Poetic charmers

19th September 1997 at 01:00
THE SEA PIPER. By Helen Cresswell, Hodder Pounds 9.99. THE DRAGON'S CHILD. By Jenny Nimmo, Hodder Pounds 9.99. THE DRAGON CHARMER. By Douglas Hill, Hodder Pounds 3.99

A MOUSE CALLED WOLF. By Dick King-Smith. Doubleday Pounds 9.99 THE STRAY. By Dick King-Smith, Puffin Pounds 3.99

Young, fluent readers have to be nurtured. The feel of a book, the size of its type, the look of its pictures can induce instant appeal or instant rejection. Crucially, the language and flow of the story will encourage a child taking his or her first steps away from school reading schemes, or lead him or her to lose heart after the first couple of pages.

If the storyline is strong and sentence structure clear and simple, then a good reader as young as six will accommodate strange new words and ideas with enthusiasm. The Sea Piper is a salty, magical tale of a young girl's pact with a ghostly piper who has charmed away her fishing community's livelihood.

This is a rich literary work - simple, poetic, challenging yet easily readable, echoes of Hamelin softened to something more gentle and humane, though the tension remains. Helen Cresswell's gift for exploring language in a way a child can enjoy, and her ability to tell a cracking good tale, are all here. It is a pity that Jason Cockcroft's woolly illustrations do not serve the lyricism of the text well.

The mix of heroines, magical beasts and adventures continues in The Dragon Charmer and The Dragon's Child. In the former, Douglas Hill, like Helen Cresswell, tackles complex emotional relationships and language through a gripping, simply and tightly-written story. There is nothing remotely cosy or friendly about these dragons as they tear through the skies and their screams echo around the mountains. Elynne and her father, Dan Danneby, are determined that they should remain wild and terrifying, and Elynne struggles to overcome her fear of their savagery in order to save them.

Like The Dragon Charmer, The Dragon's Child by Jenny Nimmo is a fairytale with contemporary overtones and a moral theme. It has a timeless, ageless quality in a once-upon-a-time-land. Although the dragons have a latter-day cuteness, the doggins represent ancient violent evil and little Lord Drum embodies ancient envy, all of which Manon, the young, orphaned heroine, has to fight against. In the tradition of all good fairy-tales, Jenny Nimmo has created a gripping story with profound and challenging themes.

Dick King-Smith has appropriated an unlikely theme for children's books - the loneliness of old age - to create two delightful stories. A Mouse Called Wolf and The Stray both centre on the lives of lonely old women. In the former, Mrs Honeybee's life is transformed - and saved - by the singing Wolfgang Amadeus Mouse. This is a flight of pure fantasy and an intriguing way of developing children's curiosity about music.

In The Stray, Henrietta Hickathrift runs away to the seaside from her old people's home to transform the lives of the Good family. King-Smith's generous wit and his relaxed style make this tale a perfect vehicle for raising some of the thornier issues of today's society in a way that children can accept.

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