Children's literature

21st February 1997 at 00:00
BUSTER AND THE BLACK HOLE, By Betsy Duffey, Viking Pounds 10.99. DEAD WORRIED! By Moya Simons, Orchard Pounds 9.99. BELLY FLOP, By Morris Gleitzman, Macmillan Pounds 9.99. THEY'VE ESCAPED OUT OF HIS MIND! By Roger Davenport, Bloomsbury Pounds 3.99

Humour and male main characters were both in short supply not so long ago, especially in older primary fiction. Not any more, as these four titles cheerfully and boy-bumblingly testify. Masculine anxiety, using comedy rather than sensitivity as a means of expression, seems to be on something of a roll.

Buster and the Black Hole by Betsy Duffey (daughter of children's author Betsy Byars) is an exceptionally well-crafted story about a boy whose life starts to fall apart when his grandfather, convalescing after a hip operation, takes over his bedroom.

It cannot be recommended highly enough, but some inept editorial tampering has made mischief with the original text. In the American edition, Buster's name was Booker and the title was Utterly Yours Booker Jones (much more apt, since the whole point about the main character is that he is a fantasist, continually starting chapters of science fiction novels and posting them off to the publisher with hilarious covering letters while, in the course of the story, gradually being brought up against reality). Booker lived in Pickle Springs. Buster lives in Pickle Green - but at least two references to Pickle Springs have escaped the change, one of them on the first page.

It can only be hoped that these and other crass changes (a stuffed panda is made to wear an Alton Towers T-shirt instead of one with an American logo) will be dropped in favour of the author's original text when the paperback appears.

In Dead Worried! first impressions (cover illustration included) are that we are being introduced to a dead ringer for Paul Jennings, but this inter-connected collection of Australian short stories does have its own atmosphere. Neither as zany as Jennings, nor as climactic as Morris Gleitzman, there is still a real sense of beleaguered boyhood here, and Bub-Tub, the main character's nappy-filling baby sister, is both noxiously and endearingly represented. On the strength of this it will be worth hunting down Moya Simons's previous collection, Dead Meat.

Morris Gleitzman is a very funny writer, and Belly Flop - narrated by Mitch Webber in short addresses to his guardian angel, Doug - is moving as well as funny. Just when the reader thinks the joky, bravado atmosphere is coasting along, it shifts gear and heads for a cataclysmic denouement. Is Gran, Doug, Dad or Mitch to be the final hero? Gleitzman succeeds in making us care, and the relationship between son and banker-father (hated by all the neighbouring landowners because of a crippling drought) is one of the book's enduring strengths.

My previous standby for making a group of nine-year-olds laugh has been the scene in Eva Ibbotson's The Great Ghost Rescue in which Humphrey and the other ghosts visit the Prime Minister. Roger Davenport, in They've Escaped Out of His Mind!, has moments which approach this level of hilarity. However, in a 250-page novel a reader's concentration should be allowed to lapse for a paragraph or two and still be able to follow the drift. This tightly-packed book requires frequent turning back in order to pick up the thread, and the action at times descends into silly anarchy.

Also missing is any sense of personal anxiety in the main character, Tom, who is staying with his grandfather, former gardener to the novelist out of whose head characters fly to create the confusing bedlam. The other three novels create genuine situation comedy out of their characters' predicaments.

So often the complaint of award judges has been that there is too little sustained wit and humour in publishers' submissions. Things are changing.

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