Books for Children: Tell-tale signs for couch potatoes: Story Books: Under 12s

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The Independent Culture
IN A couch-potato world, books to keep children reading need some extra more-ish quality all of their own. Mining the following titles from piles of dross, I couldn't help wondering if too many writers and publishers have decided that if they can't beat TV and video games, they might as well join them.

The Guardians of the House by Lucy Boston (Colt pounds 8.95) makes few concessions to street cred. Tom is a country boy from Wales, newly moved to a city he finds deeply alien, a place 'where nothing had grown by itself or happened by accident, and so there was neither anything familiar nor anything to surprise you'. An old house intrigues him, a relic the city planners forgot. Breaking in, he encounters a trove of explorers' trophies.

One by one, they magic him into a series of spine-chilling adventures, time travelling from ancient Rome to the jungles of Malaysia to an Indian cave, impressing him with their ancient wisdoms, frightening him with the greed they engender in all who see them. Nor is Tom a passive witness to such events. His own crass acquisitiveness is nicely pointed up beside explorers from the past, suggesting the importance of conservation and respect for other cultures. There is nothing preachy here either. Boston writes with far more subtlety and challenge than one expects nowadays from the few books which attempt a moral standpoint. Illustrations, by Peter Boston, underpin the quirky, surreal qualities of the writing, though Tom looks far too young, more attractive to seven-year-olds than to a slightly older readership to whom such huge subjects appeal.

The Last Polar Bears by Harry Horse (Viking pounds 8.99) looks like another one-off. It is about two modern-day explorers, a grandad and his dog. Wrapped in a marvellous cover of crumpled-looking brown paper peppered with colourful stamps and jokey 'Send it by Husky'-style franking, the story is enticing enough for the younger 6-plus reader. It's written as short ink-splodged letters from the runaway grandad to his grandchild, punctuated by maps and comic line drawings by the author. But there the excitement ends. Having set out so well, the adventures of this suicidal old buffer and his reluctant companion never even touch a virtual reality. For readers brought up on armchair travel, the story fails to beat familiar TV cliches of life at the Poles or get inside experiences of cold, hunger and exhaustion. Instead, the story stumbles along, with wet clothes carelessly chucked over a precipice before mysteriously reappearing in the illustrations some pages later. Okay, so Horse has written this to amuse, but it reads like a missed chance. With such a beautiful production and clever format, a bit more bite could create a classic.

The New Reader Classics (Walker Books, pounds 4.99 each) has the following four titles. Beware Olga] by Gillian Cross is a fast fix of food,

naughtiness and comeuppance for young Olga, the girl who won't eat her crusts. Conversation comes in speech bubbles, characters look positively demonic, mess and mayhem slurps across every page.

Captain Cranko and the Crybaby by Jean Ure uses the macho stereotype of comic books and challenges their values. Zapped into a space battle between Captain Cranko and the Aliens, Ben discovers a hero who is tired of war. Thrilled by Mick Brownfield's swashbuckling illustrations, not many readers will care for suggestions that Aliens have feelings, but they'll enjoy going along for the ride.

In Little Luis and the Bad Bandit, Ann Jungman shamelessly exploits all the south-of- the-border cliches of film and fiction: swaying crowd scenes of sleepy sombreros, Viva Zapata mostachios, fat bellies and Spanish guitars. With illustrations by Russel Ayto reminiscent of Ferdinand the Bull, the result is a fast-forward adventure of goodies versus baddies and love conquering all.

Mary Poggs and the Sunshine by Vivian French tells a tale of medieval women's liberation. It's also a nudge to under-challenged school children that a good brain is well worth exploiting. Drawings by Colin West underline the mixture of innocence and knowing guile in village life.

From Mouse and Mole Have a Party (Doubleday pounds 8.99) by Joyce Dunbar, illustrations by James Mayhew: three tales for younger readers set in an animal world so gentle that the greatest problem is how to stick a picked daffodil back on its stalk. The exuberant pictures are reminiscent of The Wind in the Willows, and older enthusiasts of that classic will enjoy a new sequel, If Only Toads Could Fly by John Gilmore (Janus pounds 7.95). Toad takes flying lessons; adventures ensue: for ages 8 to 80.

