Books for Children: Fiction: Under 12s: Open wide and say 'Ahhh'

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PEOPLE claim that the obsession with political correctness is killing children's fiction. The new rules may indeed be hindrances to the mediocre imagination, but they can inspire the truly gifted author to new heights. Margaret Mahy's Dentist's Promise (Scholastic pounds 7.99) is a witty, elegant and spirited story about a girl named Renata Oldmouse who promises her Aunt Tabitha that she will be forever true to her family name - and takes this to mean that she can never marry.

She sets out to become a sympathetic dentist. She buys a drill that plays violin music, fills her waiting-room with amusements, and believes her life to be complete until one day she falls in love with a good-looking trapeze artist who comes in with a chipped tooth. As she goes to work on him, she tells him about her feelings and why she cannot permit herself to act on them. The fine illustrations and accessible text will entertain up to 8s - and it was only after I put the book down that I realised it presented a positive image of women.

Books for beginners tend to be geared to the interests of 5-year-olds, so can be boring and embarrassing for the child who starts reading later. Rose Impey manages to span both audiences in her lively 'Animal Cracker' series (Orchard Books pounds 5.99 each). In A Birthday for Bluebell: The Oldest Cow in the World and four other titles she reflects the contemporary world of bullies, lonely pensioners, stay-at-home fathers and dangerous roads without taming her characters into acting out a moral lesson. They are wittily illustrated (by Shoo Rayner) with 2 to 8 lines per page, but because they are 45 pages long they encourage a feeling of accomplishment. My test reader, who has shaky confidence, came downstairs bragging, 'I read a whole book last night, and it only took me ten minutes.'

Easily domesticated ghosts continue to be popular, but often the authors' anxieties seep out between the lines even as they bring their stories to a reassuring close. An exception is Kenneth Oppel's A Bad Case of Ghosts (Antelope pounds 4.99), which dwells at length on the 'strange, rustling' noises the little boy hears at night. Allowing him real fear makes his efforts to overcome it far more convincing. This is a useful book for the more self-assured reader. Meanwhile, back in the animal kingdom, battery hens remain sought-after Vehicles of Conscience. Only in John Yeoman and Quentin Blake's Featherbrains (Hamish Hamilton pounds 8.50) are chickens allowed distinct personalities and odd tastes, and there is no condescension in the lively vocabulary.

Parents who have had it up to here with manic ghosts and zany animals will appreciate Jake's Book by Kate Petty (Julia MacRae pounds 8.99), a series of tame, thoughtful stories about the mysteries of everyday life as seen by a small boy in North London. Best for reading to a younger child. Those who like read- alone books that address real-life headaches will enjoy Jacqueline Wilson's The Mum-Minder (Doubleday pounds 8.99), in which 9-year-old Sadie finds her half- term plans altered when her child- minder mother comes down with the flu. She feels obliged to help the overworked parents who have been left in the lurch, and charts their efforts to muddle through with a fine eye for the details of chaos.

Relentless optimism remains the rule for the young reader, and it seems children must be able to manage two pages without an illustration before they are considered old enough to read about intractable problems or characters with serious flaws. For an 8- or 9- year-old who has just come to full- length books, Dick King-Smith's Uncle Bumpo (Scholastic pounds 8.99) allows the lying, pilfering hero full entertainment value. His author has to punish him, of course, but when we say goodbye to Uncle Bumpo in his hospital bed, there is only the faintest hope that he might be rehabilitated. Sid Fleischman's Jim Ugly (Hamish Hamilton pounds 8.99) is an excellent Wild West adventure about an orphaned boy, a dog and a troupe of disreputable actors in search of a cache of diamonds. Sink or Swim by Ghillian Potts (Young Corgi pounds 2.50) is the least didactic bully book on offer. Young William suffers at the swimming baths at the hands of the always undetected Big Mark, and, although he ends up dealing with the problem in an exemplary way, his terror of the water is given full weight.

Pre-adolescent readers will find much that is familiar - and grim - in Henrietta Brandford's Clare's Summer (Lions pounds 3.50), about a girl who is ignored by both parents after they split up, and who finds comfort with a horse. Mark Haddon's Gridzbi Spudvetch] (Walker pounds 4.99) combines spirited social realism with science fiction in a story about schoolboys involved in an otherwordly adventure after eavesdropping on their teachers. Grandpa Chatterji (Methuen pounds 6.99), by the prize- winning Jamila Gavin, promotes something a little warmer than tolerance with this story of British-born Indian children mystified by the habits and attitudes of their newly-arrived Indian grandfather, while Kate Elizabeth Ernest's Hope Leaves Jamaica (Methuen pounds 8.99) is a sad, entrancing, but never sentimental account of a young girl's years living with her grandparents in Jamaica after her parents have emigrated to Britain in search of work. It ends with her own departure for Britain, and left me hoping for a sequel that is better produced: this one came with the text backwards and upside-down.