Children's Books - World of wonders

Amanda Craig evaluates new fiction for pre-teens

Children's fiction is everywhere loved yet despised. You do not need to witness the dismal number of reviews it has allotted to it in books pages to see the truth of this. Every time The Lord of the Rings tops the list of people's "Best 100 Books", you can guarantee hand-wringing from the self-appointed guardians of literature. "Elves," they moan, "furry feet . . . magic . . . " before retiring in gratified loathing of the common reader.

The real crime of the children's novel is that it tells a story. Story is supposed to be mere craft; style, true art. In fact almost anyone can be taught style. To be a storyteller, an enchanter, is quite a different matter.

Now in her 70th year, Joan Aiken is one of the best storytellers alive and shares with A S Byatt the rare distinction of being able to write new fairy tales; yet she is still largely known for one of her first books, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Red Fox, £5.99). This is a great pity. The sequel, Black Hearts in Battersea, introduced Dido Twite, Cockney waif and heroine of seven subsequent novels, including a new adventure, Limbo Lodge (Jonathan Cape, £12.99), published this month. A tale of magic and mystery set on a tropical island swarming with deadly snakes and accursed Angrians (Bronte-lovers will smile), it shimmers with the joyful melancholy that is Aiken's hallmark.

Dido is one of the great heroines of children's literature. The series vibrates with passionate indignation at the cruelties and injustices meted out to the young, yet Dido, dismissed by her feckless father as "a delicate sprite" and dubbed "Died o'Fright" in Dido and Pa, is also the incarnation of the toughness peculiar to childhood. The champion of the sick, the poor, the frightened and the weak, she herself begins as one of them and is almost literally reborn in Night Birds on Nantucket after her apparent death by drowning. Her scepticism, loyalty, lies, insouciance and impatience make her not only blissfully funny but the first feminist - and socialist - a child is likely to encounter.

The new genius of children's fiction, Philip Pullman, seemed to spring fully formed out of nowhere with Northern Lights. Yet he has been writing for years - his books, thanks to Penguin, were not so much published as concealed from the public. The Ruby in the Dust, The Shadow in the North and The Tiger in the Well (all re-issued by Scholastic, £5.99), are violently enjoyable, displaying a dark foretaste of the visionary who blossoms in Northern Lights. The heroine, Sally, is beautiful, brave, uneducated and a crack shot. Her battles against the criminal powers of Victorian London read like a cross between Sherlock Holmes, Wilkie Collins and Jack London's masterpiece, People of the Abyss. Profoundly subversive and superbly written, they will terrify parents and delight the young.

Younger readers should turn to Pullman's new book, I Was a Rat! (Doubleday, £10.99). Using the fairy tale of Cinderella, this effectively satirises the relationship between the late Princess of Wales and the press. Roger was once a rat, until transformed by magic into a pageboy. His kidnapping and persecution by a shady fairground owner and his rescue by an elderly couple address, on a far deeper level than Pinocchio, what it is to be truly human.

The healing art of storytelling is celebrated in Shadow Spinner (Bloomsbury, £8.99), an enthralling and imaginative tale of how Scheherazade comes to the end of her thousand and one nights. The narrator is a crippled girl; when she amuses some children with a new story, Scheherazade's sister enlists her help - for the brave Queen is exhausted. The heat and dust of Arabia will dry your throat as effectively as its descriptions of courage in the grip of fear.

Susan Price's The Sterkarm Handshake (Scholastic, £10.99) has just won the Guardian children's fiction award. It posits a time tunnel between 16th-century Borders tribes and the 21st century, whose anthropologists are believed to be elves. Price's Black Country rhythms add to her prodigious gifts as a reworker of fairy tales; like Alan Garner, she is steeped in the bleak magnificence of her native landscape. This adds a wit and inventiveness that catch the breath. What she is less good at is describing adult emotions, particularly love.

This is what Alan Temperley is quite brilliant at. His Huntress of the Sea (Scholastic, £4.99) uses Scottish myths of kelpies and mermaids to describe the suffering caused by divorce, in a powerful and original novel. The hero's father returns after years of absence, apparently mad. In truth he has been the prisoner - and husband - of a mermaid, fathering another son by her. The lyricism with which Temperley evokes adult sexuality from a child's point of view is outstanding. The sea has always been a metaphor for the erotic, but here the imagery is sustained and developed with unforgettable beauty and horror.

Catherine Fisher is another children's author who remains mysteriously under-publicised. Her Snow-Walker's Son trilogy (Red Fox, £4.99), exploring Norse myth and the political dangers of being different, is an outstanding piece of fiction. Two new books, The Relic Master and The Interrex (Bodley Head, £10.99), are also excellent, if not quite so well written, and should particularly appeal to boys of more than eight. They describe a quest undertaken by a young wizard and his master on a planet where magic is punishable by torture and death. Strongly influenced by Ursula le Guin, this is really about the moral choices facing those living in a totalitarian state.

Children do not care about real-life parallels, of course. They learn without noticing, and often without identification, reading for enjoyment. The good, or great, children's novel is unselfconscious. Few adult novels achieve the power, the simplicity or the artfulness of the literature that puts storytelling first. We think it remote from us because we know so much more - but, as Eliot remarked to the student who thought the same of reading the classics, "they are what we know".

This article first appeared in the 31 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Between two mental universes