Welcome to the pleasure tome

9th January 2004 at 00:00
How do you get youngsters hooked on books? Michael Thorn chooses his favourites

The Further Adventures of Eddie Dickens: Book One, Dubious Deeds By Philip Ardagh Illustrated by David Roberts

Faber pound;8.99

A Series of Unfortunate Events: Book the Ninth, The Carnivorous Carnival By Lemony Snicket

Illustrated by Brett Helquist

Egmont pound;6.99

The Invisible Detective: Killing Time By Justin Richards Simon amp; Schuster pound;5.99

After School Club: Starring Sammy By Helena Pielichaty Oxford University Press pound;3.99

Roman Mysteries: The Enemies Of Jupiter By Caroline Lawrence Orion pound;7.99

The Seven Fabulous Wonders: The Mausoleum Murder By Katherine Roberts Collins Children's Books pound;5.99

It is the range of popular, recreational literature available to young people today that really marks the shift in children's literature over the past few decades.

No contemporary child should have cause to scrabble around a parent's bookpile to find something worth reading, whereas, at 10, I had to resort to my mother's Agatha Christie and George Simenon crime novels. Apart from Malcolm Saville, WH Johns and a couple of good science-fiction yarns written by a young Patrick Moore, I discovered a children's author who appealed.

When Philip Ardagh published his first Eddie Dickens adventure Awful End three years ago, he was a little-known author of non-fiction. How things have changed. The first three books in the series have been so successful, here and in the United States, that we now have the first instalment in the "further adventures". Dubious Deeds takes Eddie to the Scottish Highlands where he is investigating a landed inheritance of Mad Aunt Maud.

The narrative tone is, if anything, even more teasing in this new adventure: "Imagine the scene. Go on, please imagine the scene. It saves me having to describe it." It is also highly instructional, albeit playfully so. The sentence, "Eddie would rather have had the guided tour from the heather-smelling Miss Roberta than the hairy nose-puncher" is followed by a paragraph extolling the importance of the hyphen that wouldn't have been out of place in Lynne Truss's best-selling book on punctuation Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

There are also snippets of history - three pages on attempts to assassinate Queen Victoria. The craziness of the narrative is perfectly evoked by David Roberts' scratchy and spooky illustrations.

The Eddie Dickens series has several things in common with Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, verbal playfulness being the most obvious.

Ardagh, it seems, has been influenced by Snicket's trademark "a phrase which here means", so that there are rather more witty vocabulary explanations in Dubious Deeds than in the first trilogy.

However, whereas Ardagh's fiction is determinedly comic, there is a genuinely gloomy and tragic undertone to Snicket's The Carnivorous Carnival. The three Baudelaire orphans infiltrate a freak show, trying to discover if Count Olaf has been keeping secret the survival of one of their parents. "The story of the Baudelaires takes place in a very real world, where some people are laughed at just because they have something wrong with them, and where children can find themselves all alone in the world, struggling to understand the sinister mystery that surrounds themI " This sort of passage is cue for another Snicket trademark: advice to the reader to put down the book and read something more cheerful.

But, of course, the reader reads on. Children must enjoy the omnisicient narrator's tone, and the sense that they are being instructed in the ways of the world, as when Snicket tells them: "There are times in this harum-scarum world when figuring out the right thing to do is quite simple, but doing the right thing is simply impossible, and then you must do something else."

An irresistible impulse to do the wrong thing is the defining moment in Helena Pielichaty's Starring Sammie, a title in a new series that takes a look at the domestic and personal backgrounds behind an increasing demand for after-school childcare.

Sammie is a very ordinary girl going through a "bouncy" period because her parents have recently split up. Before that, "We didn't need childminders or babysitters or nothing".

Pielichaty gets the first-person tone of voice exactly right in this highly readable story about a girl who tries to misrepresent another girl's Children In Need collection as her own, but then confesses her deceit. Boys are just as affected by after-school care arrangements, so it is rather a shame that this series has been conceived as so determinedly girly.

Very much unisex in appeal is The Invisible Detective series from Justin Richards - just the sort of book the nine-year-old me would have seized on.

Killing Time suffers from slipshod proofreading and typesetting, but is otherwise a riveting dual mystery set in 1930s London and present-day Cornwall.

Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries continue to build an avid following, bolstered by the author's active website (www.romanmysteries.com). The latest title, The Enemies Of Jupiter, contains the usual entertaining mix of topical background - Roman expostulations ("Oh Pollux!"), nose-creasing facts about the antiseptic use of urine, information about the four humours and so on - all cleverly interwoven with an adventure story that in this case involves a fight to save Rome from a plague.

Katherine Roberts's series The Seven Fabulous Wonders is also set in the ancient world. The Mausoleum Murder is a more demanding read than the previous books and requires a reader who has developed a significant level of independent stamina.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham East Sussex

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