King-Smithreturns to literary mode to celebrate rural

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
THE CROWSTARVER. By Dick King-Smith. Doubleday Pounds 10.99.

Dick King-Smith's success with seven to nine-year- olds has been founded on the smooth readability of his stories. In this new story for over-10s, as in last year's Godhanger, his style is more self-consciously literary. The tale is set on the Wiltshire Downs, and opens in 1926 when shepherd Tom Sparrow finds a newborn baby abandoned in one of his lambing pens. Long childless, he and his wife decide to bring up the boy as their own.

In telling the story of the boy's life up to 1942, King-Smith also creates a picture of England between the wars as a rural idyll. As portrayed, Outoverdown Farm is a heavenly place, presided over by a kindly gentleman farmer. The benign, hierarchical social structure makes it possible for young John Sparrow, nick-named Spider, to lead a fulfilling life, in which his affinity with the animal world compensates for academic "backwardness".

The village headmaster decides it would be inappropriate for Spider to start school. King-Smith here seems to be approving both the courage and independence implicit in the teacher's frank rejection. Instead, Spider is employed on the estate as a bird-scarer, and is given access to an open-air life in which such talents as he has are allowed to bloom. The events of the story showcase these talents, as when Spider is the only one on the farm who can calm some bucking broncos.

Read as a novel about special needs, The Crowstarver raises questions about our own epoch's insistence on Education for All. A powerful and heartwarming story, it will surely be on the next Carnegie shortlist and is likely to be one of those children's books much enjoyed by adults.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex

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