CHILDREN'S BOOKS / Will reality bite back? Fiction: 8-12s: While Sonic is still booming, Jenny Gilbert selects from the rest of the animal world

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The Independent Culture
MY EIGHT-year-old, not known as a compulsive reader, has had his nose in a book for weeks. Gentle inquiries in the nature of 'That looks good, what's it about?' solicited only grunts, as did the more general 'Is it exciting?'. Clearly it was. It absorbed him between mouthfuls of Shreddies, in the car going to school, even while cleaning his teeth. We didn't feel smug for long. Reality dawned when he appealed to his brother: 'What d'you think I should do, Ned? Fight the Badnik robot or use the energy gun?'

Sonic the Hedgehog Adventure Gamebooks 1 to 3 (Fantail pounds 3.99) are paperback versions of an imaginatively impoverished computer game, devised in 300 short and barely literate paragraphs that can be read in almost any order before short-circuiting the reader and announcing GAME OVER. My son bought his copy through the Puffin Book Club, which is eagerly promoted by his school. Real books, it seems, are no longer competing just with the obvious distractions of video and computers, but with non-books from within their ranks. Are the new real books good enough, or more importantly, attractive enough, to compete?

Colin Dann has clearly done something right in his Animals of Farthing Wood books, with a television spin-off, endless merchandising, six 'novels' in print, and now a prequel. Farthing Wood: The Adventure Begins (Hutchinson pounds 8.99) fills in the events that led up to the original oath of mutual protection: a feud between foxes and otters, the first signs of human encroachment, and finally the birth of the fox which leads to all the other adventures. Jonathan Guy's Rak: The Story of an Urban Fox (Julia Macrae pounds 8.99) is on similiar territory, with a pair of town foxes fighting for survival in alien countryside. Both these books will sell, but they are dull fare compared with the 1940s nature-adventure books written by 'B B' and illustrated by Denys Watkins-Pitchford (these two were in fact the same person). His Little Grey Men Go Down the Bright Stream is still in print in Mammoth at pounds 3.50.

Tulip: The Biography of a Mouse, Volume One ( pounds 11.99) by 'Charlie S' is the debut production of the Ramshackle Press, and has all the trappings of substance. Fat, properly bound and with glossy, full-page pen-and-watercolour pictures by the Dutch illustrator Aafke Brouwer (above right), it would make a plush and improving present. But there is none of the subtle characterisation that made Little Grey Rabbit and Watership Down; it's all coy anthropomorphery - baby mice are 'minikins', Frederick and Midge give music lessons to fieldmice, and on November the Fifth they all dress up for a Mousquerade. The writing fairly bulges with cartoon cliches, pouncing cats, cheese and so on.

For my pounds 8.99, the best current animal-writer is Dick King-Smith. This ex-farmer and retired village- school teacher strikes just the right balance of nature- notes information, lively human observation and fantasy. In Harriet's Hare (Doubleday pounds 8.99) we not only learn about the life-cycle of Lepus europaeus occidentalis, corn-circles and UFOs, but are drawn into an emotionally satisfying domestic drama. Newish readers aged from six to nine will love it. Another King-Smith, Mr Potter's Pet (Viking pounds 5.99) reveals a delightfully quirky wit. Pathetic, repressed, 50-year- old Mr Potter is not allowed to have a pet, until his parents drop dead from eating some funny-tasting tinned crab, and he is free to indulge his whim, taking on a very rude mynah bird, who eventually helps him find a wife. I read this to my six- and eight-year-olds, and we laughed and laughed.

Environment and conservation being the Big Issue now for older children, lots of the new fiction pays it worthy lip-service. Sian Lewis's Project Kite (Andersen pounds 8.99) goes the whole hog, and makes gripping reading too. Gary, the narrator, lives in a village in mid-Wales where the red kite still nests. He and his friends form the Kite Gang and mount a dawn-to- dusk vigil to protect the birds against egg thieves. A sub-plot, which involves an equally obsessive search by Gary's mother to find her natural mother, becomes cleverly ensnared with the bird-interest.

Not new, but new in paperback, is Anne Fine's brilliant The Chicken Gave It To Me (Mammoth pounds 2.99), a social fable akin to Animal Farm in its ability to entertain and provoke at the same time. The price of reading this book is about pounds 1.80 a dozen, because readers will demand free-range eggs ever after.

Toby Forward, an ex-parish priest, is another writer with a knack for delicately combining moods and themes, and Travelling Backwards (Puffin pounds 3.50) takes on the biggest issue of all, while still being light in tone. Fanny doesn't want her Grandpa to die, and persuades her mysterious neighbour Mrs May to give her an elixir that will restore him to health. But restoration is not enough: Grandpa swigs from the miraculous liquid every day and becomes dangerously younger and younger. Fanny comes to realise that 'the exciting thing is to travel forwards. That's what we're made for.' A good book for children who ask difficult questions.

Pure humour for the junior age-group is tricky, and my own feeling is that Michael Rosen's Burping Bertha (Red Fox pounds 2.50) goes a fart too far towards total anarchy. The heroine's ability to belch explosively begins by enabling her to best the playground bully and ends by blowing up the plane she is travelling in. Unnerving and unnecessarily crass. On the other hand, Nick Warburton's Zartan (Mammoth pounds 2.99) seems zanily inspired. It begins familiarly: Lord Greycoat loses his baby son on the way to Africa (he is flung out of the plane in a piece of hand-luggage), but while the apes are debating the pros and cons of bringing him up as one of their own, the baby is carted off by an army of jungle ants, who raise him as one of them instead. Hence the spectacle of the young Zartan fretting over his round, pink bottom, not because it's not hairy, but because it isn't pointed, with a sting. Well, I thought it was funny, and I think eight- to 11-year-olds will go for it too.