Children's books

8th December 2000 at 00:00
HOUSE OF GHOSTS. By Ann Turnbull. Walker. pound;9.99.

THE GHOST BEHIND THE WALL. By Melvin Burgess. Andersen Press. pound;9.99,

BIRD BOY. By Alison Prince. Hodder Children's Books. pound;3.99.

THE LADY WITH IRON BONES. By Jan Mark. Walker Books. pound;9.99.

Each of these four novels for top primarylower secondary readers involves a fantasy element - although the fantasy in Jan Mark's book takes place only in the imagination of one of the characters.

Ann Turnbull's House of Ghosts links two girls - 12-year-old Grace, and Clemence, who slept in Grace's bedroom in the same riverside cottage in the mid-19th-century - with stepfathers.

Grace can see Clem's ghost and occasionally inhabit her head. Economical scene-setting allows the reader to see both the prosperous art galleries and craft shops of the present and the china factory and artisans' cottages of the Victorian era.

Sympathetic to Clem's ambition to follow her deceased father's profession as a china-painter, Grace enlists the help of Adam, a new friend and tentative boyfriend. She explores the local museum, graveyard, library archive and mill in an attempt to find out if Clem was pushed into the river by her mother's new husband.

Through brief visions of Clem's life, Ann Turnbull evokes the existence of a young girl in a male-dominated household whose own mother won't even stand up for her. The ending springs a surprise in this vividly-written, skilfully-plotted tale.

Melvin Burgess's The Ghost Behind the Wall tells the painful story of high-rise dweller David, who, alone and bored, discovers that he can crawl into the ventilation tunnels that offer access to neighbouring flats. David finds an easy victim in Mr Alveston, who suspects he is suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

When David enters and vandalises the flat, Mr Alveston thinks he is doing the damage himself in one of his wandering phases. To an adult reader, the relationship between Mr Alveston and his forthright home-help, Sis, is the most poignant aspect of the story, especially as it's difficult to find much sympathy for David for the first half, but youner readers will be intrigued by the vengeful boy-ghost David encounters in the tunnels. The logic behind the ghost's pursuit of Mr Alveston, and David's exorcism of the ghost, form the resolution of the story.

Burgess's style is simple and direct, and his novel has much-in-demand boy appeal.

In Alison Prince's Bird Boy, the ghostly presence takes the form of a crow that protects and speaks to Conan, urging him to find out how his namesake met a tragic death three generations previously.

Conan and his parents, newcomers to the Suffolk village where they plan to set up a centre for yoga and meditation at Wilderness Hall, encounter hostility from the residents, especially the builder, Mr Barker, whose own plans for the hall have been thwarted.

A strong sense of place and excellent characterisation - I especially liked Conan's straight-talking Australian Gran, who arrives in time to dash fears with common sense and practicality - make this an absorbing mystery story.

Jan Mark's The Lady with Iron Bones, with beautiful cover artwork by Christian Birmingham, explores the power of misplaced superstition. The "lady" is a discarded bird-bath statue, concealed in ivy fronds at the rubbishy end of a neighbour's garden.

Ellen's best friend Kasey, burdened with family problems, forms a belief that the statue can answer her prayers, and urges a reluctant Ellen to join her in treating the place as a shrine, with offerings and votive candles. But an obsession develops when Kasey begins to fear that bad wishes as well as good ones are coming true.

It takes the understanding neighbour Mrs Sayer to debunk the "lady" myth and make Ellen realise that doing is more important than wishing.

All this is handled with the wit and wisdom readers expect from Jan Mark, unfaltering insight into a child's logic, and lovely details such as this, from Ellen's and Kasey's visit to church: "Ellen knew it was the feeding of the five thousand because Jesus had the barley loaves under his arm and was holding up the two small fishes by their tails, like a man with a winning hand at poker."

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