CHILDREN'S BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS

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The Independent Culture
Samuel Johnson once commented: "Our tastes greatly alter. The lad does not care for the child's rattle, and the old man does not care for the young man's whore". But where good children's books are concerned, the rattle might just as readily satisfy the old man and the lad and, come to that, the young buck in between. The sign of good children's writing is that it reaches all kinds and ages of readership, satisfying them at their respective levels, arousing their curiosity or priming their imaginations. The happiest parent at bedtime is the one who shares in a story, not merely reading it as a sort of literary anchor-man.

Philip Ridley fans the flames of fantasy with Mercedes Ice (Viking, pounds 9.99), a modern allegory filled with the bizarre: for a start, Mercedes is a boy named after the car. The tale is a sombre, imagistic story of life in the urban jungle, of homely narrow streets and tower blocks filled with alienation, decay and human despair. It starts off merrily with Rosie Glow yearning to live on the top of Shadow Point, yet it ends with her death in the destruction of the building by a gas explosion. Best known for the award-winning children's novel, Krindlekrax, as well as for his screenplay for The Krays, Ridley has written a disturbing story in which the childish names of the characters are balanced against the adult themes of greed, misery and deprivation.

Nancy Farmer's Do You Know Me? (Orion, pounds 8.99) is set in a different jungle, that of the urban sprawl of Harare into which Uncle Seka arrives to live with his younger, citified brother and his family, having been driven from his village in Mozambique by the civil war. It is a captivating story of how a man born to the bush faces life in a modern town, introduced to it - and trouble - by his niece, Tapiwa, who in turn comes to learn the ways of her ancestors. At times, the names are confusing - having to refer to the glossary and pronunciation guide at the end slows down the story - yet it is worth persevering.

The language of the book is also a problem with The Little Silver Bell by D.G. Dunne (Book Guild, pounds 10.95). The tale is a vague modern re-interpretation of the Christmas story: for Joseph and Mary read Joe and Marie, a pair of impoverished hippies who arrive in an English village to make an enemy of the local landowner, Mr Head (Herod), but who are befriended by Tom. The narrative has a simplicity and charm with a positive moral undertone which is not pedantic or over-stated, yet the whole is badly served by obtuse colloquialisms and wobbly punctuation - a worrying indictment since the author is a primary school headmaster.

Where Ann Halam is concerned, the bedtime reader of any age, had best be prepared, for The Fear Man (Prion, pounds 9.99) is certain to tickle the scalp and creep the flesh. It is the engrossing and scary tale of Andrei, his widowed mother, half-sister Elsa and baby Max who live an itinerant life in rented accommodation, drifting from town to town. The mother, taking dead-end jobs and terrified of the responsibilities of life, is neurotic but finds a place to settle, where the locals are friendly. Andrei is happy at school and their rented flat is the best they have seen. Then, on a shopping trip, Andrei and Elsa discover the house on Roman Road which triggers a chain of terrible events. Set, like Ridley's tale, in an urban hinterland, it is chillingly realistic, capturing the hopelessness of single-parenthood but also delving into a child's imagination.

Also set in a city - Toronto in mid-winter - Peter Carey's The Big Bazoohley (Faber, pounds 9.99) is the story of nine-year-old Sam Kellow. His father Earl is a professional gambler, always on the lookout for a major win which he calls the big bazoohley; his mother Vanessa is a miniaturist painter; they have just moved into the King Redward Hotel ($453 per night, plus tax) with only pounds 53.20 between them. Not that it matters, for multi-millionaire Edward St John de Vere is waiting to buy Vanessa's latest picture. De Vere, however, cannot be found. Back at the hotel, disturbed by de Vere's disappearance and worried by his parents' destitution, Sam sleepwalks into the hotel corridor, is locked out of his room and unwittingly embarks upon a quest for his own big bazoohley. This comes to him by way of the Perfecto Kiddo Competition....

Carey has written a story in the mould of Roald Dahl, rich in pathos, humour, wacky plot-twists and curious characters who are sufficiently threatening and eccentric to appeal to many young readers. With his first book for children, Carey has produced a minor classic.

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