Books: Kids need coffee tables

Brandon Robshaw reviews fiction aimed at pre-teens

It's heartening to see that Alf Proysen's Mrs Pepperpot stories are still in print after all these years. As you may remember from your own childhood, they feature the little old woman who periodically shrinks to the size of a pepperpot. The stories have that sense of magic which all the best children's stories have. Set in rural Norway, they evoke a world of snow and mountains, bears and moose. The 27 stories in Mrs Pepperpot's First Story Book (Hutchinson pounds 9.99) include the one where she becomes Queen of the Crows, the one where she engages a mouse as a night watchman, and the one where she goes for a ride on a pipe that turns into a rocket. The style is conversational and good-natured ("Now I'll tell you what happened when Mrs Pepperpot was asked to mind the baby") and they're just the right length for reading aloud. Oh, and let's hear it for Bjorn Berg's excellent illustrations.

The Boy Who Walked on Water by Vivian French (Walker, pounds 7.99) is another collection of tales with a folksy feel which appeal to the same sort of age group - that is to be listened to by four- to six-year-olds or read alone by five- to eight-year-olds. There are three stories: the title story, concerning Fergal, who was able to walk on water but neglected his gift as he didn't like to be different; "The Old Potmender and the Tin Tea Kettle" which is about a potmender who goes to seek his wife on the other side of Nowhere; and "Why the Sea is Salt", which offers a lively, humorous re-telling of the traditional tale. All three stories are gracefully written, but "The Old Potmender" is easily my favourite. It's a strange, unpredictable story which takes the reader into an alternative universe of talking kettles, rivers of hot chocolate, inflated Somebodies and deflated Nobodies.

Dick King-Smith's The Witch of Blackberry Bottom (Viking pounds 10.99) is a rather more substantial read, suitable for readers aged seven to nine. Most children's writers can't or won't write sympathetically and convincingly about adults, but Dick King-Smith can and does. This is the story of Miss Slade, an old woman with an eye-patch who lives in an ancient caravan in a hollow at the end of a lane. She wears clothes made of old sacks and keeps six dogs, a donkey, and assorted goats and chickens. None of the villagers ever ventures near, partly because of the smell and partly because they think she's a witch. But Patsy and Jim, two children newly moved to the village, befriend her and discover her secret. This is a readable and good-humoured novel which will make children think again about judging by appearances.

Ban Pong - Where Beetles Taste Great! by Michael Cox (Scholastic pounds 3.50) is one of the "Airmail From..." series, in this case from Thailand. It's a collection of pen-pal letters from the fictional nine-year-old girl Shrimp (real name Srinthip Prajom), enlivened by drawings by her brother Frog (aka illustrator Rhian Nest James.) Both letters and drawings are charming and funny; the letters tell the story of a year in the life of Shrimp and her family and painlessly impart a good deal of information about Thai culture by the way. Shrimp's English is idiomatic but has the odd error for comic effect - when it's raining it's "chuckling it down", for instance. The effect is endearing without being patronising

The Gift of the Gab (Viking, pounds 10.99) is the third of Morris Gleitzman's books about Rowena Batts, a feisty mute Australian child who communicates with sign language and a notebook. The story takes her from Australia to France and involves TV producers, a scandal about the poisonous effects of agricultural chemicals, strange sausages, an unexploded bomb from the First World War, organ donations and the truth behind her muteness and her mother's death. The plot may be far-fetched, but the energy of the writing is equal to it. The story is funny and moving by turns - I'm not usually a fan of these stroppy child heroines, but I couldn't help warming to Rowena as the story went on. One small quibble: in one scene, Rowena's two-month-old half-brother laughs and points at her because she has a scrap of lettuce on her head. Two month-old babies are not up to such sophisticated behaviour. Children's writers should get these things right.

One expects something pretty lightweight from a book called The Scary Monster Clean-up Gang - but Anne Lewis's novel (Honno pounds 3.95) is actually a solid, serious tale of morality and magic. Warren joins Brynmor's gang of juvenile psychos; meanwhile the Swamp-Witch raises the terrible Spirit of Don't Care, which enslaves both the bwganod (tree fairies) of the Wood and the human inhabitants of the nearby town of Nant-y-Ceirw. The prose is lyrical but the danger feels real. It's a deeply Welsh novel - an added attraction for those of us with Welsh blood coursing through our veins. Shame about the title, though.

I love the title of Simon Cheshire's They Melted His Brain (Walker pounds 9.99) and I love the book too. Matthew Bland is a schoolboy director of home- made films, with such titles as They Came from Space, Volcano Town, Kevin Johnson: Midfield Surgeon, Giant Bacteria Ate My Brother and Head Transplant to his credit. Then Matthew discovers the fiendish plot of Mr Spite, director of Void TV, who has perfected a method of brainwashing people through TV ads and making them crave worthless junk they don't need. Only Matthew, aided by his trusty friends and co-stars Julie Laburnum (real name Julie Custard) and Lloyd Martin (real name Martin Lloyd) can stop Mr Spite - or can they? Buy this for the nine- to 11-year-old in your life, and make sure you read it yourself.

Those of a macabre turn of mind will enjoy The Young Oxford Book of Nasty Endings, edited by Dennis Pepper (OUP, pounds 6.99), 34 stories by adult writers as well as writers for younger readers, and each story ends with a nasty twist. Roald Dahl's "The Landlady" sets the tone pretty well for what is to follow. There are stories by E Nesbit, John Wyndham, John Christopher, T H White and Ray Bradbury. There isn't a duff story here, but I especially enjoyed John Collier's "Thus I refute Beelzy" and Harold Rolseth's "Hey, You Down There!" Teenagers are often difficult to buy books for, but this collection should solve the problem.

Finally, there seems to be a new trend of what you might call coffee- table books for kids this year: expensive, large- format editions, with glossy jackets and lavish illustrations. Thus we have a de luxe edition of Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Viking pounds 14.99); The Puffin Twentieth Century Collection of Verse, edited by Brian Patten, and The Puffin Twentieth-Century Collection of Stories (both pounds 12.99). The stories feature all the usual big-hitters: Sylvia Waugh, C S Lewis, Tolkien, Richmal Crompton etc, but as each writer is represented by short extracts rather than complete stories, the effect is tantalising rather than satisfying. The verse collection is a better bet - an imaginative collection that travels backwards through time, starting with Benjamin Zephaniah and ending with Thomas Hardy. But does your child have a coffee table to keep it on?

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