Victoria Neumark enjoys some magical mystery tours
The Wee Free Men
By Terry Pratchett; Doubleday pound;12.99
By Cornelia Funke; The Chicken House pound;12.99
The Book of Dead Days
By Marcus Sedgwick; Orion pound;8.99
As master of the suspense movie Alfred Hitchcock put it, every story has to have its McGuffin, that wrinkle, plot twist or device that makes it stick, like a burr, in the reader's mind. Where adult literature may disguise this base fact with the messy, unresolved stuff of human relationships, books for children rarely do. Mostly, they make up for this rigidity with the brio of their storytelling or a bit of knockabout humour.
Sometimes, as in the case of Terry Pratchett and the up and coming Cornelia Funke, they stir in a pot-pourri of samples and souvenirs from other works of literature, myths and forms of comedy. There's always a McGuffin, still.
Pratchett's latest is aimed younger than some of his Discworld series. Tiffany lives on the high chalk downs where fossils speak of an earlier era, and has second sight. Walking through a picture, as you do, she falls in with the Nac Mac Feegles, fighting fairies who try to use her to replace their dead queen. Other, less benign fairy-types, who represent the kind of fantasy that sucks reality dry, contend with them.
Pratchett's unique horse-sense ends by shoving everyone back in their boxes. The McGuffin? If all the contradictory fairy stories were true, what a laugh.
In Inkheart, young Meggie is plunged between worlds when the baddies, whom her father, nicknamed Silvertongue, has read out of a book, try to coerce him into reading out even worse villains. Missing is Meggie's mum, who has been switched back and forth from book to world. Funke manages her literary allusions well, seen through the mind of a child whose bag is packed only with books and whose aunt lives alone with a huge library.
Where Funke uses the McGuffin of "how real is a book?", Marcus Sedgwick ventures a bit further into human nature. His is a dystopian future in an unnamed city where magician Valerian exploits his boy assistant to try to escape a Faustian bargain. Action takes place in the dead days before Christmas - but that is not the McGuffin after all, though the whole narrative structure suggests it. Valerian tries to defeat the devil by sending Boy in his place, but that's not it either. You'll just have to read it for the twist.