Breaking up for the summer

1st August 1997 at 01:00
NOT JUST BABYSITTING, By Helen Flint, Mammoth Pounds 4.50

THE ENCHANTED HORSES, The Chinese Puzzle, By Chrystine Brouillet, Ragweed Pounds 3.99 each

DON'T PAT THE WOMBAT, 45 47 Stella Street, By Elizabeth Honey, Little ArkAllen Unwin Pounds 4.99

These are splendid summer reads, enjoyable in that undemanding way which means they can be read while listening to the Top 40, or off and on during long journeys.

Helen Flint - who 10 years ago won the Betty Trask Award for romantic fiction - has come up with an unexpected gem in a memorably economical depiction of a family splitting apart and coming together again in a single summer. In just under 100 pages, Not Just Babysitting delivers a feel-good ending, while dealing obliquely with the emotionally charged family relationships.

When Sandra's father is made redundant, she opens a cr che in the family's half-built beach house with her mother and sister. Dad, who has strong, old-fashioned beliefs about child-rearing, finds the enterprise hard to cope with and sleeps alone on the sofa. Sandra tells the story with a childish hunger for melodrama which combines with the tale's intense and weighty moments to make a deliciously subtle read. However, the typesetting is disconcerting - like reading through too-strong specs.

Flint's novel is set in Canada, where Chrystine Brouillet's Andrea and Arthur mysteries have proved very popular. Children may need encouragement to try these quaintly far-fetched tales about two juveniles foiling criminal enterprises, published in a rather staid format with idiosyncratic illustrations by Nathalie Gagnon.

The Enchanted Horses starts with a horse-doping incident, moves on to horse theft, then transmutes into a tale about an evil madman attempting to turn white horses into unicorns. In The Chinese Puzzle, the solution to the mystery lies hidden on the side of a tea chest. These are exactly the type of stories which children of a certain age write themselves, and diverting for any eight or nine-year-olds not insistent on hi-tech cover art.

If Brouillet's narrative style is somewhat flat and dated in translation, the Australian Elizabeth Honey is splutteringly contemporary, and the format of her two titles is very much aimed at catching the eye of Nineties 10-year-olds.

Don't Pat the Wombat, a summer-camp diary, is illustrated with wacky drawings by Honey's own 10-year-old son, and full-page black-and-white photographs, including one of "the very gorgeous Miss Cappelli, goddess of ". Honey, through the voice of her narratordiarist, is excellent at capturing the way 10-year-olds think of and speak about parents and teachers, particularly those teachers they (with good reason) hate.

45 47 Stella Street, also liberally illustrated, is more of a mystery, winningly told by 11-year-old Henni Octon. Both are perfect for surviving hotel-room longueurs.

* Asterix, that diehard holiday life-saver, opens the children's events at the three-week Edinburgh Book Festival on August 9 with the Asterix Challenge Quiz, accompanied by his translator, Anthea Bell. Other participants include the novelists Lesley Howarth, Jamila Gavin and Philip Pullman and the author illustrators David McKee and Nick Sharratt. Plus storytelling, poetry workshops and a session on writing for children. Many events are free but most require advance booking. For details write to EBF, Box A, Scottish Book Centre, 137 Dundee Street, Edinburgh EH11 1BG or telephone 0131 228 5444 until August 8, then 0131 220 3991.

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