Winter Wood by Steve Augarde d

A thrilling tale of little people that will suit readers of any size
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The Independent Culture

Reading the concluding volume of a trilogy without having read the previous two can be like trying to join in a conversation between people who know each other much better than they know you. Overheard names have a significance impossible to guess at; references to past doings are more mysterious than enlightening. But if the company is good enough, it's still worth the effort.

Those coming new to the children's author Steve Augarde's Winter Wood will soon realise that he is indeed something special. Equally at home with West Country dialect and sophisticated teenage chat, every one of his 500 pages displays just the right words, always in the best order.

The Various, the first volume of the trilogy, was a 2003 Smarties Prize winner. Its title is the collective name of warring tribes of little people living in a Somerset wood, hidden from all but Midge, the girl who discovers their existence. Prone to human mistakes as large as they are small, these factions are destroying themselves, before Midge intervenes. More of their adventures were told in Celandine, the second novel but in fact a prequel to the first.

Now, in Winter Wood, Midge – a mature 12-year-old – has the duty of finding a lost artefact that will help the Various return to their homeland. Her mission includes visits to a care home to interview her forebear Celandine, who also spent time with the Various as a child. Their growing relationship is touching as well as vital to the story; few will remain unmoved when they part for ever.

Authors from Swift to Mary Norton have successfully entertained younger readers with stories about the very small. But the novelist that Augarde most resembles is "BB", pseudonym of D J Watkins-Pitchford, whose The Little Grey Men won the Carnegie Medal in 1942. Like Augarde, he illustrated his stories with all the loving detail of someone conscious that the rural way of life experienced by his tiny characters was on its way out.

But while BB looked on the tribulations of his dwarves with a kindly eye, Augarde deals a tougher hand. Madness and murder now lurk in the long grass, with a local Romeo and Juliet situation threatening to make the Various even crosser. Yes, it all ends happily, but not without plenty of high tension on the way. Read it, whatever age you are, and enjoy.

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