Wizard laughs from Oz

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Michael Thorn looks south, west and homewards for the year's entertainment highlights

Perhaps it's the sun, shining more intensely than ever through the thinning ozone layer, that makes Australian writers so good at making us laugh.

This year, in particular, the UK market has come to realise that Paul Jennings is not the only comic writer from Down Under. Morris Gleitzman has established himself on an equal footing, with two exceptionally fine, funny novels: Belly Flop (Macmillan Pounds 3.99 pbk) and Water Wings (Macmillan Pounds 9.99). Both approach deeply worrying issues (in the first book, the repercussions for livelihood of extreme weather conditions; in the second, euthanasia) in a light-hearted but deeply affecting manner.

Moya Simons's collection of interconnected short stories, Dead Worried! (Orchard Pounds 9.99), marketed with Paul Jennings lookalike covers, impressed me with its individual voice and unique take on family relationships. In similar vein, so did Dyan Blacklock's story collection Crab Bait (Allen Unwin Pounds 4.99), also Australian.

Ursula Dubosarsky, in The White Guinea-Pig (Puffin Pounds 4.99), shows that Sharon Creech is not the only author who can wrench both sorts of tears from the reader. This wonderful story about death, neighbourliness and family relationships, is enriching in the best sense: capable of enhancing young readers' emotional adroitness, and making them smile in the process.

There are two very funny American books. Jerry Spinelli's Crash (Orchard Pounds 9.99) is a marvellously pacy first-person narrative in which the characterisation is cartoon-like but not lamely stereotypical. I especially enjoyed Crash's dismay when the new kid in town turns out to be a vegetarian Quaker who wears peace badges and refuses to indulge in even a water-pistol fight.

Betsy Duffey's Buster and the Black Hole (Viking Pounds 10.99), despite having been mindlessly and mundanely Anglicised, is a highly-entertaining look at what happens to a boy who has to move out of his bedroom and live under the dining-room table to make way for a convalescing grandfather.

Home-grown humour tends to favour eccentric characterisation, slapstick action and farcical resolutions, with a hint of rudeness. One of the best purveyors of these elements is Roger Collinson, whose Butterfingers (Andersen Pounds 9.99) proves that he is not just a concocter of ridiculous plots and daft characters. The comedy in this and his other books works because he is cunningly and wickedly accurate in the characterisation of even his most bizarre players.

The success of Diana Hendry's Harvey Angell and the Ghost Child (Julia MacRae Pounds 9.99) is also based on its colourful characterisation, as is the entertainment value in Roy Apps's south-coast comedy-thriller series, Melvin and the Deadheads (Andersen Pounds 9.99).

But the British book which I found most entertaining, and the one which sits more comfortably with the likes of Gleitzman and Dubosarsky, was Helen Flint's Not Just Babysitting (Mammoth Pounds 4.50), a deceptively light-hearted look at child-rearing.

Daughter of the Sea

By Berlie Doherty

Hamish Hamilton Pounds 10.99

Inspired by the tougher end of the folk-fairytale spectrum. The ancient selkie legend reaches both straight to the heart and to the heart of the family. Doherty offers today's children a lyrical, tough and contemporary immersion in the legend. Catherine Byron (TES, January 17)

Where the Whales Sing

By Victor Kelleher

Illustrated by Vivienne Goodman

Puffin Pounds 3.99

Kelleher and Goodman explore the limits of explanation and how we navigate in the flux of the known and unknown. A storm erupts beyond Sydney Harbour and leaves Claire alone on her father's drifting yacht after he has fallen overboard. This trip should have been her chance to witness the migration of the hump-backed whales but by page 2 the trip has already ended in disaster. Yet by the end of the book, and it's only 61 pages, younger readers have been offered an extraordinary experience that recalls the magic of Pierre Loti's Icelandic Fisherman.

Gaye Hicyilmaz (TES, October 10)

The Five Sisters

By Margaret Mahy

Illustrated by Patricia MacCarthy

Hamish Hamilton Pounds 9.99

An underlying delight in the world as an astonishing place, sometimes dangerous, always changing, runs through Mahy's work. For her, the world is held together by a network of interconnected stories which can be "read" in as many ways as there are points of view. She explores these ideas in a rich and layered story in which the animate and apparently inanimate interact in ways which transform and connect them all.

Science (on one level, this is a tale about covalent bonding), story and song all hold hands in this rare inventive fantasy which offers readers, through the poetic metaphor of five paper dolls, an unforgettably imaginative structure of the world. Elizabeth Hammill (TES, January 24)

Letters to Barbara

By Leo Meter

Translated by Joel Agee

Overlook Press Pounds 10.99

With charming illustrations, this book of letters home from a young German Resistance fighter to his infant daughter is given poignancy by the afterword, in which the grown-up daughter tells us how her adoring father was shot for being a traitor to the Nazi regime. A moving elegy to ordinary happiness as a casualty of war. Victoria Neumark

Hob and the Pedlar

By William Mayne

Dorling Kindersley Pounds 8.99

Hob is a familiar, a house spirit who rights the minor everyday wrongs of domestic life. When he is taken up by a mysterious pedlar and left at a farmhouse haunted by a dark longing from the sea, he is out of his depth. In Mayne's oblique, poetic prose, a tale of the mundane (what is school, that the children always have to go to, wonders Hob, and why is breakfast such a difficult meal?), infused with strange mythic shapes, unfolds in a chill, fenny landscape. Mayne's writing makes few concessions to the age of the Tamagotchi, evoking the countryside of 80 years ago with his twists of baccy, pedlars with carts and donkeys and cushions by the fire. But he has an instinctive feel for the importance of children's imaginary pets. Victoria Neumark

The Long Patrol

By Brian Jacques

Hutchinson Pounds 12.99

In the tenth book in the Redwall series, more adventures befall the elegant hares in their stylish battles with the forces of evil. In this case, the great rat Damug Warfang at the head of a "savage crowd of vermin" (rats, weasels and ferrets) threatens the peace of Redwall Abbey, where a truly civilised society has evolved around the consumption of redcurrant cordial and candied fruits. The hares are great role models for boys and girls aged nine upwards: "jolly, courteous and kind, but feared by their enemies and totally perilous". Victoria Neumark (TES, August 8)

Thunder Oak: The Welkin Weasels

By Garry Kilworth

Corgi Pounds 4.99

Contrary to all the laws of fiction since The Wind in the Willows, the weasel is the good guy in this first volume of a projected Thunder Oak trilogy. Stoats are the baddies, ruling the land of the Welkin with an iron paw. Sylver the outlaw weasel determines to find the lost humans and bring them back to restore peace and justice.

A quicker, slicker read than Brian Jacques, with less of the flavour of chivalry and more of the taste of today in its quips and puns. More of a male read, for boys 11 upwards. Victoria Neumark (TES, August 8)

Fire, Bed and Bone

By Henrietta Branford

Walker Pounds 8.99

The 1381 Peasants' Revolt seen through the eyes of a bitch and puppy. The best hunting dog in the village is served by Branford's own eyes, ears and nose to give a sense of earth, blood and chill, and the wrenches of loyalty when we are torn between law and justice. This is a true parable, not an issue-based book, and I've not read anything like it. Shortlisted for the Smarties Award. Janni Howker

Jack Black and the Ship of Thieves

By Carol Hughes

Bloomsbury Pounds 4.99

The stakes are sky-high in a tale of aviation and piracy in a timeless setting with a 1930s feel. Sabotage, volcanoes, a dreadful war machine, pirates that sing in their sleep and the most perfect desert island I've ever encountered make this a yarn for all ages. A triumph of the most charming escapism. Janni Howker

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