Books For Children: First Fiction

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The Independent Culture
The new reader - too smart for picture books and too young for teenage novels - needs plot that's compelling, but not so scary it impinges on his dreams. He needs subtly developed characters whose feelings and motivation he can recognise. Most of all, he deserves bright, sharply original prose that doesn't bore or preach or patronise - fierce, useful language that fizzes with possibility and inspires genuine excitement about words.

Carol Hughes writes straightforwardly, gorgeously fantastical books for children. Jack Black and the Ship of Thieves (Bloomsbury pounds 4.99) is a boy- saves-grownups story set aboard the "largest airship in the world" and featuring an heroic female pilot and a load of leather-helmeted traitors. Surprising, engaging and endlessly inventive, it's the sort of book you'd read at eight, nine or 10, only to find at 42 that it had sneaked up and coloured your whole life.

Equally lavishly imagined and tightly written (but also funny) is J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Bloomsbury pounds 4.99). The Dursley family wake up one morning ready to continue their smug daily grind, only to find that owls are swooping past the window and cats are reading maps. This is an exciting book, crammed with jokes about the idiocy of grownups - read aloud, it entertained my five-, six- and eight-year- olds equally.

David Henry Wilson's The Castle of Inside Out (Macmillan pounds 9.99) is similarly fantastical, but more serious in intent. A small girl is moved by the plight of the "outsiders", dying of starvation in the grounds of the castle. Encounters with a series of selfish, hypocritical animals confirm that "the system" is designed to protect and nurture the lucky few. It's a bold, attractively anti-establishment story but, though biggish type and Chris Riddell's swirling, funky pictures suggest a younger readership, I defy anyone to explain the political analogies and endless puns - such as "bureaurat" and "Conflagrante delicto" - to a child under 12.

Dick King-Smith's The Merman (Viking pounds 10.99) tells of a grave, lonely little girl whose encounter with a wise old Merman changes both her summer holidays and her life. My six-year-old and I loved this gentle, inspiring book, but can someone please impress upon King-Smith that the word "bathe" (meaning a swim in the sea) went out with Enid Blyton?

Ghosts are what you read about when you're not quite ready for boys. The Girl in the Blue Tunic by Jean Ure (Scholastic pounds 4.99) is an elegantly written, if embarrassingly old-fashioned, tale, twining the psyches of a lonely 11- year-old girl at boarding school and the ghost of a long- dead former pupil. Much more boisterous and in tune with our times is Margaret Mahy's The Horribly Haunted School (Hamish Hamilton pounds 10.99), an inventive and sumptuously written variation on exactly the same theme, but with more jokes, fewer gymslips and a nicely anarchic narrative.

"Just don't even look at that book, Mummy," shuddered my eight-year-old protectively when he spied a Goose Bumps on my desk. Expecting Reservoir Dogs, I was surprised to find that the climax of R L Stine's How to Kill a Monster (Scholastic pounds 3.99) involves a three-metre tall furry monster merely eating pancakes. Despite all the "foul stenches" and "putrid decay" and the queasy inevitability of Stine's cliffhanger chapter endings, the most threatening aspect of this series seems to be the numbingly formulaic structure and bland, cartoonish characters.

Far more sinister is Michael Johnstone's Scarecrow (Madcap pounds 2.99) which has a (believable, Nineties) boy being sucked down a black hole in the middle of a field, to meet "evil", cloaked aliens of uncertain shape. Much less specific and therefore more frightening. Only you will know if your child can take it - mine clearly can't.

For the slightly older reader, Susan Gates's spirited Criss Cross (Scholastic pounds 4.99) consists entirely of chatty, bored notes passed from girl to girl and girl to boy over a series of lessons. There's nothing obviously literary or complex about this book, but the scribbled drama (who likes who, who's using who, who might or might not be pregnant) is sharp and alive and each author's style, purpose and subtext slowly emerges. I admired its comic energy and perfectly observed emotions and characterisation.