Books: There's life beyond Harry Potter

Brandon Robshaw on books to grab younger readers
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The Independent Culture
Theresa Breslin's Starship Rescue (Barrington Stoke pounds 3.99) is a strange little book. It's 66 pages, but the print is so generously spaced that it can hardly be more than 5,000 words. The prose is off the peg, the plot bog-standard SF, the characterisation minimal, the technology casually borrowed from Star Trek. Yet it has charm. The simple language, the short sentences, the rapid pace, the frequent illustrations, even the cream-coloured paper on which it is printed all make this an irresistible book. For young readers, particularly boys, who like a simple tale simply told, this will go down a treat.

Sir Rupert and Rosie Gusset in Deadly Danger by Jeremy Strong (A & C Slack pounds 8.99) is set in an imaginary 16th century: Queen Margaret is on the throne and eager to marry the King of Sicily. The hapless Sir Rupert and his resourceful daughter Rosie are despatched to Sicily with a ludicrously flattering portrait of the Queen and 20,000 gold coins to tempt the King. Naturally enough, the gold coins also tempt pirates. The set-up and quite a few of the jokes seem to owe something to the second series of Blackadder, but it's no less funny for that (I laughed aloud on page 54). Chris Mould's illustrations have something of the spidery charm of Ronald Searle's drawings.

Henrietta Branford's Royal Blunder and the Haunted House (Scholastic pounds 2. 99) is poetic in style and rather weird. Royal Blunder is a magic cat who can talk, fly, grow to the size of a lion and perform magic. With his friend Julie Jones he has a series of surreal adventures, which sometimes end with a peculiar abruptness. This would suit readers of 5- 7, especially girls, and would also be good for reading aloud.

With Anne Fine, you know you're going to get a well-crafted children's story with no boring bits, and that's exactly what Charm School (Doubleday pounds 10.99) is. Bonny, a healthy young hoyden who is more interested in food than clothes, has to spend a day at a charm school where all the other girls are fanatically competing for the, Glistening Tiara prize. Bonny is immediately at odds with these Miss-Worlds-in-training, insults them all and drastically re-jigs their end-of-term show - with moral lessons all round. Girls of 8-11 will love it. It tackles some interesting issues, such as consumerism and the beauty myth. But to me, the ending seems a bit strained; mutual understanding and friendship break out, it seems, because Anne Fine wants them to rather than because that's how the characters would react. Fine's ear for dialogue is also occasionally suspect - I don't believe any teenage boy would say "I hate it so much I could practically die".

Toots Underwater (Bloomsbury, pounds 4.99) is the third book in Carol Hughes's Toots series. It's based on a brilliant idea: in the fairy world which Toots visits, gravity is reversed. The fairies inhabit an upside-down universe; they walk about on the ceiling and live in houses "under" it. The story is about saving a Naiad from the evil machinations of Marsh Imps and disgusting goblins called Bocans, and Toots finds herself on the wrong side. As you read, you have to keep reminding yourself that down is up: to enter the river Toots and the fairies have to climb "up" reeds and once they're in the water, gravity keeps trying to pull them out of it. The writing doesn't quite live up to the imaginative heights of the story, but the plot has a satisfying structure and is neatly topped and tailed with a sub-plot in the real world. It also has a sypathetic and fallible heroine. Recommended for girls of 9-11.

Philip Pullman's I Was a Rat (Doubleday, pounds 10.99) has the lot. One expects something special from the author of Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife and this, though for a younger age group, does not disappoint. It is clever, funny, moving, beautifully written and intensely readable. A boy turns up at an old couple's house one night asking to be taken in; in answer to their questions about where he's come from he can only say "I was a rat." And he acts like one: he chews up his bedding, gnaws pencils and is terrified of cats. They adopt him and name him Roger. In just a few pages, the reader develops the some affection for this ratty little boy as the old couple do - and is just as distressed as they are when he goes missing. Subsequent events, when Roger is shown at a fair, co-opted into a den of thieves, then captured by the authorities and threatened with extermination - maintaining all the time a pathetic eagerness to please - are as tear-jerking as Oliver Twist. I Was a Rat will be enjoyed by adults as much as by children, and Philip Pullman will still be read when most contemporary writers of adult fiction are long out of print.

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