Books for 8-to-12 year olds reviewed
Tales of porcelain rabbits and prehistoric sharks
Friday 21 July 2006
The Secret History of Tom Trueheart (Oxford, £6.99) is the famed illustrator Ian Beck's first novel for children. It tells the story of how 12-year-old Tom, seventh son of the Trueheart clan of fairy-tale heroes, has to set out on a quest when all six of his beefy brothers fail to do their usual duty by the Story Bureau, and vanish to boot. Beck creates a world that is a shrewd mix of the mundane and the fanciful, and embellishes his narrative with jaunty silhouettes and graceful flourishes.
Kate di Camillo's The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (Candlewick, £12.99) is the story of an elegant porcelain rabbit with wire joints, snappy silk suits and rabbit-skin ears and tail. Pampered by the little girl who owns him at the start of the story, Edward loses his oblivious carelessness about both her and his surroundings when he is tossed overboard from an ocean liner. Found and lost time and again, he slowly learns how to love through having his heart broken. The tale evokes William Nicholson's The Velveteen Rabbit, not just because Edward Tulane is a rabbit, but because it too has the mythic quality of a parable, told with calm assurance. Bagram Ibatoulline's old-fashioned, painterly illustrations double the book's charm.
Matthew Skelton's Endymion Spring (Puffin, £10.99) has an immensely tactile cover, which is appropriate, as it is the story of a book everybody wants to get their hands on. Made of the skin of an all-knowing leaf-dragon and blank to all but a chosen few, it contains all knowledge known and yet to be known. Skelton, an expert in early printing, spun his yarn on hearing of the mysterious Johann Fust, backer of Gutenberg in 1452. Fust's sinister designs are foiled by Endymion Spring, the boy he planned to sacrifice to make the book's knowledge visible. Endymion escapes from Mainz to hide the book like a leaf in a tree - in the depths of Oxford's nascent university library. This medieval escape story is interlaced with a modern quest: an American boy and his sister desperate to mend the rift between their parents. No sketch of Skelton's storyline can do justice to the mesmeric quality of his writing, which conjures up the musty depths of Oxford's ancient buildings as the children pursue and are pursued by sinister shadows through quads, cloisters and cellars.
In Tanglewreck (Bloomsbury, £12.99), Jeanette Winterson's love of literature and myth is allied with shards of little-known London lore and modern quantum science to remarkable effect. Buying and selling time is seen as big business by the sinister clockmaker Abel Drinkwater and the charismatic scientist Regalia Mason. But how to capture it lies only in the heart and mind of Silver, a small girl whose parents and sister have disappeared, leaving her alone with a mean-minded aunt in the great ancient house of Tanglewreck. The story's fantastical plot works because of the immediacy and originality of Winterson's writing; like Regalia's voice it is "silky and soft and edged with some harder material".
Those who need to acquire reading confidence will enjoy Berlie Doherty's The Humming Machine (Young Corgi, £3.99), the sequel to The Starbuster. It returns Tam to his heroic role in fairy-land, this time to rescue his great-grandpa Toby. Doherty writes for children with simplicity, pace and zest, making thoroughly modern stories out of tales that have their roots delicately laced in Celtic myth.
Finally, a mind-bogglingly intricate pop-up book, Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart's second Encylopaedia Prehistorica: Sharks and Other Sea-Monsters (Walker, £18.99). The authors have clearly had fun engineering the huge and lurid monsters that leap out of each spread. Scale is clearly indicated by minute human silhouettes. Ignore the "Age five up" on the cover; this is a volume to be held by parents and displayed with care.
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