Short and sweet

10th December 2004 at 00:00
SNOW HORSE AND OTHER STORIES. By Joan Aiken. Illustrated by Jim Eldridge

SHOCK FOREST AND OTHER STORIES. By Margaret Mahy. Illustrated by Wendy Smith

SKY SHIP. By Geraldine McCaughrean. Illustrated by Ian McCaughrean. AC Black. White Wolves seriespound;4.99 each

WEIRD TALES FROM THE STORYTELLER. By Daniel Morden. Illustrated by Jac Jones. Pont Books pound;4.50

THE DREAMFIGHTER AND OTHER CREATION TALES. By Ted Hughes. Illustrated by George Adamson and Andrew Davidson. Faber hbk pound;14.99, pbk pound;6.99

THE OLD STORIES. By Kevin Crossley-Holland. Illustrated by John Lawrence. Orion Children's Books pound;5.99

HOT ROCK MOUNTAIN. By Elizabeth Laird. Illustrated by Bill McConkey. Egmont pound;4.99

Linda Newbery on more tales old and new, in short story form

Short stories don't, on the whole, get much review coverage, so small gems, whether by established writers or newcomers, can be overlooked. In the classroom, though, and in writing workshops, the conciseness and neatness of the short story can be invaluable for imparting ideas and techniques.

And, for readers, what better way of sampling unfamiliar writers, or favourite authors in experimental mode?

There are some treasures here. AC Black's White Wolves series has attracted big-name authors Aiken, Mahy and McCaughrean for this collection of wonderfully weird tales, five in each volume, suitable for the middle years of primary school. In Mahy's "The Travelling Boy and the Stay-at-Home Bird", Sam has "a thousand journeys locked up inside him waiting to get out". Aiken's stories feature hauntings, unfulfilled desires and malignant lingerings, particularly eerily in "The Road from Rushout Wood". As always, I'm struck by the dazzling imagination and verbal agility of Geraldine McCaughrean - her book is worth buying for the title story alone - but all three collections are too good to miss.

In Weird Tales from the Storyteller, young readers will feel at home with many familiar ingredients of folk and fairytales: the kind sister and the selfish one, the lazy son, the favour returned and the favour denied. Jac Jones's illustrations, some in colour, add to the feeling of darkness and disturbance in tales such as "Them Ones".

Daniel Morden describes himself as "Welsh Whisperer", and his stories would be good to read aloud.

In the Ted Hughes collection, established favourites such as "How the Whale Became" and "Tales of the Early World" are brought together with lesser-known pieces. The creation stories feature an easily frazzled and frequently wrong-footed God whose menagerie of creatures finds its own ways of evolving.

The language is fresh and vivid, full of surprises and absurdities, and I especially admire Andrew Davidson's finely executed, energetic woodcuts.

Although this handsome book would make a perfect gift for a lively-minded child of 10 or so, I'm keeping my copy for myself.

The Old Stories, by Kevin Crossley-Holland, is another treat. Stemming from East Anglian folklore and legend, his Fenland is populated by boggarts, bogles and sprites. "Cape of Rushes" is a Cinderella variation with elements of King Lear; other sources are local sayings, signs, traditions, and travel writings.

Sometimes humorous, often making us feel we have brushed against something dark, threatening and inscrutable in the marshes, this is an irresistible collection from a master storyteller. John Lawrence's distinctive woodcut panels and vignettes are the perfect accompaniment.

In her travels over many years, Elizabeth Laird has collected stories from all over the world. Hot Rock Mountain follows a similar structure to Crossley-Holland's book, each piece prefaced with a short, traditional tale. The theme is man's place in the natural world; subjects range from the allegorical fable of the title story to the triumphant finale, in which a pair of otters are successfully reintroduced to a stretch of river. Laird will be familiar to many readers as a writer who frequently engages with dispossessed and persecuted humans; here she shows herself to be an astute observer of animals and their behaviour.

Linda Newbery's Polly's March, part of the Historical House trilogy, is published by Usborne Books

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