Books for 8-12-year-olds reviewed

Nautical tales of knights and northern lights
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The Independent Culture

She failed, but the baby is snatched from wolves by Comet, a flying reindeer who pops him down the chimney of an old couple in a Norsk village. As he grows up, with all the problems of a child who senses he is different, he develops talents that will enable him to restore the elves - and begin the tradition of presents for children at Christmas. Honest writing, rich imaginings and thrilling twists ensure that this will become a Christmas classic.

Powder Monkey (Bloomsbury, £12.99) is another fictional début, though Paul Dowswell has written much non-fiction. This is reflected in his eye for the telling detail, which makes his tale of a 13-year-old's adventures after being pressed into Nelson's navy more vivid than a Patrick O'Brian novel. Sam is the powder monkey with the perilous job of bringing gunpowder to feed the maw of a gun as it fires. From the moment they open the book to see an exquisite exploded drawing of the frigate Miranda, all children worth their salt will read on to the end.

Carl Hiaasen follows up his first children's book, Hoot, with the equally excellent Flush (Doubleday, £12.99). A crooked casino-boat owner in the Florida Keys is emptying sewage into its pellucid waters, but tracing it to him is tough. Noah's dad, determined to right wrong, sinks the boat - but it is raised and he ends up a jailbird. How Noah and his determined little sister Abbey prove Dusty Muleman's guilt despite getting shot at, drifting out to sea, and being beaten up by Muleman Junior makes for a gripping, funny and entirely satisfying story.

The Edge Chronicles have done wonders to get boys away from their computers and into reading, and there is not much need to sing the praises of the The Winter Knights (Doubleday, £12.99). But I will: writer Paul Stewart and illustrator Chris Riddell combine in creating an unputdownable story, this time that of Quint Verginix's adventures in Sanctaphrax's exclusive Knights Academy. It's good, too, to see Cornelia Funke unflagging in both quality and volume in the second of the Inkheart trilogy, Inkspell (translated by Anthea Bell; Chicken House, £12.99). These bizarre but compelling fantasies are powered by the magic of books (the chapter head quotes alone are a bibliography of great children's books). This time, Meggie finds she can not only read characters out of books but send them and her family and friends into Inkheart itself - with perilous consequences.

Thanks to a new film based on Christianna Brand's redoubtable supernanny, Bloomsbury have republished the three Nurse Matilda books (each £8.99), with the prettily figured original binding and Edward Ardizzone's matchless illustrations: every granny should have a set. Finally, hurray for Jill Murphy's comeback with The Worst Witch Saves the Day (Puffin, £9.99), again charmingly illustrated by the author. Murphy invented boarding schools and broomstick lessons a decade or more before Rowling did; little girls will love the antics of Mildred Hubble and her hopeless tabby cat.

Christina Hardyment's 'Malory' is published by HarperCollins