Fishy tales and tall stories;Children's books

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
Ever ready to suspend disbelief, children spend a lot of time contemplating magic and the possibilities of other worlds. They spend long hours lying in bed expecting that giant to pop his head through the window or that fairy to fly across the room. Children's writers are ever ready to exploit this trait, empowering their young readers with the notion that they are equipped to go where adults cannot follow.

William Mayne's latest book Captain Ming and the Mermaid (Hodder pound;9.99), pictured above right, is a subtle, sensitive novel that explores this territory. Full of pace and dramatic highlights, it nevertheless conveys the openness of a child's mind.

Lucy, a shy but imaginative girl, is invited to Scotland by her pen-pal Morag for a journey through the lochs in a paddle steamer owned by Morag's uncle, Captain Ming. Morag does not believe (or doesn't want to believe) in magical creatures, but she knows that Lucy does and hopes that her friend can help cure the Captain of his dangerous attraction for the mermaid.

Mayne's prose, always muscular and inventive, makes an art out of brevity and evokes much with a deliberately limited palette. This book resonates with Scottish lore and landscape and presents delightful and loveable characters through deft turns of phrase. Mayne's portrayal of Lucy as reticent, tentative, underconfident, yet sure in her belief of mythical creatures, shimmers with the quicksilver of a child's mind. A wonderful choice for young, confident readers.

Giants by Hugh Scott (Walker pound;9.99) is a good read for older primary children which also pursues the idea of children's susceptibility to the magical. Anyone who has ever looked on the likes of York Minster or Salisbury Cathedral can sympathise with the idea that they must have been built by giants. This has sparked off Scott's latest other-world adventure story. Giants have been in town for 1,000 years. They run the bookshops, they teach in the schools, they have a special relationship with the cathedral, but as they can shrink to normal size they have rarely been spotted. When newcomers arrive, it is their children who begin to see things that the long-standing residents have never noticed. Scott is a master of suspense and the book is written at a cracking pace with the usual challenging sub-plot. Essentially, it deals with racism, giving extra depth to an irresistible tale.

Just in Time: Stories to Mark the Millennium (Puffin pound;4.99) is a superb collection of short stories of moment and magic by Puffin authors. Gillian Cross, Melvin Burgess, Nigel Hinton and Nina Bawden, among others, have provided powerful, sometimes heart-rending tales to reflect the spirit of a particular age or myth. Mature primary readers will relish these rich imaginative journeys. This paperback compares well with the recent hardback volume Centuries of Stories: new stories for a new millennium (Collins pound;14.99, equally well-compiled by Wendy Cooling) which features some of the same authors.

Yeti Boy by Kara May (Collins pound;9.99) is a moving fantasy with echoes of Robinson Crusoe which explores the human urge to rediscover a lost world of innocence. Fenn, a newly orphaned boy, disappears into remote mountains and is assumed dead. In fact he is rescued and adopted by Yeti, honourable beasts who live under a strict moral code and expose the dysfunctional nature of developed society.

For a straightforward but delightful Hallowe'en romp among creatures of the underworld, younger children will love Colin and Jacqui Hawkins's picture books The Gorys, The Spooks and Wizzie Witch (Collins Picture Lions pound;4.99). The text is witty and rhythmic and the illustrations zany with plenty of hilarious detail, though at times a little too close to the work of Babette Cole for comfort.

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