SPORTY STORIES

The Big Goal by Roy Childs (Young Corgi pounds 2.50) is the latest in a very readable series by this author and should appeal to the seven-plus reader. Five-a-side football is the theme, involving fun and games on the field and off, a token girls' team and some decent interplay between characters.

Napper's Luck by Martin Waddell (Puffin pounds 3.50) - another story about this young footballer - is told with all the fancy jargon in which nine-plus soccer nuts can believe, and enhanced by posters, match programmes and professional- looking play diagrams.

Sophie in the Saddle by Dick King-Smith (Walker Books pounds 6.99) is the latest in a series for six-plus readers about an animal-crazy tomboy. This time a farm holiday teaches her to ride, though really horsey little girls may miss the tacking and grooming details of the truly initiated.

Hawk's Vision by Dennis Hamley (Deutsch pounds 8.99) makes a third in an outstanding series with country schoolchildren who observe and write about nature. Animal lovers may be disappointed by the lack of natural science, but as a piece of writing which describes how stories evolve and get written, this one soars above the rest.

OTHER WORLDS

Akimbo and the Crocodile Man by Alexander McCall Smith (Methuen pounds 6.99) is set on a game park, where its black African characters are determinedly westernised and deeply serious. However, fine drawings by Mei-Yim Low suggest some atmosphere, and despite avoiding any fresh explanations of his country, or of crocodiles, Akimbo's adventure will hold the reader to the last line.

Jazeera's Journey by Lisa Bruce (Methuen pounds 7.99) describes the emigration from one familiar culture into an extraordinary country called Britain. In a gentle, sometimes too glancing style, Bruce writes about racism, loss, isolation and everyday strangenesses - like the child's surprise at finding a male teacher, or undressing for games.

THE SUPERNATURAL

The Wednesday Witch by Sheryl Jordan (Deutsch pounds 8.99) begins with Denzil, an apprentice wizard in the Middle Ages. A miscalculation transports him to a modern New Zealand city, where cohabitation with the McAllisters and their consumer durables threatens to corrupt him. I felt quite sorry for his return to the land of mud and rats, but it's a good story full of interesting characters along the way.

48 Hours with Franklin by Mij Kelly (Blackie pounds 8.99) has all the ingredients for adventure: life in a rambling castle, preoccupied parents and a self- sufficient brother and sister unit. Enter Frankenstein's monster in the shape of a benign tailor's dummy, plus some neighbourhood eccentrics as his fall guys, and it looks like a good start to a series that will run and run.

The Ghost that Lived on the Hill by Jean Ure (Methuen pounds 6.99) also reads like the first of many. Humphrey Pumphrey has come down in the world: his manor house has been torn down so that he is reduced to haunting 'nobodies' on a new housing estate. One young somebody, Joe, is delighted to meet him. Written in standard eight- year-old whinge, the story may appeal to little boys with boring big sisters who scream.

The Worst Witch All At Sea by Jill Murphy (Viking pounds 8.99) is the latest in the magic boarding- school saga with all the usual ingredients including class sneak, over-zealous teacher, loyal friends plus cats, broomsticks and old-fashioned pluck. Unfairness and stiff upper lips abound, making these books seem almost nostalgic.

SHORT STORIES

Naughtiest Stories, compiled by Barbara Ireson (Hutchinson pounds 8.99), includes such leading names in children's storytelling as Paul Jennings, Helen Cresswell and Martin Waddell. Amusing stuff, with the usual cast of humourless parents, loner children and downright brattishness.

The Independent Story of the Year (Scholastic pounds 4.99) offers 10 highly individual slices of life for six to nine-year-olds. The winning story by Caroline Pitcher cleverly points up the mixture of happiness and fear in the natural world and in the child's. Like runners-up Rupert Morgan and June Burrows, hers is a new voice well worth finding.

(Photographs omitted)

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