Piracy on the High St.

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The Independent Culture
Can you tell a book by looking at its cover? When it comes to stories for younger age-groups, first impressions are vitally important. Nick Sharratt's lively jacket strikes exactly the right note for the jolly japes of Jeremy Strong's Indoor Pirates (Dutton, pounds 9.99). Captain Blackpatch hates water, so he turns the house he inherits from his redoubtable grandmother into a ship and declares himself and his zany crew Indoor Pirates. But how to find enough treasure to pay the electricity bill? Piracy on the high streets leads to a glorious sequence of mad misunderstandings and domestic catastrophes.

Margaret Mahy's Tingleberries, Tuckertubs and Telephones (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 9.99) is more conventionally and delicately illustrated by Robert Staermose, but it is an even better story - again featuring eccentric pirates and a grandmother of epic competence and ferocity ("a bit of danger gingers up life, and I like life with plenty of ginger in it"). Her grandson, Saracen Hobday, is a nervous little wimp ("a limp lettuce leaf on the great salad of life") who daren't face visitors to their secluded island. But once Granny vamooses on a mission to capture the dread pirate Grudge- Gallows, he comes into his own in a thoroughly modern way. Business acumen rather than buried treasure earns him his fortune, and he falls in love with a competent young lady with a master mariner's certificate. Rompingly readable.

All Because of Jackson (Doubleday, pounds 8.99) is Dick King-Smith at his best: an ingenious account of the way rabbits got to Australia. Jackson stows away on the Peninsula and Oriental navigation company's clipper Atalanta with his little bunny friend. They narrowly escape being cooked for a succession of suppers, get adopted as pets, and finally escape to people, or rather rabbit, an entire continent. Don't be deceived by its apparent simplicity: it stands reading and re-reading, and each time you chuckle at something different.

Anything drawn by Tony Ross has a magnetic attraction for kids, so it's just as well that he usually elects to illustrate good books. Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore's Stone Me! (Dutton, pounds 8.99) is no exception. Perce and Andy's boring old school("built when dinosaurs ruled the earth", its playground full of teachers' cars) livens up in scarifying fashion when the new supply teacher arrives. Ms Dusa is a Cruella-de-Vil-style villainess with a red and black stretch limo and a stony stare that would make anyone who had ever studied Greek mythology run a mile. Perce and Andy have to do both before they discover that, as the last descendants of Perseus and Andromeda, they are the only people in the world who can defeat her.

A new book by Allan Ahlberg is bound to be greeted warmly by children with fond memories of The Jolly Postman and The Giant Baby, but for my money The Better Brown Stories (Viking, pounds 8.99) is too clever by half. Ahlberg's acknowledgements - to Stevenson, Conan Doyle and Maugham, Enid Blyton and Raymond Briggs - nudge adults towards appreciating that this tangled tale of five members of a family in search of an author is a convoluted homage to great storytellers. I fear that children, except perhaps those who are fascinated by the actual process of making fiction, will tire of being jolted out of the narrative and forced to consider rude mechanicals.

As usual, there is a flood of Christmas specials at this time of year, many of them lightweight and overpriced. I wasn't impressed by the short words, big print, high price and banal message of Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking's After-Christmas Party (Viking, pounds 8.99): much better to put off your child's introduction to one of the most redoubtable girl heroines of literature until he or she is old enough for the original stories. Betsey Duffey's latest offering in the Lucky puppy saga, Lucky's Christmas (illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas, Viking, pounds 9.99) is also costly, but it gives an amusing dog's-eye view of Christmas Day. Although written simply, it is satisfyingly rich in visual and tactile imagery. Very useful for young dog-owners.

Written every year for his own children, JRR Tolkien's Letters from Father Christmas form an amusing and exquisitely illustrated narrative of Father Christmas's annual labours and the antics of the accident-prone Polar Bear. Originally presented as a literary curiosity rather than a story, it was always a hard book for young children to handle. Collins have brought it out in the Jolly Postman format of real letters in real envelopes, with a simple linking text by Baillie Tolkien. It's a shade pricey at pounds 12.99, but worth every penny.

Last and best: Phillip Pullman's The Firework-maker's Daughter (Doubleday, pounds 8.99) is one of those rare books with a confident magic all their own - it is now firmly ensconced in the case of children's books I am keeping for my, so far entirely imaginary, grandchildren. Superbly illustrated by Nick Harris with page-framing drawings and a flamboyant firecracking cover, it tells of a bold little girl called Lila who is desperate to graduate from being her father's apprentice to becoming a firework-maker in her own right. Aided and abetted by Hamlet, a much-cosseted white elephant, his young keeper and a band of busking buccaneers, she passes through all manner of trials that shift rapidly between knockabout comedy and danger. The way she finally succeeds in solving the enigma of the great fire-friend Razvani offers a moral well worth remembering, but it is delivered with a lightness of touch that is sheer genius.