Something strange;Children's Books
THE MERMAN. Dick King-Smith. Viking pound;10.99.
MERMAIDS AND MONSTERS. Grace Hallsworth. Mammoth pound;3.99.
Adele Geras reads stories of unease and magic
Ghost stories for younger children have to tread a careful line between raising a pleasant frisson and scaring some readers so badly that bedtimes become something to be dreaded. The two books here that fall into this category can be guaranteed not to produce shrieks of fear.
The Ghost Watchers is a most delicately written and carefully structured story. The first sentence - "At first I thought that the house was just like the rest of the houses" - ensures that readers are well and truly hooked. The narrator, whose name we never learn, is moving in with her brothers and her elder sister, Rose. She knows this is the last summer for all of them to be children together. Next year, Rose will be grown-up.
The box Rose's Gran has given her leads the children into a spectral world that co-exists with their own. A love story that spans the generations threads the tale together, and the loose ends are beautifully tied. The voice telling the story is quiet and careful, and has about it a lyrical intensity not often heard in modern children's books.
Perhaps the pluperfect tense in the scene where Rose has to recount to us and her siblings what happened during her visit to Gran strikes a strange note, but it is a very small fault in a moving and absorbing tale.
Ann Pilling is an old hand at hauntings. The Empty Frame is based on a historically vouched-for ghost story. It is set in a traditional Elizabethan haunted house, and has lots of spooky ingredients, such as the frame of the title that stands black and empty when the ghost goes walking. Three children activate the haunting, because one of them (Magnus, a fostered child) can sympathise across the centuries with the pain of another cruelly treated boy. The story moves steadily to its conclusion, which cannot be a neat ending, but which teaches us that love is indestructible.
Paddlefeet is about waterfolk who have names like Axos, Odol, Mox and Lol. They live behind the waterfall, and I confess to skipping rather rapidly through the parts of the books devoted to them (conveniently italicised). The story of Jo, Tash and Fizz and how they rescue these odd creatures is more easily digested. Good in parts.
Even Dick King-Smith, who has always seemed solidly land-based, has taken to the water for The Merman. Zeta, on holiday in Sutherland, meets a magical creature on the beach, and he teaches her a deep understanding of the sea. Put like that, it does not sound like a thrilling read, but the narrative voice is comfortable and reassuring, and children who do not require from their books the whizz-bang-fizziness of much television will enjoy the Merman's lessons as much as Zeta does.
Last but not least comes Grace Hallsworth's collection of stories from the sea. The way she tells the tales is magical. The prose is plain, and strong, and yet shot through with the rhythms and images of poetry. There are selkies and mermaids and all manner of sea creatures, and the most fearsome of these is the Inuit creator and destroyer Avilayok. A bargain for all lovers of traditional stories, and beautifully decorated by Bernard Lodge.