Books for 8-12s reviewed

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The Independent Culture

Now that "children's books" are the preferred literary nourishment of the entire reading public, a positive Niagara of titles is cascading from publishers. There is a danger of jaded reviewers missing real gems in the spate of hectic, derivative paste, but real children can be trusted to nose them out. Top of the hit-list for my panel of young readers, and my own, is The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson (Macmillan, £12.99): see the profile on page 20.

Now that "children's books" are the preferred literary nourishment of the entire reading public, a positive Niagara of titles is cascading from publishers. There is a danger of jaded reviewers missing real gems in the spate of hectic, derivative paste, but real children can be trusted to nose them out. Top of the hit-list for my panel of young readers, and my own, is The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson (Macmillan, £12.99): see the profile on page 20.

Next came Heather Dyer's The Fish in Room 11 (Chicken House, £8.99), a zany, delightful story, wittily illustrated by Peter Bailey in a style that evokes Edward Ardizzone's classic Little Tim stories. Toby was left in a seaside hotel as a baby, and has been skivvying there ever since for its mean-minded owner. Then Cook's washing blows away and, when Toby chases after it, he finds a cheerful and daring mergirl under the pier. How her whole family take up residence in the hotel, and how the treasure they have been hoarding reveals that Toby is no ordinary boy, makes for a confidently told fantasy.

Val Rutt's The Race for the Lost Keystone (Puffin, £4.99) is also about lost treasure: the most powerful of a set of magical stones that can give the person who controls them unlimited power for good - or evil. The search takes nine-year-old Phil and older sister Kate from England to an old mansion in New York, and to the Nevada desert. This is a page-turning adventure with a splendid motorbike-riding great-aunt, a wicked villainess, and a heroine of considerable resource and sagacity.

Geraldine McCaughrean's Not the End of the World (Oxford, £10.99) transforms the jolly little zoological excursion that is the Noah's Ark story into an arresting study in fundamentalist selfishness. She adds a little daughter for Noah, and a boy stowaway, and answers all the questions you never thought of asking. What did the tribe of Noah do about the flotsam and jetsam of humans and animals washing against the sides of the Ark and desperate for help? What happened to all the dung? How did the big cats get fresh meat? Were the men really in charge - or did Mrs Noah orchestrate everything? She announces that there are two sides to every sea. Happily for human generosity, Noah only reached one of them.

Malorie Blackman's Cloud Busting (Doubleday, £7.99) might be mistaken for a volume of poems, but is in fact a story in the frame of Sam's homework assignment to "write a poem/About/Someone near to you". It soon develops into a cautionary tale about the way that both a friendship and a child's originality is destroyed by peer pressure. What makes it even more unusual is that it is told out of the mind of the boy who brought about the destruction. Blackman threads humour into the tragedy and (just) succeeds in giving us something to hope for.

Lucy Lethbridge's Who Was Annie Oakley: sharpshooter of the Wild West and Andrew Billen's Who Was Sam Johnson: the wonderful word doctor (Short Books, £4.99 each) are both new titles in this excellent series of real-life stories. Annie Oakley was an Ohio Quaker farm-girl whose talent for shooting allowed her to graduate from poverty to international celebrity when she beat a champion sharpshooter and joined Buffalo Bill's the Wild West Show. Sam Johnson was a lazy child, often ill and inclined to put off his homework. But he had a sure sense of what he wanted and found mentors to help him towards literary pre-eminence. This celebration of eccentricity will cheer up any imaginative child mired in the tedium of the national curriculum.

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