What every girl needs: ballet and a good punch-up

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The Independent Culture

Cassandra Golds' Clair de Lune (Orchard £4.99) is a fine example of a girly novel at its very girliest. The cover, with its oval-faced heroine gazing wistfully out of a casement window at a pink Parisian sky, screams "Over here, girls!" As for what's inside: you want ballet? Check. Is the heroine an orphan? You bet she is. Harshly treated by her guardian? You got it. This is all served up in a slightly self-conscious story-telling style, full of lovely girly adjectives, such as "pleasant", "beautiful" and "smooth". Actually, the novel is not without originality and tackles some serious themes, but its good points are rather swamped by Golds' insistence on saying it with adjectives. However, my nine-year-old daughter loved it, so what do I know?

Haunted (Doubleday £6.99), is another book that wears its girl-appeal on its sleeve. The eighth in Jan Burchett and Sara Vogler's Lady Grace series, it is the story of how Grace Cavendish, Maid of Honour to Elizabeth I, solves the mystery of the ghost of a murdered earl haunting a manor-house. Loving descriptions of robes, kirtles and tunics come with the package, naturally - and the whole is written in an enjoyable pastiche of Elizabethan English. A clever piece of work, butthere's not enough sense of real danger.

One more book representing the ultra-girly tendency is Sally Gardner's Lucy Willow (Orion £8.99). Lucy has magical green fingers that can make a sunflower grow to the ceiling in a couple of days. She also lives with her family in three train carriages, and goes to a school with a sinister headmistress. It sounds like a charming novel, but the plot doesn't feel driven along by the characters; it feels as if things happen because Gardner wants them to. And it has the least convincing fight-scene I have ever read. Maybe Gardner should read the fight-scene in Jaqueline Wilson's Starring Tracy Beaker (Doubleday £12.99). That's how to do it. As a boy, I would have had some problems in appreciating Wilson's work, because the male characters always seem to be, if strong, then horrible, and if nice, then weak. But failure to appreciate Wilson's books would have been my loss, for Tracy is a far more interesting character than the uncomplicatedly nice heroines of most girls' fiction: she is violent, rude and self-deluding; yet this is revealed, with some subtlety, to be no more than a cover for the vulnerability that lies beneath. In this story, Tracy is cast as Scrooge in her school's Christmas play and desperately hopes that her estranged mother will be there to see her. I have to confess that when I got to the actual performance, girly tears sprang to my eyes.

Tracy Beaker is probably the best-known female character in children's fiction today, but her closest rival would have to be Clarice Bean. Don't Look Now (Orchard £9.99) by Lauren Child features all the fun and games that Clarice Bean fans have come to expect: the typographical tricks, the changes of font, the explosions of giant capitals - and the lovely, deadpan style of Clarice herself. Clarice's best friend Betty leaves her to go to America, while a new girl from Sweden comes to the school. Child is in general much kinder to her male characters than Wilson, and as a boy I would have loved this story. Bean and Beaker are the two top characters in children's fiction today and, if boys don't read and enjoy them, they're letting the girls have all the fun.

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