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CHILDREN'S BOOKS / Old haunts, and dances with elves: Nicholas Tucker on a grisly clutch of children's stories, full of ghosts, kidnappers and cliffhangers

ALAS, poor ghosts] Driven out of adult literature by the sceptical, psychological age in which we live, they tend now to be relegated mainly to children's books. And even here they are often only a shadow of their former selves.

In Penelope Farmer's novel Penelope (Bodley Head pounds 9.99), the ghost of a child of two centuries ago is felt rather than seen, making her presence known to her young contemporary ancestor through sudden sharp, inexplicable memories. Erasmus Darwin and William Blake rub shoulders with Michael Jackson, and the haunting of young Penelope finally gets close to madness. Some readers between 10 and 12 may find it rather tame, preferring the full-blooded spirits that haunt today's video games. But for an already bookish child, this is an excellent novel by a constantly intriguing author, returning to something like the strength of her previous classic, Charlotte Sometimes.

Catherine Storr, another fine writer, does not have the same success with The Mirror Image Ghost (Faber pounds 9.99). Here, the truly disagreeable 11-year-old Lisa finds she can contact her Jewish grandfather back in time as a boy in Vienna and so warn him to leave Austria as soon as possible. But she already knows her grandfather well as an old man living nearby. Some rather tentative explanations of the different possible workings of time fail to address her confusion here and, I suspect, that of the reader too. Meanwhile Lisa pursues her own war against two French step-children added to the family against her wishes. Her bitterness is understandable but also, over 170 pages, somewhat repetitive. Readers anxious to acquaint themselves with this author at her best must still return to Marianne Dreams, later made into a powerful horror film The Paper House.

Kenneth Lillington's A Trick Of The Dark (Faber pounds 9.99) does not contain ghosts, but features some thoroughly nasty elves. The elves begin as literary creations, characters in the sagas of the Tolkien- like 'Professor Bodkin', but they soon take on a life of their own in the real world, where, with fiendish gusto, they take advantage of human weakness. Given the potentialities of his plot, the author disappointingly steps away from full engagement with it. Circular arguments and half-felt relationships abound, almost as if the elves themselves had taken a hand in the writing, leading the reader a merry dance that never really gets anywhere in the end.

Despite its sinister cover, Vivien Alcock's The Face At The Window (Methuen pounds 9.99) does not contain anything supernatural. Instead, the face here belongs to Erri, a young illegal immigrant sheltered by children whose mother who is an enthusiastic charity worker. Rather unfairly perhaps, she is picked out as a soft target for particular scorn simply for daring occasionally to put the importance of social issues ahead of the immediate gratification of her own family. But faced with a flesh and blood challenge, she funks it, leaving her own children and the girl next door to attempt to hide Erri for themselves. The children inevitably quarrel, and the whole adventure, with its final near-happy solution, is described very plausibly. Yet the total effect is ultimately rather claustrophobic, like those studio-bound films that cannot afford to go out on location. So much hiding in dark rooms leaves one longing for fresh air.

Much more ozone is on hand in Ruth Thomas's Hideaway (Hutchinson pounds 8.99). Maintaining the somewhat grim outlook set by all these titles, this novel describes three children kidnapped by a fat crook after they realise he is using his camper-van for transporting stolen goods. The children are later dumped in the wilds of Dartmoor, with new complications arising when their leader decides he does not want to return to his home where he has always been unhappy. Life in the open is not so bad until the van's food runs out and one of the children falls dangerously ill with asthma. Seeing his dream disintegrate, the child leader attempts to kidnap the other two for himself rather than let them seek adult help. At this stage the story turns very dark, with overtones of recent, tragic cases of children kidnapping others smaller than themselves. Ruth Thomas is a good writer and this is a powerful story, though not really an enjoyable one.

The Kidnapping Of Suzie Q (Hamish Hamilton pounds 8.99) carries on with this theme, though now it concerns a criminal teenage gang making away with a resourceful 11- year-old after a hold-up that goes wrong. Catherine Sefton (as the Irish author Martin Waddell sometimes prefers to call himself) is an expert writer. Each chapter ends on a cliff-hanging note, and the events described read exactly as if they had really happened. Not a word is wasted, and the only disappointment is that it is all over too quickly. Large print is partly to blame here, using up a lot of space while giving the misleading impression of writing aimed at a much younger audience. In fact, tough 10 to 12 year olds will find much that will grip them, with the extra satisfaction of knowing that Suzie will always make it in the end, while her initially frightening but ultimately pathetic captors are bound to fail.

Theresa Tomlinson's The Herring Girls (Julia MacRae pounds 9.99) is something different: a historical novel set in late 19th-century Whitby and featuring 13-year-old Dory suddenly faced with becoming the family bread-winner. In this she has the support of her whole community, seen here as almost relentlessly goodhearted. So while the details of Dory's day-to- day life are convincingly tough, the story's atmosphere is firmly up-beat, like the old historical reconstructions on the BBC's Children's Hour, where goodness always managed to win through whatever the odds. But after so much disaster in previous books, it would be churlish now to spurn such a nice little story for being too cheerful. The text is also enormously enhanced by the addition of grainy period photographs by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, now housed in Whitby's own Sutcliffe Gallery.

No hopes of any cheerfulness, though, in Katherine Paterson's Flip-Flop Girl (Gollancz pounds 9.99). Nine-year-old Vinnie loses her father from cancer and sees her five- year-old brother turn into an elective mute. She then moves to a new area she hates, inhabited by other children who dislike her almost as much as she detests them. The only hope is a nice English teacher and another outcast pupil whose father is in prison for murdering his wife. Bonjour tristesse] Katherine Paterson has done some good work in the past, but Flip- Flop Girl is definitely more flop than flip.