Weird and wonderful;Children's books

27th March 1998 at 00:00
There's something out there. But it's less strange than it seems, writes Michael Thorn

Weird World series. The Dark Side of the Brain. Cloning Me, Cloning You. Black Rot. Temper, Temper. By Anthony Masters. Bloomsbury pound;3.99 each.

Psychic Zone series. Mindfire. The Changelings. Alien Sea. By Matthew Stone. Hodder pound;3.99

It is tempting to read some sort of spiritual imperative at work in publishers' and authors' desire to drape quite orthodox stories about good versus evil with obfuscation about the unexplained. Is this more than mere trendiness and desperation for TV tie-ins?

Short reading books produced for younger readers are increasingly made up of everyday stories about home and school. Imaginations that used to be fed on fairy stories and folk tales now grow up with a craving for fantasy. A millennial hunger for a force that's out there, as yet undiscovered by science, is also at play. The tension between faith and reason is as unresolved now as it was when Tennyson wrote "In Memoriam".

At times the books in both series reviewed here seem wilfully preposterous, as if intentionally undermining the paranormal fabric from which they are spun. The first title in the Psychic Zone series, Mindfire, features the restless spirit of a nun called Uriel. Would a nun really use the name of a male archangel?

Novels of this type are by definition far-fetched. But suspension of disbelief can make fantasy more believable than real life. Anthony Masters conducts drama events in schools. He bases them on just such a suspension. "You are about to have an experience you will never forget," he tells children. And they leave the school hall feeling as if they have just been through a nail-biting adventure, having spent an hour or so crawling around under some rope nets.

The fourth Weird World title, Temper, Temper, starts with the characters wandering into the house of a girl found drowned in a canal. Lying on the bed, Louise has her mind invaded by the dead girl's restless spirit, who had always been on a short fuse. Louise becomes similarly disposed, and her three companions find her hard to handle.

In each Weird World title, one character becomes the medium for paranormal activity. The first book has Tim as a mind-reader; in the second Dan gets cloned; and in the highly enjoyable third, Charlie has to fight against the Rotter, a huge black tentacle that has the power to turn living things instantly to black ash. Disbelief is more easily suspended in Black Rot because the evil remains outside the characters and the enemy has a physical location in DRAC, the dastardly research lab.

Read in this way - a gang of kids fighting the good fight against wickedness - all the Weird World titles make lively, well-constructed reads. At fewer than 100 pages each, they will serve as a good bridge between illustrated chapter books and full-length novels.

The Psychic Zone titles are the right length for those who have recently made the transition. Sprinkled with precisely timed datelines - "The Project: Wednesday 9th May, 16:13" - clearly designed to give an X-Files feel to the enterprise, the books are really conventional vibes-from-the-past novels of a type that has always been popular with British children's writers. General Axford, in charge of the school for brilliant young scientists where the key characters come together, is a cross between Gillian Cross's Demon Headmaster and Dr Strangelove. More Kubrick than psychic.

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