The fine art of excitement

Christina Hardyment travels from wreckers' Cornwall to a hospital bed and a New York museum in search of the best new books for young minds
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The winner of the Carnegie Medal this month was Sharon Creech for Ruby Holler (Bloomsbury, £5.99), which we reviewed enthusiastically when it came out last year. The runner-up was the former Children's Laureate, Anne Fine, for Up On Cloud Nine (Random House, £4.99). Fine always offers laugh-aloud humour and page-turning pace, but this short, succinct book, deserves to be sipped and savoured. I hope to hear it read aloud before long.

Fine's hero Stol spends the entire story flat on a hospital bed, having crowned an accident-packed life with a fall from a third-floor window. When we discover, from the journal his best friend Ian keeps by the bed, that Stol's parents are far too busy pursuing their own brilliant careers to do more than beg Ian's family to look after him, we expect to find ourselves in working-parent guilt-inducement territory. Fine's purpose is more subtle. What she is really interested in is how a child acquires the most durable sense of self-worth if it is reflected from a much wider base than home.

Marcus Sedgwick is a true original; he writes with a spare, direct simplicity all his own. The Dark Horse (Dolphin, £4.99), just issued in paperback and short-listed for the Guardian Children's Fiction award, is an unpredictable tale of a foundling who appears to betray her rescuers in a sea-faring community. It is timeless in its observation of the battle between loyalty and love, the finding of inner strength when parents can help you no longer.

The Book of Dead Days (Orion, £8.99), however, marks a shift to fuller, more descriptive writing than that in Sedgwick's earlier books, but there is no loss of subtle menace and power. This time we are in the wintry world of a fantastical early 17th-century city, when musical boxes and a camera obscura seem powerful magic, and real characters like the astronomer Kepler are interlaced with the fictional necromancer Valerian, his anonymous apprentice Boy, the almost doomed hero, and the quick-thinking servant girl Willow.

Iain Lawrence's The Wreckers (Collins, £4.99), a light and racy thriller set in 17th-century Cornwall, is four-square in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson, with a ghastly legless villain called Stumpy as Silver, the 14-year-old John Spencer as Jim, and plucky Mary Mawgom as Catriona. There's no putting it down, and the good news is that two sequels are already in the pipeline.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler (Walker Books, £4.99) by E L Konigsburg is a welcome reprint of a book that won the Newbery Medal, America's Carnegie, in 1968. It is an eccentric tale of two children who decide to run away from home to make life more interesting, and chose the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as a hide-out. Thoughtfully equipped with a floor plan of the Met, it is weirdly plausible, and great fun.

Two excellent anthologies to raise awareness and hard cash for children caught up in the tragedy of war have been produced in the last few months. Kids' Night In (Collins, £6.99) is published in collaboration with the charity War Child. A pound from every copy goes to provide children with practical help that makes a real difference, such as a wind-up radio for a 12-year-old Rwandan war orphan with seven younger orphans in her care. With new stories by a galaxy of such great children's writers as Eoin Colfer, Jacqueline Wilson, Geraldine McCaughrean, Philip Ardagh and Michael Morpurgo, it's a good taster for children and parents alike to discover new delights as well as to revisit firm favourites. Its illustrations are equally rich, from the opening bookplate by Chris Riddell.

Lines in the Sand: new writing on war and peace (Frances Lincoln, £4.99), a direct response to the recent Iraq conflict, was produced in record time by Mary Hoffman and Rhiannon Lassiter. Again the fruit of generous collaboration by children's writers, its stories, poems and illustrations are all about conflict and its resolution. The book appeals to children to think in a different way about the violence, real and fictional, that dominates their lives.

Young readers will be fascinated to hear the true opinions of authors who normally remain veiled behind their popular stories. There is much to shock, but it also offers wisdom and consolation. All profits from the book go to Unicef.

Finally, two sequels. Frank and the Chamber of Fear (Puffin, £4.99) is Livi Michael's second book about the redoubtable and courageous hamster hero and his much more timid chums. This time he has to save them from an unpleasant hamster-napper called Vince. Fast, funny, and impressively informative about hamsters.

Indigo's Star by Hilary McKay (Hodder, £10.99) is a welcome new instalment in the lives of the unforgettable Casson family, introduced in the Whitbread-winning Saffy's Angel. Although this time we focus on Indigo's experiences of being bullied at school and his new friend Tom, a tough but talented new boy with his own problems to solve, the characters of every Casson child go on developing. This is a rich vein; let's hope Hilary McKay will soon give Permanent Rose a book of her own.