Children's Literature

28th June 1996 at 01:00
The Blue Cow By John Olda Freedom Press Pounds 3.50. The Willow Tree's Daughter and Windrider Both by Pamela Freeman Little ArkRagged Bears Pounds 4.99 each. The Byzantium Bazaar By Stephen Elboz Oxford University Press Pounds 5.99.

The manuscript of The Blue Cow lay in a filing cabinet for 50 years before the publisher discovered it. Illustrated by the author's energetic cartoons, it is a peculiar, dreamtime tale about those "blue hours . . . when the outside world begins to quieten down, when the crickets chirp in the fields, when the dawn comes and the shadows fall." In one such inspirational moment an artist conjures up a blue cow and gives her an indispensable attribute - self-consciousness.

With delightful but dangerous naivety, the blue cow takes the man in the moon for a ride, shocks a weather cock into crowing and juggles with the cannon-balls fired at her. The other farmyard animals threaten to strike when her sky-blue milk breaks all convention, but they are won over when they see all who drink it forget their troubles and dance for joy.

This is not a book with immediate child appeal. Its anarchy and joie de vivre suggest that it should be read aloud but the story might be appreciated most by older children and adults who would enjoy the political comment and anti-establishment humour. As a period piece it will certainly provoke discussion.

In contrast, at the unashamedly romantic end of the fantasy spectrum, The Willow Tree's Daughter and Windrider are firmly rooted in a pre-Raphaelite idyll. The heroine, Betony, is a gutsy, down-to-earth girl, the daughter of a king and a willow-tree dryad. The conflict between the mortal and magic sides of her character is the central theme of both stories.

In the first book, Betony would much rather learn how to mulch and prune with Rosie, the palace gardener, than practise her curtseys. She finally runs away and her ensuing scrapes with unicorns, hobgoblins and other magical creatures help her to come to terms with her dual nature.

In the sequel - more action-packed than its predecessor but less satisfying - she has to choose between the power of human love and the call of the Wild Magic.

Her growth from exuberant child to wise woman is humorously observed but it all happens a little too easily. Although the books have the right magical ingredients they don't quite fulfil their early promise. For the less mature reader, however, they might be a stepping stone towards fantasy classics such as The Hobbit.

The Byzantium Bazaar, a contemporary fantasy set in an anonymous but familiar city is the most complex of these novels and would suit the more sophisticated reader in upper primary or lower secondary. Bridie's prissy Aunt Dolly has sent her to stay with her grandfather, but when she arrives he has mysteriously disappeared. The fearsome Crickbone twins have taken over his salvage yard and refuse to tell Bridie anything.

Alone but undefeated, Bridie has no choice but to accept help from the street people she encounters. She finds refuge in the Byzantium Bazaar - a disused and dilapidated department store - and meets its eccentric owner, Miss Firbanks, saviour of lost and abused animals. With help at hand, Bridie embarks on a nail-biting and dangerous quest to find her beloved gramps.

This is a wonderfully inventive madcap romp with a cast of oddball but entirely sympathetic characters. It is reminiscent of the best of Mervyn Peake. Animal rights is a subtle underlying thread. Though the novel is full of hope and courage, not everyone ends up happily ever after. Street life lives on after the adventure is over.

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