CHILDREN'S BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS

Knights in a daze;
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The Independent Culture
Five established children's authors plus one brilliant new arrival have really come up with the goods this Christmas. Let's hope enough 10 to 14-year-old readers get in on these class acts. The cover of Jan Mark's A Fine Summer Knight (Viking, pounds 10.99) shows a medley of ancient swords and modern screwdrivers - we are back in the outsize world of eccentric DIY so well described in her previous novel Handles. The project this time involves a 1947 Fordson coal truck that has to be put back together in time for a Historic Vehicle Rally. At the other end of the town, across a social and geographic divide, the Company of the White Horse is staging a medieval combat. That the two eventually come together is due to young Grace's curiosity after she spies a knight in full armour through the family telescope.

Jan Mark's dialogue is as fragmentary as in real life, and there are spaces in the narrative where readers have to work things out for themselves.But for those who stick with it, this is a story whose gruff charm stays in the mind. It also has possibly the most memorable plumber so far found in children's literature, who richly deserves his happy ending.

Nina Bawden's Granny The Pag (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 10.99) is so well written it practically reads itself. The arresting cover shows a gaunt, grey-haired old lady astride a Harley Davidson motorbike. No wonder young Catriona dreads her grandmother waiting to pick her up outside school, particularly when she is already troubled by classroom bullies looking for any excuse to torment her. But she loves her grandmother, with whom she lives; the real problem is with her egotistical showbiz parents who plan to take her back after years of abandonment.

Catriona prefers to stay with gran and eventually discovers how to apply for the appropriate Resident Order in the high court. All this is explained to readers as if by Catriona herself, particularly those strong feelings she can only find inadequate words for when discussing them with the adults in her life. This book would make an excellent present for grandchild or grandmother, both of whom walk tall in a lively and constantly gripping narrative.

Berlie Doherty's The Snake-Stone (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 10.99) also demonstrates that unbearably exciting adventures can happen in the world of personal feelings. Although James has been adopted by a loving family since birth, once into adolescence he is gripped by an overwhelming desire to meet the mother he has never known. His adoptive parents try to hide their sense of unease; this leads to scenes where hurtful things are said that no one really means. James sets off, with only half an address to guide him. What happens next is both sad and consoling but always engrossing. Doherty writes with an authority that brings to life all she describes, including the world of competitive diving that provides a vital link to both James's natural and adoptive parents. This story could not be bettered and can only be put down with a struggle before its unforgettable climax.

Mo's Meadow (Julia MacRae, pounds 9.90) is Sally Christie's second novel. It describes an 11-year-old boy's love-hate struggles with a charismatic older brother, a puritanical father and an unreliable best friend. All the action revolves around the meadow abutting the house where all the main characters congregate. This very accomplished piece of writing captures the high and lows of pre-adolescence: extravagantly bad plans that then turn out all wrong, up-and-down friendships, sudden moments of embarrassment with those who are loved - they're all here in this wistfully humorous story about having to let go of the past in order to survive in the present. Here is a young writer to watch out for and also to cherish.

Robert Swindell's Unbeliever (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 10.99) represents a welcome fight against the Satan-spotting zealots who are currently making a fuss over the appearance of witches in children's books. In this bleak little story, teenage Annabel sees a father, once nice and ordinary, turn into a Bible-invoking tyrant who forbids her from attending biology lessons for fear she may come to believe the pernicious doctrine of evolution.

To make matters worse, Annabel's mother is ill with cancer and her younger sister Sarah proves susceptible to dad's teaching to the extent of agreeing to attend the summer camp put on by his favourite Little Children sect. Annabel fears her sister will be brain-washed; the reality is even worse, with the cult proving to be a front for child abuse from which Sarah is rescued only in the nick of time.

Swindells as always writes at a fine pace and maintains a state of high excitement until the last page. But the reference to sexual abuse at the end seems forced; there's enough natural tension in this story without having to bring in this particular excess.

With VE Day celebrations fresh in the public mind, Bernard Ashley has looked to the last war as a backdrop to his latest novel. But Johnnie's Blitz (Viking, pounds 10.99) conveys no rosy British Heritage view of life between 1939 and 1945. The tough young orphan hero Johnnie, escaped from an approved school, camps out on an East End dump with a older relative in the rag- and-bone trade. Living nearby in an abandoned bus is his menacing Uncle Tommy, a deserter who has recently married a half-witted gypsy in an attempt to defer his call-up. After an air raid they do a flit to the countryside, but not before Tommy's wife kidnaps a little girl found wandering in the streets.

Johnnie decides he must rescue her from the cruelty and violence that follow; the rest of this story takes up the theme of desperate flight and sinister chase that Ashley has used so well in other novels. His story is packed with enough interesting period detail to make readers feel good about learning of those times while enjoying the continual suspense and nearly happy ending. A stay at a gypsy camp produces a stream of unfamiliar argot, but here too Ashley has done his research. An excellent read.

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