Fear and laughter

9th August 1996 at 01:00
Victoria Neumark recommends different kinds of children's fiction for all ages.

If you have not read Janni Howker's extraordinarily powerful books, catch up now. The Nature of the Beast, an account of the devastation wreaked on a mill town by the closing of the mill, won all kinds of prizes and deservedly so.

Bill Coward is a young teenager who lives with his father and grandfather in chaotic but affectionate squalor. As he and his friend Mick,son of a trades union official, come up against officialdom in all its uncaring forms, they become obsessed with the local legend of a wild beast which savages livestock and pets. But is the beast real? And does it live within or without the young lads? Unmissable.

Isaac Campion is another wonderful title from Howker, set at the turn of the century. When Isaac's brother Danny is killed in some horseplay, his father uses the tragedy to fuel his feud with the neighbouring Cleggs, taking his anger and grief out on young Isaac. The book describes, with plenty of pungent detail, an adolescent's struggle to find his moral and emotional place in the world.

Badger on the Barge is the collection of five stories which introduced this classic writer to the world. Her salty humour and loving observation of working-class northern life are mixed with deep compassion and instantly believable characterisation of the young people about whom she writes.

These short stories, hingeing as they do on key moments in early adolescence when fear gives way to understanding, are real eye-openers. For 11 to 16-year-olds, although any adult will enjoy them. All published by Walker at Pounds 3.99.

Flip-Flop Girl (Puffin Pounds 3.99) is a moving, utterly true-to-life account of how a young girl starts to come to terms with the death of her father. Vinnie is nine and her brother, Mason, is five when they have to leave their comfortable life in Washington and move to Brownsville, Virginia, to live with their step-grandmother. Vinnie, desperate for affection, lashes out at all and sundry. Mason, terrified at the changes in his life, refuses to speak. Gradually, through the kindness of her new teacher and a new friend, even more lonely and outcast than herself, Vinnie finds her way back to some kind of emotional stability. Katherine Paterson writes with compassion and sharpness. For ages 8-12.

The Dump Gang by Martin Waddell (Walker Pounds 3.50) is a fun read for the beach, told with Waddell's customary flair and panache. Packed full of enjoyable insults, slapstick humour and racy prose, these loosely connected stories cover the rivalries between two gangs of young children messing about over the summer. Perfect for ages 8-11.

In Crack Willow Wood (Walker Pounds 3.50) is another easy-to-read excursion into an anthropomorphised wood in which Billy Weasel is always making a nuisance of himself at the Crack Willow Road school. The five stories focus on such topics as the Tuesday blues, the uninvited guest at the birthday party and disappointments over the tooth fairies. Either to be read aloud or for newish readers, the stories are fun for ages five to nine.

The Twitches' Birthday by Roy Apps (Macdonald Pounds 3.99) is a bit of rollicking fun, fourth in the series which follow Gert and Lil through thoroughly silly but enjoyable adventures. In this one, the Twitches celebrate their 114th birthday by having a bath. But the Twitches hate having baths and will do anything to avoid them - even visit the Queen. Good vocabulary and a zippy story make this a holiday read for ages six to eight.

The Check-out Princess by Andrew Matthews (Mammoth Pounds 3.50) is a comical transposition of an Arabian Nights-style fantasy to the setting of a modern supermarket. Matthews has a lot of fun with the havoc caused by the eruption of Arabian court life into the mundane lines of customers at "Sainscos'' and a sympathetic hero in the sensible Chris, who manages to restore the lost princess back into her own dimension. Entertaining reading for eight to 11- year-olds.

A Little Fear by Patricia Wrightson (Hutchinson Pounds 9.99) is one of a number of this original Australian writer's titles reprinted in hardback. She blends settings which are acutely exotic for the British reader - the Australian desert, the rocks and seas of the southern hemisphere - with oddly cosy supernatural beings, not so much dei ex machina as familiar spirits, who love to meddle.

In the title story it is the Nijimbin who makes life uncomfortable for Mrs Tucker and her old dog Hector. Mrs Tucker wins in the end by using her misadventures to gain the upper hand in her dealings with her daughter. Each as contrary as the other, ancient spirit and old woman hold their heads high.

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