Children's books

6th October 2000 at 01:00
THE ROPE AND OTHER STORIES. By Philippa Pearce. Puffin pound;4.99

ALIENS DON'T EAT BACON SANDWICHES. By Helen Dunmore. Mammoth pound;4.99

TALK TO ME. By Avi. Hodder Signature pound;4.99

POINTS NORTH: short stories by Scottish writers. Mammoth pound;4.99. TALES IN THE TELLING: New Windmill book of short stories. Heinemann Educational pound;6.25

A new collection by a mistress of the genre is an occasion for rejoicing, and Philippa Pearce's many fans will not be disappointed. She inhabits a fictional universe that is all her own, and writes with enviable simplicity and elegance.

Her subjects cover the whole experience of childhood, from the mundane to the horrifying, and her searingly truthful account of the effects of divorce in a story called "The Fir Cone" puts to shame many a more zappy account. Pearce's ghosts and animals have a style of their own, and in "Early Transparent" she touches on the horrors of war. Very temptingly designed by Puffin, this is a splendid collection that will not go out of fashion.

Do not be deceived by the Dunmore collection. These are emphatically not the whizzy, zany tales you might assume from the title. Just like her adult work, which is precise, lyrical, poignant and sometimes scary, this collection for younger readers is full of substance.

There are traditional ghost stories here and domestic and school-based tales. Weather and the landscape figure large, and no one describes winter and snow better than Dunmore. Best of all, though, she understands about relationships - between classmates, between parents and offspring and most especially between the "real" world and one that lies along its mistier borders.

She is not frightened of emotion. "The Old Team" is almost guaranteed to move you to tears. The title tale is not what you might expect, and the book is perfect for anyone who enjoys good writing.

Avi'sshort fictions could only be from across the Atlantic. The Americans seem able to do laconic, surreal and homely all mixed together in a way the British can't. The best of these stories have a flavour that's at once streetwise and deep, and while there's far less descriptive writing than in the Dunmore or the Pearce tales, a world of city streets and apartment rooms comes alive in these pages.

Avi's characters are suffering in all sorts of ways, and the title story is almost unbearable in its implications. But there's beauty, too, in unexpected places, and here also the physical world is more than it appears to be.

The language is beautifully simple, and on one level the narratives seem easy to understand, but there's much more going on in them than meets the eye.

Lindsey Fraser has sensibly ignored the distinction between writers for adults and children, and Points North is full of good things from such luminaries as Iain Crichton Smith, Theresa Breslin, and Candia McWilliam.

Julie Bertagna starts the book with a powerful historical ghost story; Jackie Kay and Dilys Rose both have the gift of grabbing a reader's attention. Fraser herself, in her first published story, is moving and unsentimental, and as a bonus the book has a beautiful cover.

The same, alas, cannot be said for the New Windmill collection, which has "school textbook" written all over it. It is of course an educational book, but what a shame the illustrations and cover could not have been made more enticing.

The stories inside are fine: classics such as Katherine Mansfield's "The Doll's House", a wonderful ghost story by Susan Hill and science fiction by IsaacAsimov and Arthur C Clarke. There are also good questions at the back. Students could perhaps "back" their books in the old-fashioned way, and decorate the paper they use with more pleasing images.


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