The curse of special powers
Beast Beneath the Skin. By Thomas Bloor. Faber Faber pound;6.99
Finding the Fox. By Ali Sparkes. Oxford University Press pound;5.99
Soul Eater. By Michelle Paver. Orion Children's Books pound;9.99
The Willow Man. By Sue Purkiss. Walker Books pound;4.99
The White Giraffe. By Lauren St John. Orion Children's Books pound;9.99
Why do so many children's novels depend on the child characters having special powers? Take Beast Beneath the Skin, a tale for 11-plus readers, the sequel to The Worm in the Blood and, according to the blurb, "unputdownable, fiery".
Sam, a 14-year-old from an abjectly depressing London, is cursed: as he hits puberty he's changing into a scaly dragon. Sam has special powers, not least, dragon's breath. Bad people, The Companions, are after him. Sam must save his friend Adda-Leigh, and, while he's at it, the world. His only support comes from a Catholic priest. And how does he do it? Battle, of course: with an exploding car in a derelict church for special effects. And does Ishmael, the creepy gaoler who kept Adda-Leigh hostage, get his comeuppance? No way: he leaps into the conflagration in the interests of friendship and keeping faith.
Dax Jones, the hero of first novel Finding the Fox, is another troubled boy with special powers. In moments of anguish, such as when he's being bullied, Dax becomes a fox. This entertaining read for 10-year-olds and above belongs to an established tradition of stories about humans changing into foxes and dogs. It reminded me particularly of Gillian Rubinstein's Foxspell (published in 1994 and set in Australia): in both novels boys who have turned into young, male foxes raid dustbins and are amazed at how much they enjoy the experience.
Ali Sparkes's lively account of interspecies empathy, is, however, constrained. It feels so commercial. The setting is yet another English boarding school for children with "special powers". There's friendship and bullying and lots of chocolate and a demon headmaster. Dax, like Sam, has villains after him, who want to control his special gift. It is all great fun, but beneath the surface (be that skin, scale or fur) I detect a backbone of undissected assumption: that childhood is inadequate unless bonded to spectacular violence.
So why is Soul Eater, the third novel in Michelle Paver's Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series about a boy called Torak and his bond with a wolf, so different? This is a wonderfully imagined adventure, but it is not great fun: there are no jokes and no knowing irony (irony was perhaps thin on the ground 6,000 years ago, when Torak and his friend Renn leave their forest world and venture into the frozen wilderness of the far North). And yet, this tale set in a cold, dark land left me enlightened, moved and optimistic.
These novels share themes: the outsider's pain, the randomness of disaster, the affinity between humans and other animals, the supreme value of friendship. Michelle Paver's work, however, is distinguished by her delineation of the differences between adults and children. Her children are rightly in the foreground, yet her grown-ups are mature. Ultimately some adults know better than the children and so have the status to put out a comforting hand and call a halt to mayhem. This framework gives stature and allows movement. Torak and Renn falter, as the young must, but they also have somewhere to go. Bloor and Sparkes have created distressingly childish adults and to compensate they create a superior race of "special"
Sue Purkiss's The Willow Man is drawn on a smaller classic canvas and is a satisfying read for children aged nine and above. I'm now much better informed about children who suffer strokes; this is definitely a book with a purpose. But the storytelling is deft and the issues of illness, dyslexia and bullying are not overdrawn. Nor do the pyrotechnics overwhelm the composition when the iconic Willow Man is destroyed by fire.
Another random blaze initiates The White Giraffe, a first novel for 10-year-olds and above. Three weeks after her parents are killed in a fire, 11-year-old Martine arrives at the South African game park run by the unwelcoming grandmother she's never met and encounters prophecies, poaching, animal smuggling and school bullying as part of "the magic of Africa". Martine, of course, has a gift, which takes the form of power over animals. She defeats the treacherous poachers and rescues her special friend, the unique white giraffe. This is a slight story which is transformed by the illustrations of David Dean. The dustjacket, endpapers and black and white chapter headings are all wonderful. Now there is a special gift.