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Futuristic wheels vie with floods for prize

A first-time novelist lines up next to three well-established children's authors in the shortlist for the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year Award.

Two out of the four books use a bleak, futuristic setting to deliver an environmental message. Mortal Engines (Scholastic Press), Philip Reeve's first novel, is a fantasy story with wheels: London is one of a few "traction cities" whizzing around a post-nuclear landscape on giant, engine-powered skateboards and devouring smaller communities.

The engineers, who have reinvented the wheel, are the ruling class, with the historians near the bottom of the pile. "The ancients" (that's us) are blamed for abusing the Earth with their "old tech" so that most life forms only exist stuffed in museums (whole plagues of rats have survived, along with algae, pigeons and a wolf called Dog). Meanwhile, a dangerous tool falls into the wrong hands and two youngsters take on the forces of evil.

Water is in short supply in Reeve's future landscape; Julie Bertagna's Exodus (Young Picador) follows the survivors of a flood. In Scotland, only the peaks and the Glasgow rooftops are habitable and, again, a ruling elite has built itself a new stronghold which heroine Mara infiltrates after her island community is reduced to asylum-seeker status.

Hilary McKay's novel Saffy's Angel (Hodder Children's Books) - a former Primary magazine Book of the Month - is a heart-warming comic novel about a chaotic and creative family in which Saffy, who was adopted by her aunt and uncle after her mother's death, goes to Italy in search of her roots.

Finally, Celia Rees, the mistress of suspense-packed fiction for all age groups, joins the shortlist with Sorceress (Bloomsbury Children's Books), her second novel set in Puritan New England.

It tells the story of an outlawed young woman who has inherited her mother's healing powers and her connection across the centuries with a contemporary Native American teenager.

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