Children's Books: Shape up to adventure

Christina Hardyment meets animorphs, angels, wizards - and an endearing vampire - in her quest for the books that really fire the imagination s of the 8-12 age range
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The Independent Culture
What do children really, really want? Ignoring publishers' hype, I let the staff of Blackwell's Children's Bookshop in Oxford guide me to the hottest reading matter this half-term. Among the fastest movers are K A Applegate's Animorph series, paperback originals that need to be read in order. Start with The Invasion (Scholastic, pounds 3.99) and while you're at it pick up the next two, The Visitor and The Encounter.

The idea of changing shape has a fascination for growing children, but it's easy to dash off a fairly meaningless saunter in and out of, say, cat form. Applegate succeeds in setting up an unlikely but weirdly convincing scenario whereby fiendish conquerors from outer space invisibly inhabit human brains. Only the five intrepid children who witnessed the arrival of the Yeerks can combat them by "morphing" into animal shapes in order to attack or evade, a power given to them by an Anadalite - a noble extraterrestrial opponent of the Yeerks - just before he died.

This could be crude games-arcade stuff, but Applegate not only characterises the children effectively but ensures that they and the reader gain real insight into the mindset of the animals. I romped through three in as many hours; dozens more, to say nothing of a TV series, are promised in the near future.

Helen Cresswell is another bookshop darling who does not so much write a story as breathe it. Best known for the inimitable Bagthorpe series, she hits gold again with Snatchers (Hodder, pounds 10.99). Reading it is like being in a fast-moving nightmare - with the comforting certainty that all will turn out for the best. Ellie was nearly snatched as a baby, and before her imperfect guardian angel Plum can stop them, the forces of darkness in the shape of a chillingly evil wolf-woman, and the even more macabre blind Boss, steal her babyself again and bring time to a halt as they head for the Land of Starless Night. A cleverly moral tale, too, full of memorable images and goodies as loveable as the baddies are horrid.

Diana Hendry's Minders (Walker Books, pounds 9.99) also concerns kidnapping and a guardian angel but adds a wonderfully eccentric pair of parents- cum-wizards. Their son Scully's schoolwork is suffering while he prepares for his graduation examination in front of the Outlandish Gentry, but his real peril is the Scorpions, who plan to sieve the nascent magic from him and use it for their own dark purposes. The mysterious Monika can help - but it has to be Scully's own efforts that save him.

Endearing characters are also a feature of Willis Hall's Vampire series. In The Vampire Hunt (Bodley Head, pounds 9.99), embellished as usual by Tony Ross's sparky drawings, ignorance and small-town politics conspire again to drive poor harmless vegetarian Count Alucard (try spelling it backwards) away from his cosy Transylvanian castle. With Sergeant Kropotel and Karl Gustaffe hot on his trail, stakes and hammers at the ready, he joins a splendid English travelling repertory company hoping to take refuge in his second-best casket, kept far away in middle England by his chum Henry Hollins, his gnome-collector father Albert and his cosy, tea-obsessed mum, Emily.

Tamara Pierce writes quartets of fantasy novels perfect for the top of the 8-12 age group, but enjoyable for older children (and adults) as well. The Magic In The Weaving (Scholastic, pounds 5.99) is the first of a new series that promises to be just as enjoyable as her Song of the Lioness quartet. The four children gathered by the mage Nicholas each have, unknown to themselves, special talents that match the elements of fire, air, earth and water. Calm, wise writing, this is simple but sure, and full of arresting ideas .

Pitched at younger readers, Anne Fine's Loudmouth Louis (Puffin, pounds 3.99) will provide plenty of chuckles all round. Louis seems incapable of shutting up until he undertakes a sponsored silence - and discovers a whole new world around him. Will the dinner ladies really have to cough up pounds 5,000,000? What do you think?

A fine present for the youngest end of the range, but also rewarding for older readers, the seven stories in Tales of Wisdom & Wonder (Barefoot Books, pounds 12.99) are retold by Hugh Lupton, the talented co-founder of the Company of Storytellers. These lucid, haunting stories range through Cree to Russian and West African, and Sharkey's illustrations - bold, stylised and austerely toned - match them perfectly. A book to treasure.