Children's Fiction: How to avoid being eaten, and other life lessons

Writers old and new take their readers by the hand to give them a taste of the lives of others
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The Independent Culture

The year I was born, Diana Wynne Jones wrote her first book.

Earlier this year, having averaged more than one per annum, she published her last. Earwig and the Witch (HarperCollins, £6.99) is the ghoulishly illustrated tale of Earwig, her friend Custard, the St Morvald's Home for Children and an inappropriate foster mother named Bella Yaga. How could you fail to love a story in which an unsuspecting child is adopted by a man known as The Mandrake, whose feet make smoking holes in the floor as he walks? Anyone who bought the DVD of Despicable Me will covet the idea of a parent who can pass through walls, and those aged eight and over will appreciate the surprisingly soft-centred ending.

Magic and mystery also feature in the strapline for Lissa Evans's Small Change for Stuart (Doubleday, £10.99). Evans is at the beginning of her writing career for children, but she's managed to combine some classic ingredients in this story of the vertically-challenged Stuart Horten. (Or, S Horten for, er, short). Stuart's uncle, Teeny-Tiny Tony Horten, was a stage magician who disappeared some years back while working on an illusion called the Well of Wishes. He leaves a trail of clues for his small nephew to follow, and the result is a narrative that's like a miniature version of Susanna Clarke's grown-up bestseller, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

If you have a small boy with more grisly tastes, Undead Ed and the Howling Moon by David Grimstone (Hodder, £4.99), will satisfy them. Ed Bagley is here to tell you why being undead sucks. His life lessons include "Avoid Dying If Possible", "Learn to Move Faster Than Other Food" and, at number 13, "When You're Among Nutters, Act Like One". Nigel Baines's illustrations of dismembered limbs and evil clowns called Kampo complement the text perfectly. If you like that sort of thing.

And if you know a boy who does, but thinks he's too big for books with pictures, you could try Invisible Fiends: Doc Mortis by Barry Hutchison (HarperCollins, £5.99). Kyle is alone in a creepy old hospital, which is bad enough, but then Doctor Mortis arrives. I couldn't get past the apparently dead baby with gloopy tentacles for legs on page 77, but this is for nine-year-olds, supposedly, so I'm obviously just a great big wuss.

A complete contrast can be found in Hilary McKay's Caddy's World (Hodder £10.99). This prequel to McKay's bestselling, decade-old title, Saffy's Angel, is definitely one for the girls. It follows Caddy and her three best friends through school, a shared boyfriend called Dingbat, a much-loved horse called Treacle and a new arrival in the Casson household known as the firework baby. The infant Rose is so small and sickly that her sisters dig her a hole ("with corners") in the garden to be buried in. But luckily she pulls through and doesn't have to join the frog (named Valium) that Daddy's lawnmower ran over in the graveyard at the back of the house. Only Mackay can get away with this mix of the ruthlessly unsentimental with soft-centred charm.

Suzanne LaFleur, though, might be able to give her a run for her money. Eight Keys (Puffin, £9.99) is the follow-up to the much-admired Love, Aubrey, and is the nine-year-old's equivalent of one of those weepy, posthumous romances like PS, I Love You. Elise is an orphan whose father has left her a series of letters to open on her birthdays and a set of keys with which to unlock the secrets of her past. Funny, moving and beautifully constructed, it's like Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess rewritten by Judy Blume or Beverly Cleary.

Another classic is invoked by Gill Lewis's Sky Hawk (Oxford, £8.99). If you still can't bear to watch Kes for fear of crying yourself silly, you should probably avoid this story of Iona and Callum and an osprey hiding high in the hills above their farm. But if you did, you'd miss a debut novel that takes in mangrove swamps as well as Scottish lochs and which won its author a two-book deal and publishing contracts in more than 20 countries. It's a little too earnest for me, but I'd probably feel the same if I were to go back and re-read some of the nature stories I loved as a child. Tarka the Otter wasn't big on laughs, either.

Other childhood classics were evoked by Lauren St John's Kidnap in the Caribbean (Orion, £9.99), a by-numbers mystery story in the Enid Blyton mould. Retro to its very cover, this story of Laura Marlin, her detective uncle and their sea-cruise (accompanied by her three-legged husky) seemed to have its tongue firmly in its cheek. Laura's uncle, Calvin Redfern, is always referred to by his full name. Her friend, Tariq, is a contemplative soul ("He was thinking of his nightmarish existence as a modern day slave before a chance encounter had brought him into contact with Laura"). It's best not to take it all as seriously as Tariq does.

Michael Morpurgo, however, has written a true classic – well, doesn't he always? – in Little Manfred (HarperCollins, £12.99. Also available as an audiobook – see page 68). Published in association with the Imperial War Museum, in London, Little Manfred was inspired by one of its exhibits, a toy wooden dachshund with red wheels.

An encounter on a beach the day after the 1966 World Cup final brings together a German prisoner-of-war with the little girl, long since grown, with whom he was billeted after the conflict. Michael Foreman's illustrations, like Morpurgo's prose, manage to unite a dog on the beach, a football match and the sinking of 1,400 men from HMS Hood, all in the space of a few pages. Morpurgo has published more than 120 books and shows no signs of slowing down. Nobody can balance old and new better, or more movingly.

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