8-12-Year-Olds: The courage of lions, the wisdom of crows

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The Independent Culture

I can see why Jeanne Birdsall won the prestigious US National Book Award with The Penderwicks (David Fickling, £10.99). Subtitled "a summer tale of four sisters, two rabbits and a very interesting boy", this is a slim charmer of a book, and a page-turning read. The sisters' mother died of cancer shortly after the birth of the youngest, nicknamed Batty because her uncertainty about the world makes her eccentrically shy. The 12-year-old Rosalind mothers her generously but is also edging into her first crush (on the owner of the rabbits). Middles Jane and Skye are respectively a keen romance writer, and a gifted mathematician with anarchic impulses that have near-catastrophic results.

The drama begins when the idyllic cottage their father rents brings them into touch with the "very interesting boy": fatherless Jeffrey, with an arrogant mother about to marry a gold-digging playboy. Through her book-mad alter ego Jane, Birdsall flags up Alcott, Nesbit and Lewis; her own writing bears comparison with all three. Each character is entire in its own right and an intensely loyal part of the family. Honour and good manners matter. Birdall also rivals Nesbit and Alcott for daring escapades, and Lewis for the direct honesty of her voice.

The Dutch author Guus Kuijer's The Book of Everything (translated by John Nieuwenhuizen; Young Picador, £7.99) is an unforgettable fable about how closely cowardice and cruelty are linked, and how both can be overcome by brave, united action. Nine-year-old Thomas lives in a fantasy world because his war-damaged, bigotedly religious father's treatment of his mother is unbearable, but his own bold goodness means that he finds allies. Together, they succeed in facing down the sad bully. The simplicity and power of this exquisitely written story is reminiscent of St Exupéry, and it is, like Le Petit Prince, a story for all hearts, not just children's.

Although Clem Martini's The Mob (Bloomsbury, £12.99) will need a sequel to resolve it, it is complete in itself. Inspired by the known high intelligence of crows, it develops an elegantly plausible psychology for the group behaviour of the great Canadian flocks. The result is a fine tale of upstart younglings who flout the rules but, when danger threatens, succeed where their more cautious elders fail. Martini writes with immediacy and power, with unusual metaphors and terse throwaway lines that children will savour for their wisdom.

The Time Apprentice (Puffin, £10.99) is the second of Val Tyler's Greenwich Chronicles, a nicely imagined fantasy which continues the story of the caring Time Guardians who keep everything ticking along for the benefit of humankind. They are once again threatened by the anarchic underworld Time Wreccas. Tyler offers clever pseudo-science, attractive characterisation and well-sustained suspense.

Listening to young readers' likes and dislikes in our local primary school, I realise that it is important to include mention of "books about real things" for a significant minority, mainly boys, who can't be doing with faeries. Bill Slavin's Transform! How everyday things are made (Oxford, £14.99) is guaranteed to enthrall, knitting together amazing facts (chalk is made of tiny sea creatures) with chuckle-a-minute cartoon explanations of how things we take for granted like ketchup and plasters are produced. Not since Charlie's chocolate factory has science been this fun.

Finally, mother-and-daughter team "Zizou Corder" resolve their cliff-hanger trilogy with LionBoy: The Truth (Puffin, £12.99), which takes Charlie Ashanti and his huge feline allies across the Caribbean to the headquarters of the infamous Corporacy and reveals the full extent of their villainy. But there is nothing an energetic boy, a circus and the King of Bulgaria can't cope with, and happy endings for all.

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