Time machines, airships and lots of magic: 6 of the best inventions in children's books

Published on: 17 April 2019 Author: Fleur Hitchcock

Fleur Hitchcock's fantastic new story The Boy Who Flew features a fantastic flying machine, so we had to ask: which other children's book inventions does Fleur love?

Fleur Hitchcock and the cover of her book The Boy Who Flew

From flying carpets, to Professor Branestawm's burglar catcher, I can always be beguiled by a good machine of possibility.

As a child, I longed for Tintin's rocket and Batman's utility belt. I wanted that hot air balloon from Black Hearts in Battersea, Dorothy's silver shoes from The Wizard of Oz, the Phantom Tollbooth, and that flying car from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I really wanted that car.

But since then, children's fiction has continued to invent. Authors have stretched the bounds further and further, opening up huge worlds of possibility. In some cases the whole book is rammed with invention and it's difficult to pick a single example, but here, in no particular order are some of my more recent favourites...

1. The Alethiometer

The front cover of Northern Lights

Illustration: Chris Wormell

Starting with the His Dark Materials trilogy, I've picked the Alethiometer, as invented by Philip Pullman. This device is a subtle mix of science and magic; able to see the truth in any situation, it enables Lyra to steer her course through a terrifying maze of adventure.

Its powers grow with the telling. At first, neither the reader nor Lyra understand what it can do, but gradually it reveals its full potential. It's small and golden and beautiful, which adds to the mystique. It's something I covet.

2. The Room of Requirement

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Illustration: Jonny Duddle

Like His Dark Materials, the Harry Potter series is stuffed with inventions. I nearly went for the Time-Turner, because who wouldn't want a time machine? But instead, I've chosen the Room of Requirement.

'To make it appear, one must walk past its hidden entrance three times while concentrating on what is needed. The room will then appear, outfitted with whatever is required.'

Oh, what a thing to have! Imagine being able to find anything you really needed at the moment you really needed it. It's obviously magic, but it's an invention. A top invention.

3.  The Traction Cities

The front cover of Mortal Engines

Illustration: Ian McQue

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve brings us the Traction cities. The Mortal Engines quartet is rich with invention, but the opening of the book - in which we meet the ravenous and mobile city of London bearing down on the small mining town of Salthook - is mind-blowing in its audacity.

Everything that follows just fits so well once we've been introduced to the concept. I don't actually like the idea of living with consuming cities, but it's up there as one of the most inventive inventions ever.

4. Airships

The front cover of Brightstorm

Illustration: George Ermos

The airships of Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy have to be in there. Airships pop up in lots of children's books, possibly because there is something so romantic about travelling with the clouds. But their fragility and ability to land without a runway also make them especially good for adventures.

This is one of my favourite examples because I love the book they're in. Also in the sky, Scott Westerfeld plays with a mix of organic and mechanical in his Leviathan trilogy. In his world, there are fully mechanical inventions, and 'fabricated' inventions. The Whale airship of the British Darwinists, if you haven't read the books, is a thing of wonder.

An addendum to this is Cogheart, by Peter Bunzl – the book uses airships, but more excitingly, it also contains sentient machines. Malkin, the mechanical fox, is a brilliant character who periodically runs out of steam and can literally wind down. He's almost human, but subtly not. An endearing and enduring creature.

5. Time machines

The Many Worlds of Albie Bright

There are many, many time machines. And I really wouldn't mind having one, but most of them are rather large and rather complicated. One of the simplest and the best is the banana box-laptop combo used by Albie Bright in The Many Worlds of Albie Bright by Christopher Edge. It's actually almost possible - isn't it?

6. A snow-making machine

The front cover of The Snow Merchant

Illustration: Tomislav Tomic

Finally, one of my all time favourites. An invention which I would really love to own is the snow-making machine owned by The Snow Merchant in Sam Gayton's book of the same name. In this book, Snow comes to the land of Albion, and it's as magical and mysterious as snow can be.

If I had it, we'd have a snow day every day!

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