Spirits, spells and black cats

7th March 1997 at 00:00
THE GIRL IN THE BLUE TUNIC By Jean Ure Scholastic Press Pounds 4.99

MIDWINTER By Maeve Henry Mammoth Pounds 4.50

KEEPING CATS By Jay Ashton Oxford Pounds 5.99

Labouring beneath a title which rings with last-minute panic, Jean Ure's The Girl in the Blue Tunic returns to that old stamping ground of children's fiction - boarding school. But beefy girls and jam roly-poly are not on the menu, and lacrosse aficionados will be disappointed by a ghost story which stays on the right side of strangeness.

New at Madeley Hall, Hannah keeps meeting the sad, wispy Daisy in the grounds and corridors. When she embarks on a local history project, she unravels a wartime bombing tragedy involving a girl called Margaret. The more astute reader will quickly put two and two together, but even the slower reader is granted the satisfaction of understanding the riddle of Daisy's existence before Hannah does.

With large, reader-friendly print on her side, Jean Ure demonstrates an excellent economy of language ("Flat slappy goosefeet went marching down Hannah's spine") which just occasionally falls prey to the exclamation mark.

Reader-friendly isn't the first adjective that leaps to mind with Maeve Henry's Midwinter. Mammoth has not aimed to entice readers with a bright cover, opting for a rather startling monochrome. The story within is much fatter and more satisfying than the slenderness of the volume or its cover might suggest. While it is probably aimed at children of 12 or 13, it would not be beyond bright younger readers. Raiders in longboats threaten the land of Rossendale. Thomas Ortellus, heir to the kingdom, has to retrieve a lost sword of power to defeat the intruders. But first, he must enter the forest and confront his uncle, the magician Midwinter.

Although the language leans towards melodrama, the twists in the plot surprise and challenge. If younger readers get beyond the cover and maintain the battle through word-packed pages and a rather bald typeface, they will find much to enjoy.

We have been sadly robbed of a fine talent in Jay Ashton, who died in 1995 aged only 49. The minute the five black kittens of Keeping Cats are likened to "animated blobs of the stuff that comes out of vacuum-cleaner bags", the reader is sent to comic heaven, made all the better for the quality of the serious stuff sandwiched around the jollies. Sophie dramatically rescues the kittens from being drowned, only to find that hiding her act presents the real challenge. When at last she is discovered, her brother informs her that the kittens are now destined for medical experiments, and Sophie has to be heroic once again.

The plot has a few untidy offshoots, and the story comes to that abrupt kind of end usually reserved for cliffs in cartoons, but for all that, this is excellent stuff. Beware animal lovers and anti-pet parents. Your addiction, or that of your children, can only be fuelled.

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