently nudged the ninja onto the tofu. The little figure slipped, landing on its bum. Hiroto glanced at his father who was busy chewing. His mother was at the other end of the table, supervising his older sister and her seven friends. It was her birthday and she had chosen the restaurant in Covent Garden. She was ten and never missed a chance to tease Hiroto, just because he was two years younger than her.
When Hiroto looked back at his bowl, the ninja had vanished. It hadn’t vanished in a puff of smoke, though. It had left a trail of tiny wet footprints on the table and across the floor. Since nobody was paying Hiroto any attention, he excused himself and followed the trail.
The footprints led to a narrow corridor and along to a flight of stairs. Waiters balancing sushi platters on large lacquer trays carefully climbed the steps from the basement, walking past Hiroto without so much as a glance. Hiroto descended. The footprints ended at a swinging door with a round window. Standing on tiptoes, he peered through the glass. There were two chefs balling rice and another bigger man slicing raw fish. They were so engrossed in what they were doing, they didn’t notice Hiroto enter and crouch by one of the steel refrigerators. He crinkled his nose at the smell of warmed vinegar.
On the floor, the ninja was stuck in a blob of something dark and sticky. Hiroto watched it trying to free itself using a sword, slashing at the gooey strings sticking to its feet. As soon as one foot was freed, the other became stuck.
Hiroto reached for a strip of fallen bamboo leaf and nudged the ninja onto it. The tiny thing bowed at him.
‘Thank you! Place me in the sink, I’d be ever so grateful,’ it said in a deep male voice.
‘You can speak,’ said Hiroto, his hand shaking.
‘Steady, boy, I don’t want to fall back into the fermented soybeans. I hate natto!’
‘Sorry,’ said Hiroto. ‘I didn’t think you’d speak English.’
‘Would you understand if I spoke Japanese? Wakaru-ka?’
‘A little. My parents make me go to Japanese cramming school on Saturdays.’
‘You look Japanese,’ said the ninja. ‘What’s your name?’
The ninja produced a pouch from inside his top. ‘Well, Hiroto, I want you to eat this Japanese sweet. It’ll make you forget about this encounter.’
Hiroto leaned closer to the ninja who was holding out his hand. ‘I can’t see a sweet.’
‘Trust me, it’s on my palm. Just lick it.’
Hiroto’s parents, like many parents, had warned Hiroto about accepting car rides from strangers. He couldn’t remember any warning about licking an invisible sweet from a tiny ninja’s hand, but being sensible, he declined. As a boy who liked to collect things, he kept the ninja talking, so he could find a way to trap him. He’d be extremely popular at show and tell.
‘Why do you want to be put in the sink?’ Hiroto asked, scanning the kitchen for a box.
‘It’s how I travel. Back to where I need to be.’ The ninja put away his sword.
‘Where’s that?’ asked Hiroto.
‘Japan. Have you been?’
‘No. We’re saving up to go one day. I was born in Stevenage,’ replied Hiroto, creeping towards a takeaway box.
‘Ah, where they do that funny dancing at the summer solstice. Around the giant stones.’ The ninja danced a strange jig, nearly toppling off the leaf.
‘That’s Stonehenge.’ The box was now within Hiroto’s reach.
‘Never been to Japan, hey. You’re Japanese! Right, you’re coming. Eat this sour plum, it’ll shrink you to my size. First, put me up by the sink.’ The ninja held out his hand again. This time Hiroto saw a red speck. After placing the ninja on the rim of the sink, Hiroto licked his fingertip and dabbed the sour plum off the ninja’s palm. You can’t be poisoned by something that small, thought Hiroto, so put the sour plum on his tongue.
The plum’s salty tanginess spread across his mouth like wildfire. Hiroto’s eyes froze and his bones felt like they were melting. His heart pinballed into his head. The room grew brighter and the ground slipped from under him. The sushi chefs were now giants.
Hiroto had shrunk.
The Other Side of Normal
I. The Call
The screaming wakes me.
I’m out of bed,
stumbling to Mum’s room.
I smash through the door.
She’s curled on her side,
Nightshirt soaked in sweat,
Her whole body spasms.
I look into her eyes
and see something new –
I’m fine, Kristal, she whispers.
But her eyes roll back,
so there’s only white.
I have to get help.
Only I don’t know how.
There’s no phone
in our house.
Mum’s breathing sounds
like gravel hitting tin.
I pull up the sheet to cover her
and suddenly there’s light.
She has a mobile phone?
After everything she said
she screams again,
like lemon juice
in a cut.
I grab the phone.
Wasps whir inside my chest
beat their wings
against my heart.
Using a phone breaks the rules.
The rules that keep me well.
in the corner of the screen,
is one word: Emergency.
In an emergency
normal rules don’t apply.
This is an emergency.
No! Mum shouts.
NO, NO, NO!
1. The Guilt
She hasn’t forgiven me,
and I don’t blame her,
bringing all the people
she warned me about
into our lives.
One little phone call,
that’s all it took –
and Mum and I
were ripped apart.
when my hair grew back,
Dad said it proved
that Mum had lied.
But to me
Last week, Freddie dyed
my new-hair blue.
We thought Dad would freak.
But of course
he says he loves it –
my new look
my new name.
I don’t tell him
it’s only my outside
I’m still sticky
The winner of 2022’s Bath Children’s Novel Award will be announced here from 10:00 GMT on Tuesday 28th February 2023