Soul survivor;Children's books

27th August 1999 at 01:00
Elaine Williams reviews adventure stories that rival the telly

While the nation wrings its hands about children's literacy and in particular the reluctance of boys to read, some are quietly getting on with it. There are plenty of nine to 11-year-olds, boys included, who are willing, if not keen, to turn off the computer screen and get stuck into a long read, to tackle an epic series and relish complex narrative twists and turns.

Harry Potter has proved that. J K Rowling's third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Bloomsbury pound;10.99) - more than 300 pages of dense type bringing us more tales from Hogwart's school of wizardry, of Harry's battle with Lord Voldemort, the Master of the Dark Arts, as well as his Muggle (human) relatives - has only served to raise the Potter fever.

Give them a sympathetic hero, a rich set of characters, a good, old-fashioned plot about the struggle between good and evil and children will read on. Create imaginary kingdoms, whole new landscapes, worlds set apart and they will accommodate, if not relish, any amount of inventiveness and quirky detail. Rowling clearly understands this characteristic of her readership; writers like JRR Tolkein and CS Lewis knew it long ago. And there are other contemporary writers whose epic fantasies were attracting a large, loyal readership long before Rowling stepped into the limelight.

Devotees of Brian Jacques's Redwall series with its tales of a peace-loving but voluble community of woodland creatures - and their enemies - will be pleased with his latest, The Legend of Luke (Hutchinson pound;12.99). In a three-part story Jacques sends Martin the Warrior, founder of Redwall Abbey, to investigate his early life and seek out Luke, his father. Martin's journey takes him home to the northland shores meeting enemies and friends, and to the site of a shipwreck with its log of his father's pursuit of the pirate stoat Vilu Daskar.

The Legend of Luke interweaves these haunting stories of father and son (mice men of compassion and complexity) with the usual mix of lyrical, pastoral narrative, poetry, song and the weird and wonderful speech of Jacques's many characters.

Toots Underwater by Carol Hughes (Bloomsbury pound;4.99) has echoes of Harry Potter: same publisher, another new author, another third book in a series about a human child whose special powers give access to a parallel, magical world. Toots can tune into the life of the tiny creatures who share houses with humans, and can enter the kingdom where fairies are in constant combat with goblins, imps and other baddies.

In this story she is on holiday with herfather, who has taken a shine to a woman staying in the cottage next door. Toots resents his attachment and is especially disgruntled at being saddled with the woman's son, Robbie, a studious and weedy loner. When Toots is confined to her room after an act of particular meanness against Robbie, she encounters Olive, her miniature fairy friend under the bed, and immediately finds herself in the middle of a fairy crisis. Toots's bid to resolve this also leads to her saving Robbie from a bully's wheeze.

Hughes has created an intriguing upside-down world, which will absorb fluent primary readers. She has woven a wonderful flight of fancy out of Toots's attempts to resolve her raw feelings of frustration and jealousy.

Michael Morpurgo has long wanted to create his own version of Robinson Crusoe, and Kensuke's Kingdom (Mammoth pound;8.99) is a magnificent contemporary odyssey: a beautifully written account of a boy's voyage of discovery, simple in construction but complex in its psychology. Michael's round-the-world sailing trip with his parents goes horribly wrong when the boy is washed overboard with his dog, Stella Artois. He is fished out of the sea by an old man called Kensuke, a survivor of the bombing of Nagasaki. Kensuke takes Michael to the tiny island of which he is sole inhabitant - apart from a family of orang-utans - where he cares for him and tutors him in the art of survival.

This is a true classic, the old desert island theme presented in a fresh and compelling way. Michael Foreman's illustrations of maps, fish, the ship's log, beach and seascapes are calligraphic, reflecting Japanese artistic traditions and an ideal companion to the text.

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