Children's books

<strong>Amanda Craig</strong> on videos and <strong>Geoffrey Wheatcroft</strong> on fiction

Let the tapes take the strain
Videos by Amanda Craig

For parents of young children, hell descends each day between 5pm and 7pm. All over Britain, answerphones are switched on, frying pans sizzle, baths thunder and headaches throb. Like disposable nappies, sooner or later videos become a necessity if you are to have half an hour in which to get the chores done.

Just as you can hunt out good traditional toys from catalogues such as Hawkins Bazaar (01986 782536) and Letterbox (01872 580885) instead of buying plastic junk, so it is possible to find videos that will not terrify, over-stimulate, stupefy or coarsen a child's imagination. All the videos below can be ordered direct, or from a good bookseller; not all are equally worth having, however.

For the very young, Beatrix Potter videos (Carlton, £7 each) can scarcely be bettered. These faithfully animated versions lack Potter's droll narrative but are almost as delightful as the real thing, and can be understood at an earlier age than the books. You have to fast-forward past some tiresome scene-setting with Niamh Cusack as Potter at the start, but it's worth it. Peter Rabbit, Two Bad Mice, Samuel Whiskers, Pigling Bland, The Flopsy Bunnies and especially The Tailor of Gloucester are all brilliant, with the cream of British actors doing the voices. Only Mrs Tiggywinkle fails to work, thanks to garish cartoons and a confusing storyline.

Gentle and stunningly beautiful, the cartoon version of Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Scholastic, £7) is excellent for calming children down without boring them. The glowing colours and simple wisdom of the stories are made even more poignant by Julian Nott's music. On the other hand, the Old Bear videos (Carlton, £6.99 each), about toys that play together in chintzy bedrooms, is soothing to the point of torpor. It reeks of Fulham, but one slightly less ghastly cassette is Ruff, the tale of a seven-year-old terrier who has a birthday party for every day of the week.

The Wind in the Willows (£10.99) is, as you might expect, several cuts above this. Carlton's animation of E H Shepherd's drawings is miraculously good; adults and children alike will shriek at Rik Mayall as Toad. Be warned, though, the several versions featuring actors dressed up as the characters are not worth bothering with - better to see these on stage.

Dramatisations of classics involving actors rather than cartoons are always risky, and it is here that the BBC deserves both praise and censure. All videos are £9.99 each and two must-haves for those over six are Five Children and It, and The Borrowers. One regrets that the Psammead is turned into a funny little man instead of a furry balloon of books, but both adaptations make you laugh, dream, shiver and rejoice. Would that the same could be said for The Chronicles of Narnia. A more excruciating series would be hard to imagine. C S Lewis and his wonderful illustrator, Pauline Baynes, don't deserve such bumbling, fat-faced child actors as those in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Dawn Trader and The Silver Chair. This is the BBC at its worst, with special effects inferior to the average church panto, and Aslan himself looking like something fished out of the plughole.

The Demon Headmaster (BBC) is far better. Adults who can restrain their peals of laughter at seeing someone who looks exactly like Jack Straw make his bid to hypnotise Britain into regimentation will enjoy watching this with over-eights. Freedom, disorder and rebellion are thrillingly explored in this timely fairy story; somehow, one does not expect it to go down well with new Labour.

For true magic, try Alexander Korda's The Thief of Baghdad (Carlton, £5.99). Described by its distributors as "a masterpiece of schlock", this is in fact simply a masterpiece. Everything good in Disney's Aladdin was shamelessly ripped off from this. Don't worry about the slow beginning and the love story. Justice, courage and loyalty are wrapped up in a tale of genies, goddesses, giant spiders, flying carpets, wicked magicians and a prince and princess whose union is aided by the little thief, Abu. But don't bother with Jason and the Argonauts.

For yet more special effects, Dorling Kindersley's series Creatures Fantastic (£6.99 each) is superbly imaginative, and teaches children an encyclopaedia-worth of myths, history, natural history and geography. Each of these videos takes a theme - mythical heroes, cats, dragons, creatures of the deep - and gives short dramatisations interlinked by lucid, intelligent commentary. Only Spirits of the Forest and obviously scary subjects such as vampires and werewolves are unsuitable for those under eight; Dragons in particular is a huge hit with small boys. Get them while stocks last.

The Wallace & Gromit videos (BBC, £9.99 each) make no attempt to deny that their world is plasticine, and are the more delicious for it. Children of a nervous disposition may find Nick Park's world of cyber-dogs, lunar robots and scheming penguins slightly frightening. Yet unlike modern Disney films, they eschew frenetic cutting and trite morality, exploring the rougher edges of friendship with wit and a dour northern humour that is at once steeped in American cinema and uniquely British.

