Children's Books: Visionary angels on a bloody earth o

Nicholas Tucker welcomes a new challenge to gloomy teenage fare

EVERY NOW and again, in children's literature, a novel both unfashionably long and uncompromisingly literary turns into an unexpected bestseller. One such was Richard Adams's Watership Down; another could well be Peter Dickinson's 632-page The Kin (Macmillan, pounds 14.99). It describes the adventures of four children living in Africa 200,000 years ago before hunter-gatherers settled down into agrarian communities.

The children have their own language and mythology, outlined in a series of separate parables interleaved with the main events and linked to the lives of the protagonists. Other tribes they encounter have no spoken words at all. Their story is both tough and tender; bloody battles are resolved through compassion and forgiveness.

At a time when visions of the future in children's literature are uniformly bleak, looking to the past for hope about the human condition could at least provide the young with some sense of balance. Although Dickinson has already won many prizes, this book is one of his finest achievements yet.

Catherine Fisher's futuristic fantasy The Relic Master (Bodley Head, pounds 10.99) also succeeds brilliantly. Avoiding video-game set pieces, she creates a believable world which also serves as an allegory for the dangers of political oppression accompanied by environmental devastation. This sounds a somewhat over-toxic mix, but the journey to the forbidden city of Tasceron taken by the adolescent boy and girl, backed up by a sour older figure, has the immemorial appeal of a quest story written by an author firing on all cylinders. The first of a promised sequence, this book is a worthy successor to the same writer's excellent Snow-Walker trilogy.

Rhiannon Lassiter wrote Hex (Macmillan, pounds 9.99) when she was 17. It too deals with fantasy, this time describing 23rd-century London as an unpleasant place, jutting five miles in the sky and ruled by an evil oligarchy. Its only challenge comes from those few citizens born with special powers to gain access to all computer systems - an apt symbol for children today, often bewilderingly far ahead of their parents in information technology.

The author occasionally shows some immaturity. Male characters have "rugged good looks" and girls "shake out their luxuriant chestnut curls". But she tells a convincing, pacey story, and when she has learned to prune redundant adjectives and adverbs could become an author of distinction.

David Almond writes for adults as well as for children, but Skellig (Hodder, pounds 4.99) deserves to become his best-known story yet. This story quickly established itself as something not to miss. The potentially sentimental idea of an angel who becomes visible on earth is made acceptable through tough-minded description (he is also filthy, ill, and eats discarded take- aways).

William Blake's visionary poetry is quoted throughout as another key to what's going on, but this is not a difficult story. Discovering an angel is made to seem an event that could happen to any child; the adventures that follow are tense and involving.

Robert Cormier once used to take on moods and anti-heroes commonly avoided in children's literature, but there is no shortage of nihilistic stories for adolescents these days. In Heroes (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 10.99) he writes like a parody of his former self. An ex-soldier returns home to take revenge on the charismatic youth leader who badly let him down. With its spare dialogue and passages of gloomy retrospection, the text reads like a realisation of one of those graphic novels full of shadows, distorted perspective and death-wish cliches.

Paul Zindel is another writer whose books have fallen on hard times. The sensitive understanding that went into The Pigman is nowhere evident in Reef of Death (Bodley Head, pounds 9.99), which races through improbable events as if not daring ever to slow down. The bad doings off the Australian coast caused by a "ghastly ship of horrors" are never credible and too often involve detailed descriptions of torture.

Joan Lingard's Dark Shadows (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 10.99) also contains violence set in the context of Northern Ireland. The story, involving secret friendships across the religious and political divides, is somewhat wooden, as often happens when fiction is enlisted for social propaganda. Lingard has an honoured place among those who have begged for greater tolerance in the six counties. How nice it would be if well-meaning stories like this were no longer required in a better future for everyone.

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