Spooky tricks and treats

Can you ever be too old, or too young, for a good fright? Hilary Macaskill meets ghosts, squires and even a crucial stuffed stoat in new books for the 8-12s
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The Independent Culture

A recent letter in The Bookseller from author Michael Lawrence, midway through a quartet of comic books, recounted his frustration about issues of categorisation raised by Philip Pullman: "The humour in these books springs from the mouth of a boy of about 12... Unfortunately my publishers have decreed that the target audience should be eight to 11-year-olds." As a result, he had to remove references which "eight-year-olds wouldn't understand" or - bizarrely - because they would "offend some adult buyers".

A recent letter in The Bookseller from author Michael Lawrence, midway through a quartet of comic books, recounted his frustration about issues of categorisation raised by Philip Pullman: "The humour in these books springs from the mouth of a boy of about 12... Unfortunately my publishers have decreed that the target audience should be eight to 11-year-olds." As a result, he had to remove references which "eight-year-olds wouldn't understand" or - bizarrely - because they would "offend some adult buyers".

I had a similar difficulty with age categories when I saw that The Big Milly-Molly-Mandy Storybook (Kingfisher, £12.99) - bravely, but successfully, illustrated afresh by Clara Vulliamy - was decreed to be for age four-plus. I used to read Joyce Lankester Brisley's homely adventure stories - alongside Treasure Island and Just William - when I was eight or nine. Perhaps a potential audience is excluded. Eight-year-olds will read a book for 12-year-olds, there's little chance they will read one aimed at four-year-olds.

Similar issues arise with one of booksellers' favourite bestsellers, Jacqueline Wilson. A 14-year-old of my acquaintance polished off her latest - about two 14-year-olds - and then told her mother that her friends shouldn't see her with it or she might be laughed at, because her work is largely classified in the lower age bracket.

Wilson will survive these arbitrary distinctions - she has street cred and a sure touch for writing on contemporary subjects without patronising. Vicky Angel (Doubleday, £10.99) is the story of the death of a best friend, the guilt felt by the narrator for surviving, and of an unequal friendship. "It is not really so different from the way it was when Vicky was alive. She wanted all my attention then. She got it now." The haunting by Vicky is so firmly rooted in reality - boys selling dusters at the door, the custom of leaving flowers at accident scenes - that the implausible elements are accepted.

Haunting, whether genuine or explicable by other means, is the subject of two other books. (We are, after all, close to Hallowe'en.) House of Ghosts by Ann Turnbull (Walker, £9.99) is the more domestic of the two: 12-year-old Grace Evans, who has enough to deal with - a new home and mockery on the school bus - finds herself haunted by a Victorian girl, ill-treated by her stepfather. With the support of a new friend/potential boyfriend - 14-year-old Adam - she lays the ghost to rest, albeit in a perilous manner that threatens her own life in the interplay of past and present.

The Ghost Behind the Wall (Andersen Press, £9.99) is less comfortable reading but deals with more difficult themes. Written by Melvin Burgess, winner of a Carnegie Medal (for Junk), past and present are intertwined here too - but in the mind and memories of the very old man who lives in the same block of flat as David, "a bit of a brute, a tough. He was only four foot nothing and twelve years old."

This is a boy one can't easily like as, with time on his hands when his father works late, he idly slithers along the ventilation pipes intent on mischief. But he gets drawn in beyond his depth and against his will, helping the mysterious "ghost" of a young boy trash the old man's

flat. The reader's sympathy is engaged by David and the old man who is struggling with Alzheimer's disease, and the identity of the ghost. It is a skilful achievement.

Further into the past, a squire adept at Latin is the hero of The Lady and the Squire (Pavilion, £12.99) by Terry Jones (as usual, enhanced by Michael Foreman's illustrations). Humour and informative snippets - like the digression about the etymology of the word "lavatory" - characterise this rollicking tale of Tom, who is continually running away from danger with his friend Ann, appealingly though anachronistically disguised as a squire, and wilful Lady Emily. It teaches much about the 14th century as it entertains. Indeed, to find out more, the book refers readers to www.fourteenthcentury.co.uk.

Despite the title of Polly's Running Away Book (Bloomsbury, £9.99), Polly never does leave home, though she is continually preparing to as she contemplates the advent of yet another sibling. This is not a gritty "issue" book, but one which will appeal because of accurate observation of school and family life, and the humour conveyed through words, design, typeface and illustration.

Sharon has left home to join a road protest. She returns, only to be abducted by the modern equivalent of Bluebeard, in Bluebeard's Castle by Gene Kemp (Faber, £4.99). This Bluebeard is a film director with designer stubble; his castle is surrounded by a theme park. That Dad cannot be contacted because he is on a sponsored walk for oil-rig orphans sets the tone for a fantastical and entertaining rescue bid.

There's a touch of Dickens about Philip Ardagh's Awful End (Faber, £4.99) - asides to the reader, chapter headings like "in which we learn the bearded stranger isn't either", and a character called Pumblesnook. Anyway, the story is about Dickens: Eddie Dickens, given into the care of his Mad Uncle Jack but trapped, en route, at St Horrid's Orphanage for Grateful Orphans. In this surreal world language is never what it appears, the innkeeper is paid in dried fish and a stuffed stoat called Malcolm plays a key role. It's daft, but entirely engaging.

When Holes by Louis Sachar (Bloomsbury paperback, £5.99) was first published earlier this year, Jennifer Morris of the Lion and the Unicorn Children's Bookshop in Richmond knew it would be a word-of-mouth success when a local teacher ordered it and found there was quickly a waiting list: "Once a book gets into a group of children, it's away." This exotic, impossible but eminently logical story is sparely written with dry humour. Everything is significant, even the short chapter on the lizard. "A lot of people don't believe in curses. A lot of people don't believe in yellow-spotted lizards either, but if one bites you, it doesn't make a difference whether you believe in it or not."

The same could be said of the best children's stories. If they bite you, it doesn't matter if you don't believe it.

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