Books: Witches, beauties and mennyms: Maureen Owen on the best of this year's children's fiction

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The Independent Culture
AIMED AT AN age group that is probably the most difficult to write for, the six to eights, The Enchanted Horse by Magdalen Nabb (Young Lion pounds 2.99) is a rare find. Going from hardback to paperback in record time, this has the timeless quality of a book in which the longings of a lonely child are magically satisfied. Irina, daughter of hardworking but somewhat grudging farmers, sees a tattered wooden horse in a junk shop and takes it home for Christmas. Gradually responding to the girl's love and care, the horse turns to flesh and blood and takes her on secret midnight forays. This is a strong fantasy, anchored in daily life with its farm chores, school routines and a learning process centred on the care of an animal. Simply illustrated in black and white by Julek Heller, you need look no further for the perfect storybook for an early reader.

A generation ago, Jill Murphy delighted children and parents alike with her entertaining picture book, Five Minutes Peace, in which Mrs Large, the elephant, escaped from bedlam by retreating into the bathroom. Next came another Murphy classic, The Worst Witch, which developed into a series for older children. After a lengthy gap, she is back with the fourth in the series, in which the hapless Mildred Hubble rejoins the students of Miss Cackles Academy for Witches. In The Worst Witch at Sea (Viking pounds 8.99), Mildred once again falls short of competitive standards by bringing her beloved though useless cat, Tabby, on a broomstick waterskiing course. The humour in this genial fantasy arises from the reversing of school routines - along with Murphy's witty drawings.

Going in at a deep level, The War of Jenkin's Ear by Michael Morpurgo (Heinemann pounds 9.99) is considerably more than just another school story for boys. Crossing huge divides of history, religion and social patterns, the story takes place in a boarding school in the Fifties. Here, Christopher is hardly the conventional new boy. Starting by refusing to eat the skin on his rice pudding, he also holds various strange beliefs, including that he is a reincarnated healer, and is kicked out for his pains. If it wasn't for Morpurgo's subtle exploration of character this would be a bizarre instead of a rewarding experience.

Adults often assume that the lavishly produced and fondly remembered classics of their youth have disappeared. With a record number of classics - from Black Beauty to The Secret Garden - reappearing this year, they can have no cause for complaint, especially when Little Red Riding Hood by Charles Perrault (Pavilion pounds 12.99) comes back to us straight from the 17th century. Predating the Brothers Grimm and Hans Andersen, Perrault made the literary fairy-tale fashionable at the court of Louis XIV. Writing for a jaded audience Perrault gave his stories (11 of which are included here) a few courtly flourishes: when the Sleeping Beauty awakes, for instance, the prince can't help noticing that her dress is 100 years out of date. But apart from the rhymed 'moralities' that follow each story, Perrault keeps to an elegant simplicity. With intricate illustrations by Sally Holmes, only the translation occasionally seems out of keeping. Guards snore 'fit to burst' and there is talk of 'getting hitched'. Perrault said that?

This week, War Game by Michael Foreman (Pavilion pounds 9.99) won the world's biggest children's book prize, the Smarties. The illustrated story of four young soldiers who join up for the First World War in a surge of patriotism, it movingly recreates the horrors of 75 years ago. Compelling though this brilliantly conceived book is, the limits of the realistic novel in the six to eight age group are severe, and by putting War Game into this category when it is really more suitable for older readers, the Smarties committee seems to have muddled its readerships.

Compulsion is the name of the game for Terry Pratchett fans who go from eight upwards. In Johnny and the Dead (Doubleday pounds 9.99), Johnny Maxwell, the computer-crazed hero of Only You Can Save Mankind reappears with his friends Wobbler and Yo-less. In this, only Johnny can see the dead. Visiting the local cemetery he meets a rich variety of 'post-senior citizens' who are about to be dug up so that in council-speak, the plot can be sold for 'modern purpose- designed offices'. Introducing themselves are Alderman Bowler in fur- trimmed robe and gold chain whose stone reads '1882-1906: Pro Bono Publico', and Mrs Sylvia Liberty, 'Died 1914: Tireless Suffragette'. With Johnny's help the outraged incumbents decide to take action: 'We are not taking this lying down,' says the Alderman. With such wraith-like jokes pushing at the margins of taste, only Pratchett's inspired imagination and gift for lateral thinking can save a nosedive into ghoulish chucklefodder. But as he said in a recent Independent interview, 'There is more than one way of looking at reality'.

The Boggart by Susan Cooper (Bodley Head pounds 8.99) is the thinking child's believe-it-or-not story. Always one to pack an emotional wallop, Cooper, who is another writer who has just taken a long sabbatical, brings a strange intensity to the story of a brother and sister who suffer from the pranks of a Celtic sprite. Accompanying them from Scotland to Toronto, the invisible Boggart complicatcs their lives with a series of domestic disasters. Unjustified blame being the cause of many an explosive emotion, Cooper's skilful fantasy will have a wide appeal for anyone in the eight to eleven age group.

The Mennyms by Sylvia Waugh (Julia Macrae pounds 9.99) is the unusual story of a family who live out a stunning deception in the face of a hostile world. Only gradually does it unfold that despite apparent normality, the Mennyms are actually a family of lifesized rag dolls. Caught in a time-warp where no one has changed for 40 years, the family hides from the ridicule of strangers until a suspicious letter threatens to unmask them. An uncomfortable reminder of the harsh ways of the world, Sylvia Waugh's brilliant first novel succeeds in its warm acceptance of the pretences and vulnerabilities of those who are strange or different.