Made of the right stuffing

17th December 2004 at 00:00
The Scarecrow and His Servant. By Philip Pullman. Illustrated by Peter Bailey Doubleday pound;10.99

Clarice Bean Spells Trouble. By Lauren Child. Orchard Books pound;9.99

Dragon Rider. By Cornelia Funke. The Chicken House pound;12.99

The Saint of Dragons. By Jason Hightman. Collins Children's Books Pounds 12.99

Tiger, Tiger. By Lynne Reid Banks. Collins Children's Books pound;10.99

Shield of Fire. By Alice Leader. Puffin pound;4.99

In The Scarecrow and His Servant, Philip Pullman returns to the fairytale style of Clockwork and I Was A Rat!, his earlier books for younger readers.

A scarecrow brought to life by a lightning strike commandeers a young boy, Jack, to be his servant, and the unlikely pair set off on an adventure.

Close on their tail is a lawyer for the rich and powerful Buffaloni family, who are intent on taking control of the scarecrow's farm to build a factory. Helped by Jack's quick wits they manage to thwart the lawyer at every turn and finally return to defend the ownership of Spring Valley.

With wit and poignancy, Pullman manages to highlight ethical and ecological issues throughout the tale.

During the scarecrow's journey his arms, legs, head and stuffing are gradually replaced, but the strength of his inner conviction eventually saves Spring Valley. This reads like a classic, and the beautiful production compounds the feeling. It will captivate readers of eight and above.

Lauren Child's latest Clarice Bean title is another masterpiece of production. Clarice Bean's stream-of-consciousness narrative, which explores the trials and tribulations of someone (Clarice) who is not very good at spelling but has a spelling bee looming, had me laughing out loud.

Lauren Child deftly weaves together sub-plots involving Clarice Bean, her best friend Betty Moody and Karl Wrenbury, a boy who is in "non-stop trouble", interspersing them with witty observations about the bizarre rules of spelling.

Underlying the humour is the rather sad portrayal of Karl's relationship with his father. This is a clever, sharply observed and hilarious portrait of primary-school life that will be, as Clarice would say, utterly adored by under-nines.

Cornelia Funke's Dragon Rider will establish her, if further proof were needed, as an imaginative and powerful storyteller. When "two-legs" (humans), plan to flood the valley where the silver dragons live, Firedrake, a young silver dragon, Sorrel, a brownie, and Ben, a lonely boy, embark on a quest to find the Rim of Heaven, a place where the dragons can live safely.

Flying by moonlight, they face many dangers, encountering fabulous creatures, and making some unusual friends on the way.

At more than 500 pages, this is a challenging, but rewarding read for 10s and above. Cornelia Funke's elegant line drawings pepper the text.

Simon Saint George, the protagonist of The Saint of Dragons, is also trying to destroy the last dragons on earth. But these are very different, modern-day dragons that disguise themselves as ordinary, but exceptionally evil, people in high places. The author is a filmmaker and screenwriter and it shows in some of the spectacular ways in which Simon and his father escape many a tricky situation. The sheer pace of the action will probably keep boys reading to the end, but the writing never really transcends cliche.

Lynne Reid Banks is on superb form in Tiger, Tiger, a finely crafted story about twin tiger cubs who are captured and taken to Rome. The smaller of the two is castrated and tamed to become the cosseted pet of Emperor Caesar's daughter, Aurelia, while the other is caged, underfed and hardened to become a terrifying fighter in Caesar's circus.

A silly joke played by Aurelia and her cousin to tease Julius, the slave in charge of the pet tiger, goes disastrously wrong. The bloodthirsty violence of the Roman circus is horrifically depicted and the suspense mounts as the two tigers are pitted against each other and against the condemned Julius.

This is a terrific read with a nail-biting ending for 10s and over.

Shield of Fire is Alice Leader's second historical novel, this time set in Greece. It covers the period leading up to the battle of Marathon, when the Persians attempted to invade and conquer Athens. The story is told through the friendships of a young girl and her cousin, and involves a plot to undermine the democracy of the city. There is much fascinating information woven into this absorbing narrative that will entertain and inform good readers of 11 and above.

Fiona Lafferty Fiona Lafferty is librarian at St Swithun's junior school, Hampshire

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