Tales of second sight and space cadets

There are aliens up North, floods in the East, an actor at home - and a fortune-teller in class. Susan Elkin on new books for the 8-12s
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The Independent Culture

Imogen Tate has second sight. And "seeing the future is terrible. Crippling. It shouldn't be wished on anyone," says Melanie, the narrator of Anne Fine's Bad Dreams (Doubleday, £10.99), who is asked by their primary-school teacher, Mr Hooper, to befriend newcomer Imogen. But, in a sense, Melanie has it too.

The difference is that Melanie's perceptions come, not from a magic necklace as Imogen's do, but from reading. She's a bookish, self-contained child - a self-portrait of the junior Anne Fine, as the author has admitted.

Fine provides a fast and compelling tale of how Melanie frees Imogen from her psychic curse. For good measure, she also makes a strong case for books and reading.

No doubt the Melanie Palmer/Anne Fine character would have happily lapped up the light-hearted but not lightweight Simone's Letters by Helena Pielichaty (Oxford, £5.99). It's a skilful and original unwinding of primary-school life and its concerns as well as the anxieties of family life, especially where there's been a divorce. Simone's class is taken to the theatre to see "Rumpelstiltskin's Revenge". A routine thank-you letter to the touring company's leading man, Jem Cakebread, begins a friendship - and eventually a new relationship for Simone's deserted mother. The story is entirely unravelled in very engaging letters.

Animals dominate both Colin Dann's Lion Country (Hutchinson, £10.99) and Dog Star (Walker, £7.99) by Jenny Nimmo. Notwithstanding their habit of communicating in English, Dann's lionesses are depicted as realistic, red-in- tooth-and-claw hunters now released in an African game reserve, having been bred in captivity in Britain.

Adjustment isn't easy and Dann certainly doesn't sentimentalise them. Eventually both animals mate and breed successfully.

Nimmo's dog is the semi-imaginary creation of little Marty Marsh who lives with her widowed father and knowing older sister. The potentially unsettling arrival of Miss Theresa Tree is resolved when she arrives with a real barking, golden dog for Marty. Then there are stars in all eyes and a happy ending in sight.

The ending of Amber's Secret by Ann Pilling (Collins, £9.99) is rather starry too. The date is 1953 and circumstances have separated Sally Bell from her family. Her mother is in hospital, her father is working abroad and her brother is a National Serviceman. Neighbour Mrs Spinks - an adeptly drawn mixture of grumpiness and well-meant care - is in charge of Sally.

The trouble starts when she goes into her own house and accidentally smashes the family grandfather clock. Can such a young child organise getting it repaired without spilling the beans to Mrs Spinks or her own family? She does - thanks to help from a cast of delightful eccentrics.

Delightful also is John Ruskin's elegantly told and moral fairy story The King of the Golden River (Walker, £7.99). Written in 1841, it is now reproduced in an attractive hardback, illustrations by Juan Wijngaard. Gentle Gluck is the youngest of three German brothers. He's woefully abused by the others, drunken, ugly and selfish brutes, but they get their comeuppance. The vocabulary is gloriously uncompromising with words like "disconsolate" and "prismatic" dropped in casually.

Space Race by Sylvia Waugh (Bodley Head, £10.99) is quite different. Although it's about a primary-school "child", its implications are not particularly juvenile. Thomas Derwent and his father only seem to be the ordinary inhabitants of a village in the north of England. Actually, they are aliens from elsewhere in the galaxy posted to Earth on a peaceful observation mission.

Now it is time to return, but Thomas has grown attached to Earth life. The characters are well fleshed-out and there's also a nail-biting race against time.

The Missing Link by Kate Thompson (Bodley Head, £10.99) and Marcus Sedgwick's Floodland (Orion, £4.99) are both futuristic accounts of journeys and the struggles of older children against forces which are (almost) too big for them. Thompson's narrator Christie takes his strange (simple? other-worldly? physically different?) step-brother Danny from their home in Ireland to a remote place on Scotland's north-east coast. Eventually Christie discovers the nature of Danny's mother's scientific experiments and finds out what Danny really is.

Just as dangerous and horribly plausible is Sedgwick's flooded East Anglia. Now reduced to just a few islands, this is how it might be if the polar ice-caps melt. Zoe is accidentally separated from her parents and Floodland is the story of her against-the-odds rowing boat quest to find them.