Books for 8-12s: Magical mystery tour

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The Independent Culture

Cornelia Funke's 'Inkheart' (Chicken House, £12.99) is a breathtakingly fast-moving tale, with goodies you will love and baddies to make you shudder. It is intensely bound up in the art of storytelling, with every chapter headed by a telling quote from a classic yarn, and many memorable reflections on the delights of reading. "If you take a book with you on a journey, an odd thing happens... the book starts collecting your memories. And forever after, you only have to open that book to be back where you first read it". Its heroine Meggie adores books; her father is a bookbinder, and her dour and daunting aunt Elinor an obsessive book-collector.

The villains are actually escapees from a book, the Inkheart of the title, and Meggie's mother has become marooned inside it. All this is beginning to sound distinctly derivative of Jaspar Fforde's The Eyre Affair and its sequels, but any resemblance is purely coincidental. However, it does reflect the increasing number of authors who are returning to the ancient quest for a gripping story, but still carry with them the baggage of modern self-conscious literary analysis.

Funke writes in rich images - a door is made of wood "with a beautiful grain like a tiger's coat"; Aunt Elinor is "belligerent as a bull terrier"; the vicious Capricorn "inspected his finger-nails like a satisfied cat examining its claws". Her first novel, The Thief Lord, was much-feted, but, though it was romantically plotted and had startlingly original characters, I found the narrative creaky. It may be relevant that Inkheart has a different, and obviously extremely able, translator from the German: Anthea Bell.

Shannon Hale's first book The Goose Girl (Bloomsbury, £12.99) is also concerned with storytelling. Everyone knows the Brothers Grimm tale of a princess whose identity was stolen by her maid as she journeyed to marry an unknown bridegroom, and whose white horse Falada was murdered on the sham princess's command. It's a weird story, with lots of unexplained mysteries. Hale transforms it to a full-scale novel, a masterpiece that will win a permanent place in children's hearts. She creates two very different kingdoms, questions the old queen's love for her daughter, and introduces a wise mentor of an aunt. The love that grows between the real princess and her prince has to be worked at, and the outcome, no less bloodcurdling than the Grimm's original tale, is totally satisfying.

Philip Pullman's pretty jeu d'esprit Lyra's Oxford (David Fickling, £9.99) is not the literary travelogue that I expected from its title. This is a free-standing story about the Dark Materials heroine Lyra, now at school in North Oxford. Made ingeniously specific about the Oxford streets, shops and characters in Lyra's life, the story has its crowning glory: a fold-out map drawn by John Lawrence that Pullman has fringed with plausible advertisements for global jaunts, including maps "mounted on varnished and rubberised linen" and lists of "articles of great use to the Traveller".

Peter Dickinson is on top form in The Tears of The Salamander (Macmillan, £9.99), which is set in a fairy-tale version of medieval Italy. When he was seven, Alfredo, a baker's son, received a strange gift from a mysterious uncle: a golden pendant in the shape of a salamander. He also has a gift of his own, a voice to make angels weep. A few years later the bakery appears to have set the whole city on fire, and hs parents are killed.

At this point his uncle appears and takes him to his ancestral home on the slopes of a great volcano. But Alfredo gradually begins to realise that he will have to combat astonishingly evil magic to escape death and fulfil his own inborn destiny.

Finally, a well-justified reprint which also features a cathedral choir. William Mayne's Swarm in May (Hodder, £5.99) was his first book, written in 1955, but is still as powerful as ever. John Owen is a very small chorister who isn't sure that he wants the distinction of singing the Beekeeper's Introit in front of the Bishop. But then Owen and his friends stumble on a secret room in the "warm dark roof" of the church. Laconic, almost poetic, it is full of warmly human characters, humour, perception and wisdom: when I put it down I felt intensely happy.

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