Books: Vampires, brigands and painful kicks

Brandon Robshaw reviews novels and stories for younger readers
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The Independent Culture
If you are looking for a Christmas present for the 9- to 13-year- old boy in your life, you could do worse than The Transylvanian Incident by Terrance Dicks (Piccadilly Press pounds 4.99). Boys are notoriously difficult to buy books for, but Dicks (who wrote the Dr Who books) seems to have evolved a promising formula. The Transylvanian Incident is the fifth book in his Unexplained series, and has everything that boys are supposed to like: male author, male narrator, predominantly male characters, plenty of action, plenty of facts, a fast-paced narrative and a dash of the supernatural. Matt Stirling and his father the Professor ("top scientist and all-round egghead") are sent to Romania to investigate an outbreak of vampirism and they discover ... well, they discover vampires. The plot is simple and sturdy, the style readable but full of off-the-peg phrases.

Shorter and stranger is Screw Loose by Alison Prince (Barrington Stoke pounds 3.99). This is a surreal tale of a boy who finds a screwdriver and starts taking things at school apart with it until, inexplicably, he is made Headmaster for a day and has to put everything back together. Boys, I think, will like it - except for the bit where one character is doubled up by being kicked "somewhere painful" by one of the girls. Assaults on the testicles are becoming more common in novels, films and even sitcoms, but I hadn't thought the virus had got as far as children's literature.

If you are thinking of buying a book for a girl this Christmas - or the more literary kind of boy - you might consider Joan Lingard's A Secret Place (Hodder pounds 10.99). It's narrated in the first person by 11-year-old Maria who, with her little brother, is snatched from the school playground by her father and whisked away to Spain. Maria's confusion and divided love are deftly, convincingly evoked, as are the landscape and atmosphere of Spain. The style is fluent and readable and Lingard gets right into the mind of her heroine (except that I don't believe 11-year-olds use words like "hugger-mugger"). The plot is gripping and succeeds in pulling out a satisfying if bittersweet ending from what looks like an impossible situation.

The Children of Nuala by Malachy Doyle (Faber pounds 4.99) is for younger readers - say 6-9 - and again more likely to appeal to girls. It's a re- telling of an Irish folk-tale, "The Children of Lir" - a compelling story of magic and jealousy and forgiveness, told in plain, vivid words, with a glossary at the back. The only fault I have to find is with Amanda Harvey's illustrations. She does landscapes well, but she's not so hot on facial expressions. On page 25, for instance, where Nuala is supposed to be gazing lovingly at a group of blackbirds, she looks as if she's slavering in anticipation of biting their heads off.

Boy readers in the 6-9 age-range would probably prefer Janet and Allan Ahlberg's It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (Puffin pounds 3.99 - a re-issue of their 1993 title), a Scheherezadean feat performed by the eight-year-old Antonio, who has been captured by brigands. The text is funny and fast moving and the colour illustrations by the sadly missed Janet Ahlberg are witty and full of engaging detail.

If you want a book that will appeal to both boys and girls from 6-9, The Independent Story of the Year (Scholastic pounds 7.99) is a likely bet. Here are the 10 winning stories from The Independent/Scholastic annual competition, and there isn't a duff one among them. (If this looks like a deliberate plug for the Indy - well it isn't.) The overall winner, "Toebiter" by Nicola Muntzer, is a tale of a fearsome-smelling creature which lurks under Katie's bed, waiting to catch her off guard and bite her toes. The story is told with considerable verve and has a strong narrative, plenty of humorous tension and a neat, unexpected ending. I also like Simon Cheshire's "The Giant-Sized Yuck", which concerns a talking, moving, man-sized pile of dirt which the Scrubbings family find inhabiting their new house. My favourite, though, is Rosamund Annetts's "The Black Clogs of Castle Doom", an exuberant parody of a gothic horror story, fantastic for reading aloud. I particularly liked the floorboard that creaks like "the stealthy tread of a pitiless assassin". In style and atmosphere it seems to owe something to James Thurber's The 13 Clocks - and there can't be much higher praise than that.

8 Brandon Robshaw's most recent book for children is 'Georgina and the Dragon' (Puffin pounds 3.99).