Books for 8-12s reviewed

The fly's-eye view of humanity and history
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The Independent Culture

With 'Gulliver' (Walker, £14.99), winner of this year's Kate Greenaway medal, illustrator Chris Riddell steps squarely into the venerable shoes of W Heath Robinson. Martin Jenkins's text simplifies Swift's story without bowdlerisation, including such episodes as Gulliver's dowsing of a fire using his small but powerful personal hose. His lesser-known visits to Laputa, Balanibari, Luggnagg and the Houyhnhnms are all there and this handsome book, every page a cornucopia of imagination and wit, should be presented to every child .

I liked the vision of Livi Michael sitting in her kitchen in search of inspiration for her next book, absent-mindedly swatting at two determined flies, then realising there was a book to be written about them. 43 Bin Street (Orchard, £4.99) succeeds in doing for flies what Richard Adams did for rabbits in Watership Down. Kiko and Nattie set about their work of cleaning up human mess with all the application of a scout and a guide. Living with grungy Bernie Dibble is paradise, but when Mrs Spick moves next door with her polishes, bleaches and sprays, perils threaten. It's nicely sustained and smartly plotted, with a splendid finale.

If flies seem unlikely, try a supermarket trolley as hero. Philip Ridley's latest imaginative jaunt into the concrete jungle is Zip's Apollo (Puffin, £4.99). Zip Jingle and his little brother Newt have moved into a characterless new town after the terrible death of their father, who fell from a high tree while protesting at the rape of the forest in which their commune lived. But magic can happen anywhere, and when Newt names the trolley he's riding in "Apollo", it comes alive and turns their hostile environment into a real neighbourhood. Ridley's fast-moving prose has the zing of rap music, and his ebullient imagination is firmly rooted in telling characterisation.

Sandi Toksvig's Hitler's Canary (Doubleday, £8.99) sounds as if it is going to be a snatch from Judith Kerr's classic wartime tale, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. But the title is a reference to the nickname for Denmark during the war: a country neither neutral like Sweden nor committed to opposition like Norway, but hopeful of a quiet life if it did nothing about its relentless takeover by the Nazis. Racily written and full of comic incident as well as suspense, Toksvig's story is based on the intrepid boyhood experiences of her grandfather. It does full justice to the heroism of ordinary Danes in concealing over 7000 people - almost the entire Danish Jewish community - and helping them escape to Sweden.

Elizabeth Kay's Jinx on the Divide (Chicken House, £11.99) completes a trilogy of adventures about Felix and Betony, who met in the Divide after Felix, doomed to an early death by his heart condition, collapsed on the line where their respective worlds can meet. Kay's imaginary world, peopled with down-to-earth versions of all the mythical creatures ever invented, allows for telling satires on our own earth - which the "Tanglefolk" regard as equally mythical. She sustained the pace well in Back to the Divide and now brings the sequence to an action-packed climax with an unexpected twist, which neatly solves the problem of loving someone in a different world.

Philip Reeve's Infernal Devices (Bloomsbury, £12.99) is the third but (hooray!) not the last of his mind-bogglingly well-imagined sagas. They portray the great war between the lumbering, moving "traction" cities of the west and the settled redoubts of the "anti-traction league" in the east. The adventures of Tom Natsworthy and Hester Shaw began in Mortal Engines and continued in Predator's Gold. This time, the central characters are Tom, and Hester's 15-year-old daughter, Wren.

She runs away from the quiet sanctuary they have found in Anchorage after a violent teenage confrontation with her mother, but soon finds herself in deadly peril on the floating tourist resort-cum-spy city of Brighton. Reeve's villains are never wholly bad, nor his heroes wholly good, and his messages linger long.

Finally, if you buy nothing else for your children (or yourself) this summer, buy Kate Thompson's The New Policeman (Bodley Head, £10.99). Thompson is widely feted in her Irish homeland, but deserves much more recognition here. Perhaps this will be a breakthrough. Witty, entrancingly romantic and rooted in ancient Celtic myth, this is a parable about not having enough time which hits hard - and perfectly suits our hectic age.

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