Children's books

4th May 2007 at 01:00
Lexi. By L. S. Matthews. Hodder. pound;5.99. Nine-plus

Land-Lubbers. By Alex Shearer. Hodder. pound;5.99. Seven-plus

Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People. By Dav Pilkey. Scholastic. pound;8.99. Seven-plus

Michael Thorn finds fiction for confident readers

Fish, L. S. Matthews' allegorical novel, was one of the best junior fiction titles of recent years. Lexi is a crossover novel, not in the sense that has come to attach itself to that term - appealing to children and adults - but in the more common sense of traversing two audience groups, the junior and the young adult.

In that sense, Alison Jay's cover artwork, suggesting as it does very definitely a novel for young readers, does this book a disservice.

This fascinating story about a girl who has lost her memory is written in an easy, fluently informal style and can be read by a nine-year-old and, for its ruminations on identity and fate, by a 14-year-old.

The eventual explanation of the girl's identity, which I cannot even hint at, comes after a series of theatrically-timed new arrivals in the last stages of the book. A gripping metaphorical mystery.

Land-Lubbers is quintessential light slapstick junior fiction. Clive and Eric, non-identical twins, were introduced in Sea Legs, where they caused chaos on a cruise ship. In this book, their father is asked to become manager of a London hotel for the six weeks of their summer holiday. When they were younger, the boys would have stayed with their grandparents but neither generation wants that - there is a running joke concerning the grandfather's corduroy trousers - so the boys join their father at the hotel.

Alex Shearer, an experienced scriptwriter, doesn't miss a single opportunity for humour: from their arrival, when a hotel minion refuses to let them park in the manager's bay, to the complications surrounding the theft of residents' jewels from the hotel safe, including those of a movie celebrity.

There may be lots of pictures in Captain Underpants, a few comic strip interludes and five Flip-O-Rama "cheesy animation" sets; but on page 14, the vocabulary includes reference to a "sub-omnivating ultra-zinticular bio-nanzonoflanamarzipan". Let's say your word-building skills need to be up to par if you're going to read it on your own.

Something goes wrong big time for George and Harold when they attempt to return from the Mesozoic era.

The Purple Potty takes them to a parallel universe where everything is the reverse of what it is in their own time. And thus it proves they have a new enemy to confront - Captain Blunderpants. This is a wonderfully anarchic story with a perfectly paced mix of image and word.

Dav Pilkey's excellent website (www.pilkey.comnextbook.php) shows how the illustrations evolved

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