A few years after he published his great novel “Things Fall Apart,” the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe composed a children’s story called Chike and the River (Anchor; paperback, $10), and this month it’s being released for the first time in the United States. It’s a handsome paperback edition “for all ages” with woodcut illustrations by Edel Rodriguez, but Achebe’s reputation and a blurb from Toni Morrison will likely bring this slight book more attention than it deserves now. Laced with elements of a parable, the story about 11-year-old Chike trying to earn money for a trip across the River Niger is not charming or perilous enough to hold the attention of most young people or adults.
But charm and peril are on full display in Stephen Kelman’s first novel, which is in the running for this year’s Booker Prize. Pigeon English (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24) is based on the true tale of a 10-year-old Nigerian who was murdered in London in 2000 by other boys just a few years older. That death sentence hangs at the end of this story, but Kelman writes in such a buoyant, delightful voice that you’ll want to forget where the novel is headed, despite some ominous reminders along the way. In a narrative that jumps and darts like its young narrator in a new pair of “trainers,” Harrison Opuku tells us about anything that comes to mind, from all the crazy new English words he’s learning to the “dope-fine” model cars he collects in his room in a London housing project. But throughout, he struggles to make sense of the senseless violence around him.