Children's books

20th April 2001 at 01:00
THE YOUNG OXFORD BOOK OF TRAIN STORIES. Edited by Dennis Hamley. THE YOUNG OXFORD BOOK OF WAR STORIES. THE YOUNG OXFORD BOOK OF SPORTS STORIES. Both edited by James Riordan. Oxford University Press pound;12.99 each.

These three collections are being published simultaneously in a livery that will suggest to the casual shelf-browser that they vary only in theme. This is so far from the case that it is difficult to see why Oxford felt it necessary to put them into uniform.

Dennis Hamley's anthology consists mainly of commissioned stories by contemporary children's authors. In the two titles edited by James Riordan, poems and extracts from longer works of both adult and children's fiction predominate.

"Mystery Train" by David Belbin, a story involving an encounter with the ghost of Elvis Presley aboard the California Zephyr from Sacramento to Chicago, gets Train Stories off to an excellent start, and many of the subsequent stories also feature ghosts, phantoms and premonitions. "North", by Laurence Staig, is chilling.

A great short story is a very rare thing, and the one stand-out story in this collection is "Penalty For Improper Use", Hilary McKay's black-humour tale about a boy's obsession with pulling the communication cord. But Hamley, whose first anthology this is, has succeeded in coaxing interesting work from all his contributors. Rail travel may deserve the bad press it has recently received but, as this book shows, delays and even disasters present writers of fiction with fascinating possibilities.

James Riordan's War Stories covers all the major wars of the 20th century. As he points out in his introduction: "In total they lasted 20 years, a fifth of the cntury, and killed nearly 100 million people. A hundred million people!" Just as in his own fiction, notably in last year's novel The Prisoner, Riordan is keen to show that the participants in a war share similar experiences; it is only the perspective that varies. And so, for the two world wars, we have extracts from German novels - All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (First World War) and Friedrich by Hans Peter Richter (the Second) - as well as work by British children's authors such as Robert Westall and Michael Morpurgo.

With the interspersed poems, and Riordan's explanatory introductions to most of the prose extracts, the book will be an excellent resource for both history and English teachers, as well as a good anthology for the library.

Sports Stories cannot be so positively endorsed. Here, the content suffers from being snatched from its context, to the extent that an extract from Hemingway's The Old Man And The Sea, torn from that immensely moving novella, does not sufficiently carry the cadences of the great man's style. Sentences such as "Then he was on his knees and then he rose slowly to his feet" are not likely to impress young readers recently tutored in the delights of subordinate clauses, more's the pity.

The banality of nearly all the poems ("Women's Tug of War at Lough Arrow" by Tess Gallagher shows the others up for the insipid things they are) and Riordan's strange determination to over-represent women - "all the verses in this book are by women", he declares, as if this is an inherent virtue - undermine the few good bits of prose.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex

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