BOOKS / Innocent games with mysteries: Nicholas Tucker on sprites, stones and slapstick in new novels for children

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The Independent Culture
THESE DAYS books written for readers between 9 and 13 years are often quite tough in terms of social realism. But this particular batch of summer reading holds few nasty surprises for anyone.

Susan Cooper originally made her name with The Dark is Rising, a sequence of five complex, mystical stories which for me always promised more than they finally delivered. Now, 10 years later, she has produced The Boggart (Bodley Head pounds 8.99), a comedy about a mischievous Scottish sprite unwittingly transported to a new home in Canada. Older adults will remember a similar plot in the charming pre-war film, The Ghost Goes West; there is also some resemblance to Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost.

Everything is gently amusing without ever going beyond itself. The Boggart's unruly behaviour is mere slapstick, and the mayhem he causes has only limited repercussions on those who in real life would find such happenings truly alarming. Now that she has left her weighty symbolic baggage behind, the author is revealed as a gifted writer of light fiction.

If The Boggart and all the special effects involved would make a good film, Margaret Joys's Eisteddfod (Faber pounds 8.99) cries out for television adaptation of the family serial type that so often used to brighten up Sunday afternoons in winter. An English child settles in Wales and soon gets involved in her village school's preparations for the annual Eisteddfod. The author lives in Wales, and knows enough about it at first hand to spare readers any of the 'look yous' or other patronising nonsense usually found in those writers who see this part of Britain only as 'the land of song'. This is a happy story, skilfully integrating some Welsh phrases into its text, with a friendly glossary at the end for those few words not adequately explained within the story's context. This is an excellent novel for any child visiting Wales, especially if their parents are thinking of staying there for good.

Gene Kemp has always been a bit of a genius when it comes to reproducing the vigorous verbal to and fro of the playground and classroom before teacher comes in to quieten things down. The nine tales in Roundabout (Faber pounds 8.99) offer a good sample of a skill that shows no sign of diminishing. One nine-page story called 'The Bully' deserves to be incorporated immediately into the national curriculum for English, so important are the issues it raises.

Other stories feature children who although plain, rejected, lost, haunted or temporarily depressed always come across in a breezy, no-nonsense way, defying the heavy sympathy that has helped give child psychology a bad name. Young readers would probably prefer one long story to several short ones, but when they are as good as these few will complain.

Margaret Mahy possesses another type of genius, seen at its best in her haunting, adolescent stories whose symbolism manages to be both personal and universal. The Good Fortunes Gang and A Fortunate Name (Doubleday pounds 8.99 each) are written for a younger audience and are not in the same league. The first two of a quartet of stories about an extended New Zealand family, there is more than a whiff of over-kill as traditional home jokes, catch-phrases and songs are swapped between one selfadmiring cousin and another. Readers presented by such inward-looking complacency may well feel somewhat redundant, although things improve in A Fortunate Name where a non-joining child character eventually wins some concessions from the surrounding self-satisfied crew. Illustrations by John Farman in a roughened Quentin Blake style help a little without dispelling a mild sense of disappointment.

Theresa Tomlinson's The Forestwife (Julia MacRae pounds 8.99) is a sensitive and original re-telling of the Robin Hood story. It is set not in a mythical time of jolly friars and romantic outlaws but in a grimmer environment where peasants are summarily evicted from their cottages to die of hunger. The young forestwife, alias Maid Marion, is as tough as everyone else, cutting a stricken deer's throat in order to feed the starving and well able to defend herself later on with the same knife. The mantle of Rosemary Sutcliff hangs over this talented author, but individual sentences still tend to contain one adjective too many. More blue pencil and a personal commitment to cut down ruthlessly on characters who 'grin' rather than smile could just push her next historical novel into the top flight.

No such hopes alas for W J Corbett's The Grandson Boy (Methuen pounds 8.99). Set in a rural never-never land of friendly animals, dear old ladies and everobliging pre-teenagers, this is a backward-looking story whose young characters can still find themselves ordering others to 'stop trying to be like James Cagney'. Tony Ross does his best to improve things with some witty line illustrations, but nothing really works in this garrulous and unconvincing work, so much below what this author can create at his best.

(Photograph omitted)