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Contenders for the crown

Sharon Creech's novel Chasing Redbird (Macmillan Pounds 3.99) is a surprise front-runner on the shortlist for the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year award alongside Melvin Burgess's Junk (Penguin Pounds 4.99).

While Junk, the controversial account of the pleasures and perils of heroin addiction, has already won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Fiction Award and is becoming a cult classic along Trainspotting lines, Chasing Redbird has had rather quieter success and has slipped through the judging net for the major awards over the past year.

It has solid fictional ingredients: a chaotic, eccentric family in the Kentucky backwoods and a tough loner of a teenage heroine who has emotional dilemmas to resolve via a perilous journey. Zinny finds that clearing a trail through the wilderness behind her home helps to heal old family wounds. The result is a touching, humorous treatment of bereavement, grief and recovery.

Another strong contender is Aquila by Andrew Norriss (Puffin Pounds 3. 99), the deceptively slim tale of Greg and Tom, schoolboys who find an Ancient Roman spaceship during a geography field trip and teach themselves to fly it. In the process, the boys are transformed from lackadaisical back-rowers (Greg's time-wasting antics cover up his problems with reading) to eager beavers with a taste for Latin and advanced mathematics, and their teachers' attitudes get a shake-up, too. There are lessons for adults here but, more importantly, the supersonic pace of the adventure, which has already been adapted for television, will ensure that the real Gregs and Toms are hooked.

In Harry and the Wrinklies (Scholastic Pounds 4.99) Alan Temperley delivers an Ealing Comedy-style knockabout farce with a camp edge that just might be unintentional. Harry, a more evolved version of a Famous Five hero, is rescued from indifferent parents and a cruel housekeeper when his aunts clasp him to their ancient bosoms. They prove to be key members of a gang of geriatric master criminals. A barrel of laughs is guaranteed, but will children be laughing as loudly as adults? However, as in all four titles on the shortlist, the writing is highly polished.

The Whitbread award winner, who will receive Pounds 10,000 in prize money, will be announced on Tuesday

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