BOOK REVIEW / Children's Books: Happy families and rare pigs: Maureen Owen on the best books for children

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The Independent Culture
FOR ALL that the choice is so wide, show an adult a pile of books for seven- to 12- year-olds and they are likely to choose the ones fondly remembered from their youth. Who hasn't longed to recapture the magic world of fantasy which Ursula Le Guin once described as 'A vast and beautiful national park'? From the time their children are about seven years old, parents would do well to look out for new books. By the lavishly gifted William Mayne, for instance, who started writing for children in 1953 and is still producing some of the best books to be found. His latest, Hob and the Goblins (Dorling Kindersley pounds 8.99) about a house spirit who tidies away things like scraps of quarrels and pieces of spite before moving on to the sterner stuff of evil magic, is perfect for a good eight- or nine-year- old reader. While Low Tide, also by Mayne (Red Fox, pounds 3.50), is an exhilarating adventure story set in New Zealand at the turn of the century.

For seven-year-olds starting to read by themselves, a superior example of the large print and simple but satisfying story formula is Triffic: A Rare Pig's Tale by Dick King-Smith (Gollancz pounds 3.99). Taking advantage of her rarity value, Triffic, the new piglet at the Rare Breeds Centre, stages a series of disappearing tricks.

James Marshall, American author, illustrator and devastatingly funny story teller, died in 1992. Rats on the Range (Hamish Hamilton pounds 8.50) is a fine example of his witty style and, unfortunately, his last book. Out of eight stories it is hard to pick a favourite, but 'Fairweather Pig', in which the playground show-off leaves school and gets fired from every job due to a mixture of vanity and greed, had two seven-year-olds with very different tastes hooting with laughter.

Animal stories in the eight- to ten-year-old range have developed great authenticity. Rak: The Story of an Urban Fox by Jonathan Guy (Julia Macrae pounds 8.99) is a book which raises important questions while reading like a thriller. Rak and his mate Shi live on a railway embankment untroubled by man, whose waste bins provide easy pickings, until they are captured and 'freed' into the countryside by well-meaning people. With his mate soon run over by a car, Rak's struggle for survival makes a gripping read.

Although Jacqueline Wilson deals in social realism, her books have a fresh and friendly approach and she receives hundreds of letters from children. In the Bed and Breakfast Star (Doubleday pounds 8.99), Elsa and her family are all jammed into one room in a run-down bed and breakfast hotel for homeless families. Elsa blots out the present by dreaming of becoming a star and, unlikely as it seems, gets her big chance. In contrast, Tree House by Gillian Cross (Methuen pounds 7.99), is a warm and touching happy-families story. Magic flourishes when two brothers discover a 100-year-old tree in the garden of their new house.

In Greek Myths for Young Children (Walker pounds 9.99) Marcia Williams takes eight of the better known myths and illustrates them in cartoon form. This works better than you might think with Pandora, for instance, portrayed as a spoilt harpy while the text tells the story. Strong stuff. Bible stories have also made a come-back recently with a number of lavish editions. So are we seeing a religious revival in the world of children's publishing, or is it just a case of going back to basics for some good stories? The Children's Illustrated Bible retold by Selina Hastings, (Dorling Kindersley pounds 14.99) is illustrated by Eric Thomas with maps and pictures along natural history lines. One image shows an Egyptian basket which 'Moses's mother would have found easy to make out of papyrus reeds'.

The Kingfisher Children's Bible retold by Ann Pilling ( pounds 12.99) also covers both Old and New Testaments in story form with colour pictures. With the story of Moses called 'The Baby in the Basket', the keynote is fresh simplicity. In Stories from the Bible retold by Martin Waddell (Frances Lincoln pounds 9.99), the tone is more aggresive; Moses's mother, we are told, 'wasn't going to let any old Egyptian kill him'. Take your pick.

With a selection of over 15 modern classics reprinted by Puffin this Easter, nostalgia victims should have little to complain about. Most will suit children from the age of eight upwards and all are priced at pounds 3.99. First published in 1958, Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce has stood the test of time with the magical story of the boy who opens the door to an enchanted garden when the clock strikes 13. The Mouse and His Father by Russell Hoban, about the perilous adventures of two clockwork mice, has survived to become a cult favourite, while Clive King's tale of an eight-year-old boy who embarks on some hair-raising adventures with a stone age man, still ranks as one of the best time-shift fantasies.

The best of the new paperbacks include The Snow-Walker's Son by Catherine Fisher (Red Fox pounds 2.99), about a magical journey through dark regions ruled by an ice-witch and The Children Next Door by Jean Ure (Scholastic pounds 5.99), which combines realism with eeriness in a story about the hidden secrets of a seemingly ordinary family.