A spell in the real world

Susan Elkin locates a little everyday truth amid the glut of magical tales for the 8-12s
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In a market increasingly dominated by wizardry and fantasy, it's good to find something as original - and with tropically vibrant illustrations - as Elizabeth Laird's When the World Began (Oxford, £14.99). The author has visited remote corners of Ethiopia to collect folk tales, some of them never before been written down. Her sources were mango-growing families who have to secure their huts at night against prowling hyenas and who warn their children against crocodiles who waddle into the villages in the rainy season. A vain baboon gets his comeuppance, there's a tale of a virtuous sister and a cruel one, and a charming African version of a familiar fable about a cunning fox and a vain crow.

In a market increasingly dominated by wizardry and fantasy, it's good to find something as original - and with tropically vibrant illustrations - as Elizabeth Laird's When the World Began (Oxford, £14.99). The author has visited remote corners of Ethiopia to collect folk tales, some of them never before been written down. Her sources were mango-growing families who have to secure their huts at night against prowling hyenas and who warn their children against crocodiles who waddle into the villages in the rainy season. A vain baboon gets his comeuppance, there's a tale of a virtuous sister and a cruel one, and a charming African version of a familiar fable about a cunning fox and a vain crow.

Nearer to home, but also for younger readers, is Josie Smith in Autumn by Magdalen Nabb (Collins, £3.99), the latest in a long series. Josie is a very ordinary girl, not well off, at a time in when children ate spam and mash at school and could go blackberrying unsupervised. It's refreshingly uncomplicated.

For slightly older readers, Josephine Feeney's The Holy Terrors (Collins, £9.99) is also firmly on everyday ground. There's lots of boyish stuff about football in this sensitively done story about a lad coming to terms with adult sexuality. He feels insecure and a bit jealous because his parents are reunited after a spell apart. Now they want another baby.

There are some pleasing new editions of tried-and-tested titles about too. A new generation can now taste the bittersweet poignancy of the boy in Anne Holm's I am David (Mammoth, £4.99), who escapes from a 1940s concentration camp and scours Europe in search of his parents. And for a bit of anthropomorphic escapism, The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith (so much better than Disney) is with us in a new cover (Mammoth, £4.99). So are the timeless riverside delights of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (Mammoth, ££4.99).

And so to fantasy in its various guises. Less of a classic, but still an old-ish favourite, is Diana Wynne Jones's Black Maria (Collins, £5.99). Every child has an aunt like Maria: outrageous, querulous, bossy. But they don't all turn out to be witches. It's a witty yarn.

Although it can be tricky to coax children into the rose-tinted atmosphere of some historical novels, Warriors of Alvana by N M Browne (Bloomsbury, £5.99) and The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Orion, £10.99) might be hits because of their compelling honesty. In Warriors, two teenagers on a school trip to Hastings are sucked by a time slip into the horrors of the wild Comrogi tribe's struggle against the invading Romans two millennia ago. Pretty it isn't. People die horrible deaths. Dan and Ursula find they have a vital role and, of course, they develop as 21st-century people too.

The Seeing Stone, the first of a proposed trilogy, takes us to 12th-century England and the accession of King John. Feudal life - the amputation of a man's right hand for theft, the routine pig killing, the class divisions - is made vivid though the eyes of Arthur, a squire's son. At another level, the story presents a new slant on Arthurian legend, as the boy shares the world of his kingly namesake through visions in the obsidian stone, given him by his father's friend Merlin.

Cliff McNish's The Doomspell (Orion, £9.99) is an energetic, tense Narnia-meets-Alice tale. Two children are removed from their humdrum suburban life by the forces of evil. What they have to fight there is nightmarish (don't buy it for a nervous child) but, because this a children's novel and not King Lear, good ultimately triumphs and the status quo is satisfyingly restored.

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