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Map of the imagination

Geraldine Brennan tunes into Lesley Howarth's latest despatches from the Subtle World

Lesley Howarth enjoys slipping into "the trousers of the imagination". These must be cut from the same cloth as the Trousers of Time in Terry Pratchett's Johnny books, in that they speed her passage into unexpected terrain - in this case the mind of a 12-year-old boy. Not the easiest target reader for a fiction writer who happens to be female, an only child and the mother of three daughters.

She has now found a winning formula. "You choose the kind of subject matter that grabs them and make sure you get them hooked on the first page." Lesley defies anyone not to read on from her opening sentences, and her effort for her second novel, MapHead - "The reason Powers'd liquefied the cat in the end greenhouse first is it asked for it" - is a hard act to follow. The book won the Guardian Children's Fiction Award and the sequel, MapHead 2, has just landed. It has another tasty curtain-raiser: "MapHead stepped out of a ball of light and removed a tadpole thoughtfully from his mouth."

MapHead, a visitor from the Subtle World, is the most compelling of her heroes. He has superhuman skills (the ability to project far corners of the globe on to his skull is the least of it) but remains touchingly adrift in human society. Born of an Earth mother but raised by his Subtle World father, MapHead made fleeting contact with his mother in the first book. In the second, he has been separated from his father too and sent on a rite-of-passage solo visit to Earth. "The story had so many possibilities that I had to go back to it," says Lesley, "But generally I'd rather be looking for new frontiers. " She has spent months surrounded by pictures of the Moon and space flight while completing her latest novel, Mister Spaceman. about the adventures of Thomas Moon, another lone explorer.

For MapHead 2, she immersed herself in emperor penguin culture to arrive at a superb passage in which MapHead envies the penguins, as they huddle through the Antarctic winter, their companionship and pre-ordained place in society. He realises that "anybody could be extraordinary on an ice floe. The challenge was, to stay with an ordinary family." He chooses the Stamps, an ordinarily dysfunctional collection of humans. While he bonds with troubled son Jack and baby Holly, he remains set apart.

MapHead, Thomas Moon and Lesley's other main characters all know something of the predicament of the only child - what she calls "the downside to being special". MapHead is an only child on a grand scale - he never meets another child like himself. Of her own childhood, Lesley recalls gratefully that her parents "realised the type of child I was and let me be it. I emerged feeling terribly positive - that nothing is impossible. My daughters have grown up with the same tremendous determination."

While writing Mister Spaceman, she dipped into Anna Karenina, and quotes: "He was a child: but he knew his own soul and treasured it, guarding it as the eyelid guards the eye, and without the key of love he let no one into his heart." She says: "For me, this sums up how special children are - they know who they are whatever you try to impose on them."

MapHead 2 by Lesley Howarth. Walker Pounds 8.99

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