Children's Books Special: Talented trips from Neverland to Jerusalem

Books for 8-12s
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In her flawless, feisty and fun-filled Into The Woods (David Fickling, £12.99), Lyn Gardner takes inspiration from "The Pied Piper of Hamlin", embroidering it with allusions from a forest of other tales. "Almost-orphan" sisters Aurora, Storm and Anything find themselves besieged in their country house by sinister Dr DeWilde and his pack of wolves. They are the last of a dynasty descended from the little lame boy who didn't quite make it into the mountain, but found, and kept, the pipe that magicked them there: now, only DeWilde knows its power. Only Storm's psychotic pluck, Aurora's housewifely instincts (her recipe for madeleines is to die for) and Any's unexpected talents can save them and other children of Piper's Town. I read this book at a gallop, chuckling aloud, enjoying the ingenious twists of the plot. Don't miss it.

Sequels are not easy, but with Peter Pan in Scarlet (Oxford, £12.99) Geraldine McCaughrean has succeeded in living and breathing the spirit of JM Barrie's fey wit, with its nudges at grown-ups and impulsive children's utterance, as well as adding an ecological dimension. Wendy, John and the Lost Boys are grown-up, but plagued with dreams of Neverland so real that "dregs are left in the morning": a cutlass, an alarm-clock, a pile of leaves - and a hook. Something is amiss in Neverland, so using appropriate magic they return as the youngsters they were.

It is a derelict world, contaminated and poisoned, but Peter Pan, splendid in Hook's second-best scarlet coat, is oblivious of everything but adventure. McCaughrean rearranges the Wendy House furniture, expands on the lost boys' characters, and conjures a sinister affinity between Pan and Hook with a breathtaking zest.

The language of Philip Reeve's Larklight (Bloomsbury, £12.99) comes as a shock after McCaughrean's and Gardner's elegance and lightness, but its elegant Victorian ponderousness suits Reeve's new world. In his parallel England, Isaac Newton's discovery of chemical wedding has made gravity an optional convenience, and explorers can tour the planets as Burton did Africa. Larklight (gloriously drawn, Escher-style, by David Wyatt) is "a shapeless, ramshackle, lonely sort of house" beyond the moon where Art and his genteel sister Myrtle live with their scientist father. What they don't know is tha, deep in its heart, is a power great enough to shake the universe, until a monstrous bowler-hatted spider called Mr Webster arrives... Reeve's mechanical fantasy world is every bit as enthralling as in his Infernal Engines, and Wyatt's illustrations add to the fascination.

In Alex Williams's excellent first novel The Talent Thief (Macmillan, £9.99), talented children have been summoned to the Arctic city of Paralin for a Festival of Youthful Genius organised by a mysterious millionaire. Adam tags along with his silver-voiced sister Cressida, but is cold-shouldered by the organisers and children. He begins to wonder what is going on when child after child loses their talent. Defeating the cloaked talent thief and his sinister master involves fast-paced adventure in the best Fleming tradition of cliff-hanging escapades - and Adam's discovery that he has a streak of genius.

Kevin Crossley-Holland's Gatty's Tale (Orion, £12.99) runs parallel to the last of his medieval Seeing Stone trilogy, about how Arthur de Caldicot comes of age and goes on crusade to Jerusalem. Arthur's feisty but lowborn childhood soulmate, Gatty, makes her own way to Jerusalem and back. There is more vividly-imagined pageant than plot, but it is written with exquisite simplicity and subtlety, and with an utterly satisfying finale. There is a Canterbury Tales feel about the range of characters as Gatty travels to the East. They illuminate an age which shared all our modern emotions but interpreted their surroundings differently. Read this one aloud: you'll enjoy the song in its writing every bit as much as your children do.