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Children's books: New light on the slave trade and secrets of the past brought to life

The Black Book of Secrets. By FE Higgins. Macmillan Children's Books. Pounds 8.99. 10-plus

Part story, part parable, this novel is told in the voice of Ludlow Fitch, a young 19th-century pickpocket.

Escaping his horrible parents just as they have arranged to have his teeth extracted for a quick sale, he teams up with Joe Zabbidou, a mysteriously benevolent older man who collects secrets for money.

One by one, the occupants of the village where they settle unburden themselves of their worst concealments, going away both happier and richer.

However, this does not suit the rich local bully Jeremiah Ratchet, who interferes, with fatal results. Is his final downfall destiny or lucky chance? Readers are left to think this through for themselves.

Beautifully written, packed with smaller stories running alongside the main one, and with a final unexpected twist in its tail, this imaginative extravaganza also offers food for thought.

FE Higgins is a new writer; on this evidence she is a considerable find, particularly for pre-adolescent readers in search of old-style, atmospheric entertainment in the gothic tradition

Nicholas Tucker

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