Children's books / Fiction for seven to tens
Saturday 29 March 1997
Philip Ridley is a major literary talent who pulls new poetry out of the concrete jungle and writes films, novels and plays as well as books for children. In Chris Riddell, political cartoonist as well as an established illustrator, he has a collaborator who can perfectly match his needle- sharp drawing of a world that could be harsh and hopeless if human resourcefulness was less adept.
Their latest venture is Scribbleboy (Viking, pounds 10.99), an effervescent tour de force which lingers in the mind like a haunting. Bulging with larger than life characters and bubbling with snappy wordplay and inventive imagery, it will be read and reread by children who sense its many-layered meaning. Bailey is an archetypal Ridley hero, a small, anxious, defeated child inspired to find new possibilities in the rundown estate he lives on through the supernatural agencies of a talented graffiti artist who sprays glorious technicolour circles, stars and comets across the ubiquitous grey concrete. But who was the original Scribbleboy? Is anybody what they seem at first? And is there any limit to who can join the family circle? At times the development of the plot is slowed down by some over-indulgence in the idiosyncratic new language Ridley establishes, but the book gets into top gear in its last few chapters and accelerates triumphantly across the finish.
Butterfingers (Andersen, pounds 9.99), the latest of Roger Collinson's splendidly zany comic novels, brims with zestful hyperbole and moves at a foxtrot- crisp pace. Its unlikely yet weirdly plausible plot stars a resourceful though determinedly unsporty young hero (by Psmith out of Just William). He is trying to restore a bolshie and independently minded parrot to its aged owner when he tumbles on a splendid pair of villains - tiny, mean Sidle, with his pencil moustache and nauseous after-shave, and colossally strong Curly, bald, tattooed and a cordon bleu cook. They have discovered that the key to pounds 40,000 of swag is buried somewhere beneath the school's cricket pitch - and choose to look for it just before the charity match which is the central attraction of the school's open day. Good prevails, but not without plenty of knockabout humour and some digs at the educational priorities of today's cash-strapped schools.
That Pam Ayres has a way with words and a clear-eyed but benevolent view of the world will come as no surprise. The Nubbler (Orion, pounds 9.99) has a gentle directness that takes it beyond the run of the mill "how to cope with your parents' divorce" story. Racked with misery by his parents' constant warring, Rufus is an only child who feels horribly alone until he is taken up by the Nubbler, a magical helpmeet who tunes into distressed children and sees them through what the cards in WH Smith call "this difficult time".
Puff the Magic Dragon crossed with Lassie, the Nubbler is always there to offer a comforting but tough paw in a crisis. He also gives Rufus a tactical "shove in the right direction" when moral choices have to be made, and opens up visions of what could be. Cynics will find the story impossibly optimistic, and it is probable that the lightly sketched hint that Rufus's mother will end up with his understanding new form teacher is indeed one tidy ending too many. But why not? Optimism, hope for a better future, is exactly what children deserve.
Geraldine Kaye's The Dragon Upstairs (Scolastic, pounds 4.99) is a richly-imagined but simply-written story, excellent for beginner readers. It, too, sports a bedroom miracle, this time an egg which little Anna, a Chinese girl new to England, finds in a freezer in the attic of the takeaway restaurant that her parents take over. It hatches out into what could just be a chingtosaurus: a tiny dragon-like creature that should have become extinct millions of years ago.
Little Ching is Anna's secret, but becomes a challenge to care for. Coping with her makes Anna learn English words and ways, and also helps her gain street cred at school, but Ching is in danger of becoming a national sensation unless Anna can give her freedom.
Superficially light-hearted but ultimately thought-provoking, Martin Waddell's diary novel The Life and Loves of Zoe T. Curley (Walker, pounds 8.99) walks a risky tightrope between Adrian Mole and Judy Blume and emerges triumphant. The key to its success is not only the creation of Zoe, a teenager plagued by puppy-fat and braces and roller-coasting between love and loathing of boys, but also its skilful, very funny depiction of the changing dynamics of family life as children grow up and need both mental and physical space of their own.
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