Tintin is universal, and all the horribly costly videos of his adventures (Citel, £13-£16) are worth saving up for. Start with the thrilling Tintin in Tibet. As with the best adaptations, these will encourage children to look at the books rather than gawp mindlessly; determined francophiles can also get them in French. These splendid stories help teach a child more about geography, space travel and the nobler side of journalism than anything else on the market, but their chief recommendation is that they are funny. For the parent facing a more than usually stressful New Year at the end of 1999, there can't be too many good jokes - though perhaps, just for once, Disney's Cinderella will be the most appropriate to have just before midnight.


Too cute for words
Fiction by Geoffrey Wheatcroft

When Martin Amis became a father, he tells us, he discovered as a result that full-scale nuclear war might not be such a good idea after all. My own discovery in the same circumstance was more modest: just how ghastly many children's books are. Among the ordeals of middle-class parenthood - the shattering price of little shoes, the nannies-from-hell, the nursery schools called Nutkins or Tinkerbells - few are more lowering than the worst kiddies' books: gruesomely cute, fey and patronising in tone. It's distressing to find that the little perishers actually like some of the cutest.

But not all of them. Cuddle Up Tight (Bodley Head, £12.99) is beautifully designed and printed - children's publishing is the only area in the British book trade where production standards have remained steady or even risen in the past 30 years - and some of the stories are delightful. All of that, despite a title that excited derision from young as well as old. Anyway, here is an array of books for four to seven year olds, reviewed in close consultation with the domestic focus group, and beginning with some picture books.

We very much liked Brave Sister: a story from the Arabian Nights by Fiona Waters and Danuta Mayer (Bloomsbury, £5.99), "a story like Cinderella", I was assured, most prettily done. So is Nobody Rides the Unicorn by Adrian Mitchell, illustrated by Stephen Lambert (Doubleday, £9.99). Our seven-year-old critic likes "fiction stories with animals and people", and she also liked the heroine "because she has Irish hair" (eh?).

Another very pretty book is The Starlight Princess and Other Princess Stories, retold by Annie Dalton and illustrated with embroideries by Belinda Downes (Dorling Kindersley, £12.99). Joanna Harrison's The Three Wishes (Collins, £10.99) is a happy little fairy tale, evidently drawn under the influence of Posy Simmonds. And Dorling Kindersley has one more winner in Myths and Fairy Tales retold by Neil Philip (£20) on the model of Selina Hastings's very successful Bible Stories.

Any children's book is to some extent didactic, but publishers might bear in mind Sam Goldwyn's injunction and "leave messages to the Western Union". Dare to be Different (Bloomsbury, £14.99) is "A Celebration of Freedom in Association with Amnesty International". There are few better causes than Amnesty, but young children aren't quite ready for PC pep talks about the equality agenda, and one or two pages veer ever so slightly in Bel Littlejohn's direction. Still, the book does include the most beautiful children's story of all, Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince". I listened to it first more (damn it, considerably more) than 40 years ago on a 78rpm "talking book" with pictures, and still can't read it without tears.

The Letterland Annual 2000 (Collins, £5.99) is really pre-school, but was enjoyed by one bright spark who has just started school. In fairness I should include an attractive, large-format edition of The Story of Doctor Doolittle, with Hugh Lofting's own illustrations (Bodley Head, £12.99), although our focus group seems to suffer from an almost Serbian hatred of Dr D.

Sometimes publishers come un-stuck through their technical wizardry. The Most Magnificent Invention Mansion by Steve Cox and Nick Denchfield (Macmillan, £14.99) is a formidable-looking affair, but we had trouble getting "the wacky world of Sir Percy de Vise and his international band of bonkers inventors" to work. A more successful pop-up book is The Hobbit, illustrated by John Howe (HarperCollins, £16.99). My old friend Maurice Richardson once began an NS piece on Tolkien, "Adults of the world, unite!", and I know what he meant. But this collection of vignettes from Bilbo's travels in "breathtaking spreads" was much enjoyed by our five-year-old panellist. So were the sundry Mad Maps by Bambi Smyth, such as The Cherished Crown of King Henry (Red Fox, £2.99 each). Skittishly labelled "for ages nine to 99", this series of ingenious treasure hunts is actually fun for almost any age.

Now for books for young children to read themselves. Richmal Crompton's William is as loved here as Doolittle is hated, and the excellent boxed set of the stories (Macmillan) is read from nightly. Martin Jarvis has now adapted Meet Just William in four books of four stories each (Macmillan, £2.99) for a seven year old to read herself before she goes on to read the original books.

We also liked two other collections of four. The Lost Diaries (Collins, £12.99) are rollicking good stuff, and Collins also publish a series of Animal Stories, such as The Dancing Bear by Michael Morpurgo, which aren't funny at all, but rather well done, on the bearable side of mawkish. They are billed as stories "to curl up with"; I thought it might be my toes that curled, but they didn't.

Finally for something to break the ice, or relieve the gloom, on New Year's Eve. The Millennium Joke Book (Red Fox, £3.99) contains "1,000 great gags, timeless teasers and riotous riddles". Our small daughter read out one with delight: "How did the Egyptian baby get a cold? It caught it from its mummy." Have we bred the Victoria Wood or Caroline Aherne of the third millennium?