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Children's books

SECRET HEART. By David Almond. Hodder Signature pound;10. THE KITE RIDER. By Geraldine McCaughrean. Oxford University Press pound;6.99. AMONGST THE HIDDEN. By Margaret Haddix. Red Fox Definitions pound;4.99.

This is a fine crop of stimulating novels for readers aged 11 and above. David Almond is a Wordsworthian Romantic - his child characters come trailing clouds of glory. Like Wordsworth, too, he depicts people on the edges of society - like Heaven Eyes, who lives in an abandoned warehouse in an urban wasteland.

In all his novels ,there's a clear-sighted girl who acts as spirit guide to the protagonist. Here, it's Corinna, a trapeze artist in a shabby travelling circus, who befriends Joe Maloney. Joe's birth has been less of a sleep and a forgetting than is the case for most children; a free, soaring instinct has moved him since infancy. Through the circus, he comes into contact with a tiger- a tiger spirit rather than the flesh-and-blood variety - and the memories and relics of a blind old woman who, unable to see Joe, instinctively recognises his qualities. As readers will expect from David Almond, there's a sense of inhabiting a strange, vivid world that exists alongside the familiar, and an evocation of wonder in everyday things as well as in the extraordinary. This is a powerful addition to his highly distinctive works.

There's another circus in Geraldine McCaughrean's The Kite ider, a work of astonishing energy and inventiveness, set in 13th-century China. Within the first few pages, a young boy, Haoyou, witnesses the death of his father who, for punishment, is strapped to a kite and flown in the sky to test the wind before a voyage. Haoyou, attempting to find his father's skyborne spirit, perfects the skill of kite-riding, and is apprenticed to the Jade Circus. The circus master, Miao Jie, is on a mission to kill Kublai Khan, the Mongol conqueror. Reluctantly, Haoyou finds himself cast as circus curiosity, as communicator with the dead, and finally as weapon of war for the invading Mongolians. Packed with action and intrigue, this is an exhilarating new novel from an author who never disappoints.

Margaret Haddix's Amongst the Hidden, set in America in the near future, is the first of The Shadow Children sequence. Global warming, droughts and famines have resulted in strict population controls enforced by a totalitarian government: each family is allowed only two children. Luke, an illegal third son, must stay indoors - until he discovers that wealthy neighbours are also harbouring a "shadow child". Secretly he meets Jen, a determined internet campaigner who is organising a children's march to the president's house. It's a compelling and intriguing start to a series that draws on topical social and environmental concerns.


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