Magical tales for pre-teens

12th December 2003 at 00:00
Jan Mark selects holiday reading for nine-plus

THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES: The Field Guide The Seeing Stone Lucinda's Secret. By Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. Simon amp; Schuster pound;5.99

CAT AND THE STINKWATER WAR. By Kate Saunders. Illustrated by Adam Stower. Macmillan Children's Books pound;9.99

The Tail of Emily Windsnap. By Liz Kessler. Illustrated by Sarah Gibb. Orion Children's Books pound;7.99

OLD PETER'S RUSSIAN TALES. By Arthur Ransome. Illustrated by Faith Jaques. Jane Nissen Books pound;7.99

Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black's Grace family have a back story but little time is wasted in giving more than the barest essentials. After Dad walks out, Mom moves into batty Great-Aunt Lucinda's house on the Spiderwick Estate with Jared and Simon (identical twins with little in common) and Mallory, their lean and angry sister.

The Victorian house, which looks as if "a dozen shacks had been piled on top of one another... topped off by a strip of iron fence sitting on the roof", boasts many desirable features. On the first evening the children discover a boggart's nest in the kitchen and a secret library accessible only by riding a dumbwaiter through the walls.

When Jared finds Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, the Graces become aware of the unseen and largely malevolent world of Faerie that surrounds the house.

The real joy of the series is in the books themselves, which are irresistible from the outside in; exquisite Edwardian pastiches that beg to be handled and investigated.

The contents do not disappoint. The type is diamond-sharp, with meticulous black-and-white drawings on almost every spread and even a couple of plates.

Tony DiTerlizzi dedicates his work to Arthur Rackham. If his style seems reminiscent of Chris Riddell's, remember that DiTerlizzi and Riddell - and few other contemporary illustrators - are working in the tradition of line illustration of which Rackham was perhaps first among equals.

The heroine of Cat and the Stinkwater War is not called Cat for nothing.

When her archaeologist father is sent an Egyptian artefact she discovers that it can turn her into a real cat, and in company with her own stout pet Eric (actually General Nigmo Biffy, retd) she discovers what the local felines are really up to. Inexplicable forces have divided them into two warring tribes pledged to battle to the death for possession of their sacred totem, the Blessed Sardine.

The results are charmingly silly, oddly logical and often very moving. Much of the fun is in the contrast between the human view of the cats and the way they see themselves; the ruthless warriors are picked up and tickled behind the ears. King Cockleduster, who has given too many stirring death-basket speeches for the liking of his impatient heir, expires during a pitched battle waged in and around a human birthday party, his corpse removed on a shovel by the birthday girl's exasperated father. "The old King's striped tail hung limply, majestic even in death."

The Tail of Emily Windsnap is a first novel with an intriguing plot that is not quite carried off. Emily lives on a boat with her mother, yet neither of them ever goes near the water. During her first school swimming lesson, Emily discovers that she is in her element - except that something seems to be happening to her legs - she is growing a tail. There may be more to her absent father than she ever suspected.

Unfortunately life under the sea is as prosaic as life on land, only wetter, and the first-person narrative of teenage Emily effectively flattens out the magic.

For the authentic voice of fantasy, welcome back to Old Peter's Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome, available again through Jane Nissen. Here was a writer who knew how to let a story seem to tell itself, with the author as medium rather than creator, his only embellishments the integrated characters of Old Peter and his grandchildren, to whom the stories are as real as their own peasant lives by the stove in the log cabin in "a forest so big that the forests of England are little woods beside it".

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