Fare for the beast in us all

10th December 2004 at 00:00
WOLF BROTHER. By Michelle Paver. Orion Children's Books pound;8.99

DUMB CREATURES. By Jeanne Willis Macmillan Children's Books pound;7.99

LIONBOY: THE CHASE. By Zizou CorderPuffin Books pound;12.99

KITTY. By William Corlett. Corgi pound;4.99

THE BLUE ROAN CHILD. By Jamieson Findlay. The Chicken House pound;5.99

Elaine Williams chooses wild novels for pre-teens

Man and beast and the relationship between them lies at the heart of literary tradition. It is the stuff of myth and it enlivens contemporary narrative. Through this relationship we come to understand truths about our world and the nature of our conscience and imagination. Seeing the world through the eyes of a beast can give children a crucial objectivity on life, helping them navigate the adult world. Any of these books would be a welcome present, or a holiday reading suggestion for upper primary readers and above.

It is hard to let Wolf Brother speak for itself, given reports of multi-million-pound advances and parallels with Harry Potter. But the first of six in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series is indeed a fine creation. A beautifully crafted story, it illuminates some of the big conundrums: the nature of evil; man's stewardship of nature; the force of jealousy and greed; the power of self-giving for the good of others. Ideal for the Christmas season.

Set 6,000 years ago in the world of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, Wolf Brother is the story of Torak, orphaned in terrible circumstances with only a wolf cub as companion. But Torak can speak wolf; he is blessed with special and powerful knowledge of nature and all its magical ways. This singles him out to be the saviour of his forests and the creatures and people who live in them, as he pits himself against a demonic bear ravaging the land.

Michelle Paver has produced a thrilling narrative with authentic flavour founded on thorough research. The text is well-honed and rhythmic, and moves with terrific pace; a haunting and heroic adventure with appeal for boys and girls of 10 and above.

Dumb Creatures is equally challenging in the scope of its ideas, and written in similarly tight prose. It is the story of Tom, who cannot speak, and Zanzi, a gorilla he meets at the zoo. Tom has the wisdom of a boy who watches intently and notices what others do not: that Zanzi can sign just like he can. Jeanne Willis has produced a tale of great poignancy with a dramatic climax that provides endless leads for discussion about animal captivity and the treatment of children with special needs. A great class reader, it is also perfect for family reading at home. Although the language is accessible to children as young as seven, the issues described make it suitable for children into the top primary years.

Lionboy: the chase, the middle book in a trilogy, is as sparkling in its wit and fantasy as its predecessor. Continuing the wonderfully baroque themes explored in Lionboy by this author (a pseudonym for a mother-and-daughter team), it catches up with Charlie Ashanti, now rocketing through Europe on the Orient Express with the lions he has rescued from Major Thibaudet's floating circus. Charlie is still trying to find his kidnapped parents, scientists who were on the verge of finding a cure for asthma, and now has the help of King Boris of Bulgaria.

As in the first book, quaint maps and musical scores contribute to an ornately theatrical effect. Corder's style is light and agile, the sheer entertainment of the story carrying the reader through complex twists and turns. But there is a darker underbelly to these kaleidoscopic novels; a future governed by the ruthless requirements of corporate business lies at the heart of Charlie's predicament. A stimulating read for the over-10s.

Finally, dog and horse lovers will warm to two gutsy adventure stories.

Kitty, by William Corlett, author of the Magician's House Quartet, is the first-person story of a stray puppy growing up in southern Spain and her touching friendship with a mangy mongrel who becomes her protector.

Sentimental, but full of funny doggy insights, it gives an interesting slant on the doghuman relationship for eight to 12-year-olds.

The Blue Roan Child by Jamieson Findlay has more depth than the average horsey tale. Syeira, an orphaned girl working in the king's stables, sets out with Arwin, a proud and wild mare, to help find her stolen colts.

Findlay provides great insight into equine behaviour in a satisfying story for the over-10s, enriched by the constructs of traditional fairytale.

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