Children's books

13th July 2001 at 01:00
Sleepovers. By Jacqueline Wilson. Doubleday pound;10.99. TES Direct pound;9.99

The Song of Mat and Ben. By Joan Aiken. Red Fox pound;3.99

Eric and the Green-Eyed God. By Barbara Mitchelhill. Andersen Tigers pound;7.99. TES Direct pound;6.99

Many children, thankfully, become confident readers quickly but still need reasonably brief books appropriate for their age. Jacqueline Wilson's Sleepovers is aimed at girls from Years 1 to 4. With a cover adorned, as usual, with appealing Nick Sharratt illustrations, it is assured an eager audience.

Daisy has moved to a new school and makes friends with Amy, Bella, Chloe and Emily. She notices that their names start with the letters A to E, and suggests they form a secret club, the Alphabet Girls. One by one, each girl holds a birthday sleepover party. As Daisy's turn approaches, her apprehension grows - partly because of a feud with Chloe, an unpleasant character, and partly because she is anxious about introducing them to her brain-damaged older sister, Lily.

The book is, as we have come to expect, highly entertaining. Wilson knows exactly what young girls get up to on sleepovers and the mind games they play with one another. And Daisy's shifting attitudes towards her sister are powerfully conveyed. One moment she is cross at being rushed into choosing a birthday present for one of the other girls because Lily is screaming in her wheelchair, the next she is slipping into Lily's bed and whispering her secret thoughts.

The book's resolution is wonderfully un-PC but does leave a sense of unease when the bitchy Chloe is frightened into wetting herself by Lily's middle-of-the-night wailing. The triumphalism of the other girls and their determination to go round in "a special foursome" is dangerously overplayed, in that it will give impressionable readers the idea that secrets equal power, and that using them manipulatively can be commended.

At just under 100 pages, The Song of Mat and Ben by Joan Aiken is a fast-paced surreal thriller narrated in an effectively adult manner by Ned, the boy protagonist. Ned and his Aunt Lal have a propensity to share dreams, and when the skeletons of two twins who disappeared 100 years ago are uncovered, Ned is called to his aunt's house to investigate. Even in the first chapter, Ned narrowly escapes death when the car he is travelling in lands upside down in a watery ditch. When eventually he arrives, thick snow falls, more dreams come to him, and the mysterious course of the tale, which involves a key and an old mine hole on Cold Point, unfolds. A spellbinding book for younger readers, with classic Aiken features.

Aunts are often the agents of adventure or magic in children's fiction. The aunt in Barbara Mitchelhill's Eric and the Green-Eyed God never appears, but she sends the wedding gift (a fertility symbol) that acts as the catalyst for Eric and his friend Wez to go about their ham-fisted defensive action. An attempt to use a dictionary to find out what a "fertility symbol" is throws up "productiveness ticket" or "fruitful watchword" as possible definitions. It takes a girl to tell them that it's a lucky charm to help make babies. A highly entertaining short novel for Years 2 to 4.

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

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