It's the way that you mix it

Several big-name children's authors have books out this season. Brandon Robshaw balances the reputation against the performance
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The Independent Culture

There is a tried and trusted bag of tricks available to children's authors: things which work every time. Talking animals. Objects that come to life. Magic or special powers. Children separated from their parents. Underdogs and unfairness, chases and races against time. All these things can be taken from stock, and frequently are. This isn't a negative criticism; it's not the tricks you choose, it's what you do with them that counts.

There is a tried and trusted bag of tricks available to children's authors: things which work every time. Talking animals. Objects that come to life. Magic or special powers. Children separated from their parents. Underdogs and unfairness, chases and races against time. All these things can be taken from stock, and frequently are. This isn't a negative criticism; it's not the tricks you choose, it's what you do with them that counts.

Take Philip Pullman's The Scarecrow and his Servant (Doubleday £10.99). Here we have several of the old favourites: a scarecrow that comes to life, a faithful servant called Jack, a quest and a family of villains. It's a picaresque adventure, with a dash of Dr Dolittle, a touch of The Wizard of Oz, and a hefty dose of Cervantes. Pullman's noble-natured but unworldly scarecrow is a reincarnation of Don Quixote, and the resourceful, long-suffering Jack a dead ringer for Sancho Panza. Yet from these familiar ingredients, Pullman has conjured up something entirely his own: a tale of great charm and wit, told in an easy style which reads as though it all came right in the first draft. It's aimed at a lower age-level than the "Dark Materials" trilogy; a fluent reader of eight would enjoy it and it would be great fun to read aloud to a younger child; but the quality of the ideas and the jokes, and the irresistibly likeable character of the Scarecrow, mean that older children would find themselves enjoying it too.

Anne Fine's Frozen Billy (Doubleday £10.99) also dips into the traditional bag of tricks, pulling out a ventriloquist's dummy and - a real banker, this - Victorian England. Clarrie and Will's father is in Australia and their mother is unjustly imprisoned in Ireland. The children are looked after, though not very well, by their Uncle Len, a feckless character who has a music-hall act with his dummy, Frozen Billy, and spends all the proceeds on beer. Will has an idea to improve the act - he dresses up as a dummy himself and, sitting on Uncle Len's knee, performs a double act with Frozen Billy. The audiences love it; but the strain of being a ventriloquist's dummy night after night exacts a psychological toll on Will, and it's left to Clarrie to find a way out of the situation. The story culminates in a race against time as Clarrie tries to get them all - including their just-released mother - on a ship bound for Australia. My only quibble is that Clarrie's narrative voice sometimes sounds a little too grown-up. But this is a cleverly plotted novel that makes you genuinely worry about the characters.

The trouble with having a pile of novels to review is that you tend to read them at a sitting, and such treatment doesn't do any favours to The Grim Grotto (Egmont £6.99), Lemony Snicket's latest offering in the "Series of Unfortunate Events" sequence. Once again, the Baudelaire kids are seriously in the soup, fleeing the evil Count Olaf and his henchpeople in a submarine, seeking a lost sugar-bowl under the sea and nearly getting poisoned by a deadly fungus, the Medusoid Mycelium. It's quirky, original, dark and funny, but more enjoyable in small doses. The unending series of crises and loud authorial voice tend to get a little repetitive, but would make this perfect for reading in instalments.

We know from Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha that Roddy Doyle is good at writing about children. But is he any good at writing for them? On the evidence of The Meanwhile Adventures (Scholastic £9.99) I would have to say, er, no. The plot is thin to the point of emaciation: Mr Mack, inventor, is in prison because his newly-designed saw was mistaken at a bank for a machine-gun; his wife can't help because she's circumnavigating the globe; so it's left to his children to rescue him, aided by, what do you know, a talking dog. The characterisation is perfunctory, and there is a series of annoying running gags that don't go anywhere. The frequent references to bums, poos and farts aren't funny either. Yet this is Doyle's third children's book, so presumably he knows what he's doing.

And so to The Chase (Puffin £12.99), Zizou Corder's (aka Louisa Young and Isabel Adomakoh Young) sequel to Lionboy. This has the works: a boy separated from his parents, talking animals, and, as the title promises, a chase. Ingredients include an extinct sabre-toothed lion, a global conspiracy, a popular uprising in Venice and the King of Bulgaria. It's full of scents and sounds and colours, with a rich, chewy vocabulary of words like palazzo, burnoose, hammam, Smilodon and allergenic. A spectacular performance, yet there were times when I wondered how real it all was. The effect is not of being transported into another world, but of watching a lavishly produced play or film. And though it kept me turning the pages, I never felt much anxiety about the plight of Charlie Ashanti or his parents.

It's something of a relief, after all that fantasy, to turn to The Diamond Girls by Jacqueline Wilson (Doubleday £10.99). Wilson's books are far more about character than they are about plot - and as you read these pages a variety of characters seem to solidify in the air in front of you. Martine, Jude, Rochelle and Dixie (the youngest and the narrator) are all half-sisters and their mum, a chaotic character who is, nevertheless, a good mother in her own way, is expecting a fifth. As usual in Wilson-World, life isn't easy. The family moves into a terrible house on a run-down council estate, mum is about to give birth any moment, Martine wants to leave, Jude gets into fights with the local youth, Rochelle tries to cop off with them and Dixie makes friends with a neighbouring girl who is being abused by her mentally unbalanced mother. The house urgently needs fixing up, but all the dads are dead or estranged; Bruce, the man with the van who helped them move, ends up being co-opted as a sort of surrogate uncle and helps them get things in order.

I have to admit I tend to read Jaqueline Wilson with a certain amount of prejudice, because a running theme is how useless/ awful/weak the male sex is. Yet despite this, Wilson's books always win me over. Her deceptively simple writing is targeted straight at the heart of younger readers (girls, anyway; I wonder how many boys read Jaqueline Wilson?), and it never misses. The Diamond Girls feels real, it feels true, it gives one a sense of a rough, tough world in which harshness and kindness exist side by side. A plaudit on the back from the Good Book Guide says "A true children's writing genius", and this time one feels the compliment has some force.

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