Children's Book Special: The lottery of children's fiction

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The Independent Culture

Now that writing a bestselling children's book has begun to edge out winning the National Lottery as the fantasy escape route of the stressed professional classes, a demonstrable truth stands in danger of neglect: that stories for children are just as difficult, if not more so, than stories for grown-ups, and not simply a refuge for dreamy adults who can't be bothered to write properly. The best children's writers of the pre-Potter generation - Joan Aiken, Alan Garner, Peter Dickinson, Diana Wynne-Jones, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander among them - were prose stylists and plot architects as much as imaginative miracle-workers. Each of them knew, as Philip Pullman knows today, that it is not enough to bargain on the richness of children's minds: successful writing of this kind depends on the creation of imaginative worlds that have enough internal coherence to be not only comprehensible but inhabitable. A glance through five of the summer's titles suggests that publishers may be seeking that particular grail for a while to come.

First up is Dean Vincent Carter, a 28-year-old writer whose blurb brags that he "sorts the post at a top London publishing house" and got his book deal after "catching an editor's eye with his witty emails". Not with his book, you'll notice. The Hand of the Devil (The Bodley Head £10.99) is an overcooked sub-Lovecraftian mess "for older readers" about a possessed mosquito, and announces Carter's progress into the rank of children's writers who used to cut their teeth on Point Horror - callous twentysomething blokes churning out lazy poisonous tripe for bloodthirsty adolescent boys. Carter appears to be aiming for the campy gross-out thrills of Weird Tales and its competitors, but those comics had the advantages of brevity and wit. Even the most patiently warped teenager may have a tough time slogging through 280 pages of people saying things like: "You're a lunatic!" and "I've had enough! You hear me? Enough!". People apart from the reader, that is.

Linda Buckley-Archer's Gideon the Cutpurse (Simon & Schuster £12.99), by contrast, is a well-meaning yarn, a piece of good, clean, slightly old-fashioned kids' stuff in heavy debt to a string of reference books. Messing about with dad's anti-gravity machine, a pair of Noughties moppets are catapulted back in time to the 18th century and strive to alert the present to their presence while pursued by an unsavoury aristocrat and his unsanitary minions. Georgian diction is nicely caught, there are evocative sequences at Newgate and Tyburn, there's plenty of adventure and the tension is well sustained within the limits of the fairly derivative plot. A cliffhanger ending promises an exciting follow-up, but it was probably a mistake to have the children even mention going "back to the future".

Though the heart may sink at a plot summary beginning "Taya and Lorkrin Archisan are no ordinary teenagers: they are shape-changers", Oisin McGann's Under Fragile Stone (The O'Brien Press £5.99) has just about enough zip and warmth in its characterisation to lift it above the "Zzar raised his war-blade" school of fantasy writing. The shapechanging brother and sister are pleasingly astringent, there are some chillingly zany monsters and the fight sequences are gritty and competent. This is fantasy for fantasy's sake, though, eschewing almost completely the possibilities of the genre for reflecting fruitfully on the concerns of the real world, and the plotting is nothing if not programmatic: fight sequence follows monster follows astringent brother-and-sister scene, then da capo al fine. It doesn't quite scale the heights, but there's far worse out there.

Not so for Endymion Spring (Puffin £10.99), a confused marriage of heavily-worn research on early printing practice and a sapless narrative about dragonskin manuscripts and child-eating books. The child protagonist is a nasty, whining piece of work, the timeslip plot (15th century-present) is bewilderingly torpid, and the prose of Matthew Skelton, erstwhile academic and first-time writer, is alternately breathless and foot-dragging. The publishers have tried to spice up this turkey with lots of typographical trickery as well as a peculiar crinkly edging to the pages set in Gutenberg's time. It looks interesting. Don't be fooled.

It's most unfair to bracket Ursula Le Guin, the prolific and provocative imagineer whose Earthsea books set the template for a generation of children's writing, with a clutch of first- and second-timers trying to do the sort of thing she's always done best. But it is a positive relief to report that she remains effortlessly at the top of her game. Voices (Orion £10.99), the second book in her Annals of the Western Shore trilogy about a master poet and his animal-charming wife, is a marvellously thoughtful and intelligent piece of fiction; set in a city-state under occupation by a nation of zealots that have banned reading and writing, it prompts reflection on established religious dogma and contemporary wars abroad without prejudice to the seamless integrity of its conceit. Le Guin's writing is spare and humane, her imagination forceful and dramatic, and her book is transparently the pick not only of this uninspiring bunch but of the summer. She has as much to teach her fellow writers as her readers.