Short cut for large appetites;Children's books

11th June 1999 at 01:00
MOON CAKE AND OTHER STORIES. By Joan Aiken. Hodder pound;3.99. SHORT!: A BOOK OF VERY SHORT STORIES. By Kevin Crossley-Holland. Oxford University Press pound;3.99. SAME DIFFERENCE. Edited by Simon Puttock. FAMILY TREE. Edited by Miriam Hodgson. Mammoth Contents pound;4.99 each. THE STORY COLLECTOR. Telling Tales. By Susan Price. Hodder pound;3.99 each.

The bottomless market for increasingly shorter snippets of text and themed story collections demands vigilance if young readers are not to be sold short.

Walter de la Mare was a compelling writer of short stories, not because of his paraphernalia of "pomegranates pink", dwarves called Old Moleskins and seven-league boots, but because of his intent: he knew what he was about, knew his readers and trusted them to find a way along a short, sharp track.

My disappointment at Joan Aiken's stories in Moon Cake confirms that mere oddness doesn't in itself command interest, any more than mere shortness does.

The publisher's blurb describes Aiken as "a master storyteller". She may be that elsewhere, but something here is out of joint. I was tempted to reach for the Trade Descriptions Act as I winced at the yawn-inducing whimsy of her "powdered sea-horses" and "boggle patches".

I had no problems with the blurb for Kevin Crossley-Holland's beautifully produced paperback, "a whole bookful (of short stories) to make you think, laugh, shiver and think again".

I like the precision of the quote, and this is a brilliant book: my young adult family read it over breakfast and a seven-year-old took it to bed. We all laughed. So it can be done.

Similarly, I enjoyed two collections in the Mammoth Contents series, Same Difference by Simon Puttock (stories featuring gay teenagers) and the forthcoming Family Tree, edited by Miriam Hodgson.

Same Difference is a gentle book and an easy read and this, I'm sure, is an expression of editorial intent - these important issues must be attended by low-key moments as well as high drama.

Family Tree steps into the minefield of family life; it treads so carefully around such explosive issues as adultery, desertion and adoption that it's able to carry its readers safely to the other side. All the stories are good: some, such as Melvin Burgess's "Coming Home" and Jacqueline Woodson's "Just Like Your Father", are superb.

In both these collections the emphasis is not on narrative but on a tightly controlled moment of new perception for both protagonists and readers. These moments are quiet as indrawn breath. The authors are very concerned - maybe rightly, maybe overly - not to be misunderstood.

Carnegie Medal winner Susan Price, now on the Carnegie shortlist again for The Sterkarm Handshake, has no such anxieties with her two recent collections, last year's The Story Collector and the just-published Telling Tales.

Each has a framing narrative. The Story Collector has old Mr Grimsby, who likes his storytellers to loosen their tongues with a glass of sweet sherry or tea with whisky in it.

The new collection emerges from a sewing bee and anybody who has ever threaded a needle knows that the constraints, and maybe boredom, of fine stitching leaves the mind, tongue and imagination excitingly free.

That's the charm and skill of Susan Price. She's brave: she hands control over to her young readers and dares them - one might even say tempts them - to misunderstand.

This makes for huge reader satisfaction, even though the area that she embroiders appears to be as small as the corner of a handkerchief.

Short stories shouldn't be about death by syrup. They can be about discovering an insatiable appetite of another one and another one, and then another after that. Let's trust the readers. Their digestion is usually a lot better than ours.

GAYE HICYILMAZ Kevin Crossley-Holland is joint editor with Laurence Sail of the 'New Exeter Book of Riddles' (Enitharmon pound;7.95). His name was omitted from 'The TES''s review of the book on June 4

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