Children's fiction

11th August 2000 at 01:00
Eloise daydreams about her heroine, Joan of Arc, and enters an essay-writing competition to win the chance to parade through the streets of Orleans in the costume of Jeanne d'Arc. MichaelMorpurgo reads his own adaptation of the story of Joan of Arc (Hodder pound;7.99), framing the tale, as is his wont, in a modern story.

You enter the historical narrative through the eyes of a contemporary girl and share Joan's travails alongside herfictional pet, a white sparrow named Belami. This device gives Morpurgo the freedom to depict Joan's emotions from a modern perspective, though many aspects of her story, from the grinding poverty of her home to the hatred and superstition surrounding her terrible death, are very hard for today's young people to comprehend. Still, the story is gripping and Joan's crazy heroism shines through. One for girls aged nine to 14, though others will grasp the drama.

It is hard to imagine boys listening to The Silver Brumby (Collins pound;8.99, three hours). Elyne Mitchell's tale gallops through the wild outback, following the magnificent silver stallion Thowra as he defends his mares from the mighty Brolga and leads the herd over the mountains to escape the hunters. There is a lot of action and some humour, though not enough for the non-horse-mad. Somehow, the horses seem like schoolgirls, spending a lot of time tossing their manes.

Girls in Love by JacquelineWilson, read by Brigit Forsyth (CavalcadeChivers Press pound;8.50, four hours), is still more overtly girly: a down-to-earth look at early teen romance - and the lack of it. Sensitively, but with touches of bawdy humour, Wilson explores Ellie's plight as her two more attractive friends dive into the sex war while she gears up on the sidelines. Will anyone ever fancy her? Apart from Dan, who is too small, too young and too clever? Meanwhile, the vulnerable Nadine is getting in over her head with a (gasp!) 17-year-old and Ellie thinks her dad and stepmother are splitting up. Ellie longs for her mum, who died when she was small, and for a really trendy pair of shoes.

The protagonists are 13 going on 14, but the appeal of this story would start at 10. Much to their surprise, the 10-year-old boys listening to this tape with me absolutely loved it. "It's like Neighbours but real," as one of them put it. Dickens couldn't have asked for more.

In so many children's stories, boys seemed doomed to be the obvious sex. While Jacqueline Wilson's girls refine their life-saving gossip skills, Francesca Simon's antihero Henry practises his mischief in Horrid Henry's Nits and Horrid Henry's Haunted House (Orion pound;4.25 each, one hour 10 minuts each).

Miranda Richardson delivers every ghastly antic (spreading nits, ruining the cocktail party, setting little brother Perfect Peter up for supertrouble in order to gain possession of the TV remote control) at full throttle, reducing a gaggle of listeners aged up to 12 into a heap of giggles. Like Richmal Crompton's William before him, Henry scorns every convention, but unlike William, he takes rebellion that extra mile. He won't just ruin the museum taxidermy section, he will pin the blame on his little brother; he won't simply eat all the cashews, he will substitute the rice pops from his chemistry set and make the guests ill. Very juvenile, but very satisfying.

But boys can be sensitive too, of course. I am David, Anna Holm's classic, familiar to many from Year 7 reading, gets a compelling rendition from Struan Rodger in Cover to Cover's four-tape version (pound;14.99, four hours 55 minutes). Though children may need adults to set the scene (not quite clear from the book, but probably shortly after the Second World War) of a boy running away from a Soviet concentration camp (only one clue given, which is not to trust anything written after 1917), the narrative builds slowly to its heart-wrenching climax, transfixing young listeners from 10 to 16. It does portray a very male world (presumably the sexual attention a girl of 12 or 13 might attract would have complicated things too much) but its vignettes of kindness and brutality and its glimpses of landscapes and cultures, transcend gender preferences. And who would not agree with the 15-year-old boy who sniffed, "I wish the dog didn'tdie"?

Michael Morpurgo's Farm Boy (Collins pound;6.99 ) also deals with masculine feelings through the medium of personal history, but in a much lower key. Morpurgo himself reads the first-person story of a boy and his grand-father, set on a farm in Devon. Derek Jacobi plays the old farmer who interlaces the tale of his famous victory in a ploughing competition with a plea to be taught how to read. It's a soothing story for ages eight to 12.

Lest we rely too much on gender stereotypes, Cliff McNish's The Doomspell (Orion pound;8.99, 3 hours 37 minutes), read by Sian Phillips, is overtly aimed at girls and is a straightforward tale of good battling against evil.

Witch with spiders in her four sets of teeth fights charming little girl who tries to save her brother. Every freezing storm, wizard with multi-coloured eyes, scary snake and poisoned draught is dragged out of the sword-and-sorcery prop cupboard, to the delight of listeners aged eight to 12. More sensitive souls might retreat to Girls in Love.

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