Children's Books: Abominable humans (especially parents)
Susan Elkin meets eco-minded yetis and time-warping dogs in her selection of books for the 8-12s
Saturday 06 November 1999
Mind Reader by Pete Johnson (Puffin, pounds 3.99) is a shorter and quicker read. Matt has been bequeathed a strange crystal by an elderly lady whom he had befriended. Discovering that holding it enables him to read the thoughts of everyone around him soon leads Matt into murky moral waters.
For the top end of this age group, try the very up-to-date and witty Stagestruck (Picadilly Press, pounds 5.99) by Adele Geras. It will go down well with girls (and boys) smitten by the performing arts. In spite of her diffidence, talented Lydia gets the lead role in the Christmas show. Coral, for all her glamour, is not quite as sophisticated as she seems. Nish, the black boy who directs the play and Sparko, who writes the music, are well drawn too. Geras is a very perceptive writer.
So, of course, is Jacqueline Wilson. Girls out Late (Doubleday, pounds 10.99) brilliantly gets right inside the mind of a pubescent 12-year-old girl. She knows so well just how angst feels at that age. What shall I wear? Do I like this boy? What will my best friends think? All this against a background of concerned parents who insist that their daughters are in on time. It's a subtly moral book because when Ellie, Magda and Nadine sneak off one evening, they find themselves in a potentially serious pickle.
Not all good books are new, of course. Just re-issued is The School at the Chalet (Collins, pounds 5.99), first in Elinor M Brent Dyer's long series of books about Madge Bettany's international school on a Tyrolean lakeside. I adored the chalet school books in childhood and, 40 years later, I am struck by the precision of the language, the vibrancy of the characters and the skilled story telling. Will it do anything for the cyber generation? I posted my review copy to a 10-year-old cousin. Within 24 hours of receiving my little gift she was on the phone, fizzing with glee.
Other re-issues likely to captivate young readers include Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth (Collins, pounds 5.99) - Pilgrim's Progress meets Alice in Wonderland with a lot of splendid jokes - and Black Harvest by Anne Pilling (Collins, pounds 5.99), about a 1980s family on holiday in Ireland. They are haunted and almost destroyed by the evils of the 1848 potato famine.
Children's fiction doesn't begin and end with novels. Century of Stories (HarperCollins, pounds 14.99) is an imaginative idea for a millennium anthology. Twenty well-known children's writers - Annie Dalton, Bernard Ashley, Jenny Nimmo, etc - have taken a century each and written a story rooted in it. Jean Ure's contribution, for example, is a lovely time-slip tale about a beleaguered fourth-century dog.
Another compelling volume of new stories is Family Tree (Mammoth, pounds 4.99). Again by big names, including Melvyn Burgess and Anne Fine, these focus on family life. "A proper boy" by Vivien Alcock is just one of its delights. Harry, a longed-for son, is very accomplished in his own way. But he does not match up, in father's eyes, to his four feisty sisters and macho cousin. It's a neat tale about reconciliation.
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