Of mice and magic shops

10th October 2003 at 01:00
Jan Mark reviews a case of 'rodent racism' among some clever new additions to key stage 2 fiction

MOUSE ATTACK. By Manjula Padma Macmillan Children's Books pound;9.99

The Magic Shop series: Russell Troy, Monster Boy; Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher; Jennifer Murdley's Toad; Charlie Eggleston's Talking Skull. By Bruce Coville; illustrated by Neil Chapman. Hodder Children's Books pound;4.99

The Catnappers. By Ann Pilling; illustrated by Clare Mackie. Collins Children's Books pound;4.99

Storymaze series: The Wooden CowThe Golden Udder. By Terry Denton. Allen amp; Unwin pound;4.99 each

Arvee, the white mouse hero of Mouse Attack, has spent his life in a laboratory. On retirement, he is sent to live as a child's pet. Despite having picked up a doctorate and studied engineering, Arvee is out of his depth when he meets the house mice and encounters colour prejudice for the first time.

When he learns how the house has been taken over by rats - evidently a kind of Ba'ath Party - his intellect wins the day. Initially, he gives them the benefit of the doubt since the only rats he has ever met have been reserved, scholarly types. But after meeting their leader he decides where his loyalties lie and does what a mouse has gotta do. The Indian setting allows for some interest in wildlife, notably the Mantis Airline with its raunchy lady pilots. Young readers can enjoy a satisfying tale of valiant little furry animals. Older ones will appreciate an original take on the equally conventional story of a cloistered academic forced into the role of action hero.

Although designed to look like the latest freight on the fantasy bandwagon, Bruce Coville's Magic Shop books have been coming out in the US for 20 years. Elives' Magic Supplies never appears in the same place twice, but always materialises at exactly the right moment for someone who needs something that just happens to be in stock: a dragon's egg; a shape-shifting ring; a deeply lippy toad. The customers are at odds with the world or themselves, and the magic is a metaphorical means to gaining self-knowledge.

Charlie Eggleston, who shoplifts a talking skull, is a liar, more thoughtless than malicious. The skull turns out to have a history - it is Hamlet's old friend Yorick. Shakespeare failed to mention that Yorick was cursed in his youth and that his skull must pass on the curse; anyone in its vicinity is compelled to tell the truth. Charlie discovers that although lying is undesirable, telling the truth can be embarrassing and hurtful. All four novels are highly entertaining and deceptively easy to read, but Coville is a bookish writer. One recurring figure is a magic, and very moral, librarian; but he gets his message across without preaching, introducing some wild and wonderful characters on the way - such as the Immortal Vermin, which include the talking toad who does Humphrey Bogart impressions. It is worth getting all four books - if your readers like one, they are bound to like them all.

Ann Pilling's The Catnappers features unlikely protagonists Kitty and McGee, two old ladies living out their declining years with their cat Nicholas. They are very different in temperament, and clash from time to time. One especially noisy bust-up sends Nicholas scooting through his cat-flap and he does not return. This gentle story of Kitty's search for Nicholas shows that love and friendship, shyness, short temper, disappointment and anguish at the loss of a pet are not confined to the young.

The Wooden Cow and The Golden Udder are books 3 and 4 of Australian Terry Denton's Storymaze series. The former is a relatively linear narrative, apart from eccentric diversions and excursions into comic strip. The Golden Udder is frenetic, veering back and forth. Both stories are told at breakneck speed, and are full of rotten puns, terrible cow jokes, sound effects and interventions from the narrator, who is permanently at odds with his author. One genetically engineered character speaks fluent Binary.

There is also a glossary. The fun is fast and raucous, based loosely on Greek mythology and if you pause to look closely, it is clear that they have been very carefully written. The publisher stresses the "concept of visual literacy", but textual literacy is high on this writer's agenda.

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