When the school ship Betty-Jeanne blows into port with her questionable crew, the widow Crane and her son Fergus cannot afford to turn down the offer of free tuition even though the curriculum is a little over-specialised. But then comes a strange communication from the Fateful Voyage Trading CompanyI It is pointless trying to summarise the plot of Fergus Crane (illustrated here); the whole book is an experience, from the dust wrapper that unfolds into a map to Chris Riddell's manic chapter-head pictures of bicycling fish. There is scarcely a spread without at least one of his meticulous drawings, sometimes half a dozen. This generous, genial collaboration of text and illustration does more to suggest that reading might be fun than any amount of literacy propaganda.
Fergus is a scrawny lad. Even scrawnier is Toby, the hero of Heather Dyer's first novel. Abandoned in a seaside hotel as a baby, Toby is raised as a skivvy by its grasping proprietor, Mr Harris. When the boy discovers the Flots, a family of displaced mermaids living under the pier, he comes into possession of a gold ring that holds the secret of his parentage. With the connivance of Margot, Harris's elderly cousin who has also lived in the hotel all her life, he moves his new friends into Room 11 where, equipped with wheelchairs, they liven the place up no end until Harris uncovers their secret. All ends happily in this straightforward, rewarding read.
Scrawniest orphan of all is Measle in Measle and the Wrathmonk, Ian Ogilvy's first children's novel, to be published next month. A wrathmonk is a warlock who has gone to the bad and Measle's guardian, Basil Tramplebone, is as bad as they come. The story takes a while to get going as Ogilvy feels obliged to expound at length on the evilness of Basil and the woefulness of Measle. Frankly, we have been here before. The ending is equally conventional, but in between comes a terrific adventure in which the writing and the invention burst into life.
Basil's attic contains an enormous model train set. Anyone who crosses Basil, including Measle, is reduced to two centimetres high and slowly turned to plastic, stranded in the desolate railway layout and menaced by Basil's pet mutant bat, Cuddlebug. How Measle frees the captives and how they unite to outwit both bat and Basil is hugely entertaining. Chris Mould's illustrations crawl all over the pages. His realisation of Measle has rather too much of Charlie Bucket about him, but he draws a mean cockroach.
Exploited orphans seem to be as ubiquitous now as they were in the "waif" fictions of the late 19th century. Now, as then, adversity brings out the best in them; they are a cheery, indomitable bunch. All these books are distinguished by their essential good humour, as is Andrew Norris's The Touchstone.
Douglas Patterson, not an orphan but ripe for adventure none the less, is setting out for school when he is accosted by a wounded female alien, Kai, seeking shelter. Douglas gamely hides her under the bed and follows her instructions for getting help by means of the Touchstone she has given him.
This extraterrestrial gizmo allows him access to Gedrus, an affable librarian with all the knowledge of the Galaxy at his disposal.
Having fulfilled his obligation to Kai, Douglas begins to experiment with the Touchstone. He can become a millionaire, reunite his estranged parents (whether they like it or not) and help his friends, especially the strange but loyal Ivo whose goal in life is to win Robot Wars - so long as he remembers to ask the right questions of the ever-obliging Gedrus. The pitfalls of getting exactly what you wish for are very much in the spirit of E Nesbit, but the result is something entirely original, wise and warm-hearted. In all respects, a happy book.
Fergus Crane. By Paul Stewart Illustrated by Chris Riddell Doubleday, pound;8.99
The Fish in Room 11. By Heather Dyer Illustrated by Peter Bailey Chicken House, pound;8.99
Measle and the Wrathmonk. By Ian OgilvyIllustrated by Chris Mould Oxford University Press, pound;8.99
The Touchstone. By Andrew Norris Puffin, pound;4.99