Magazine article The Spectator

A Choice of Children's Books

Magazine article The Spectator

A Choice of Children's Books

Article excerpt

Animal stories for children are always tricky; as J.R.R. Tolkien observed in his essay on fairy stories, you can end up, as in The Wind in the Willows, with an animal mask on human form. Watership Down has been described as a nice story about a group of English public schoolboys with occasional rabbit features. But if you get too true to nature, the animals don't have much to say to us, and no reason why they should. Admittedly, The Wind in the Willows does try to capture some of the moleness of Moley (he perks up underground) and the water-rattiness of Ratty (restive away from the River). And, as we all now know, Ratty is no water rat but a water vole. Which makes all the braver a new story about these very creatures.

Tom Moorhouse is an ecologist so he knows all about water voles. But although The River Singers (Oxford, £10.99, Spectator Bookshop, £9.89) is peppered with references to spoors, territory, scents and feeding grounds, it's essentially a story about a group of siblings, led by a feisty little fellow called Sylvan, who leads his brother and sisters to a new home after their mother is killed by a scary new predator. It has enough of natural reality to satisfy didacts, but it's really all about the human values of heroism and friendship, including an unlikely alliance between the voles and an old rat, as well as a nice touch of snobbery on the part of settled voles towards the arrivistes. It's even got religion; where Ratty worshipped Pan, the voles worship the Great River, which makes sense. It's illustrated with verve by Simon Mendez, which is quite something, given that water voles look pretty much alike.

I take the view myself that if a child's book is good enough for me it's good enough for them. But I do use in-house readers, who assure me that The Demon Dentist (Harper Collins, £12.99, Spectator Bookshop, £11.69), the latest from David Walliams (whom you'll know as a comic actor but is actually a phenomenally successful children's author too, chiz, chiz) is a cracker. It's about a bad version of the Tooth Fairy who has designs on the teeth in everyone's heads but who leaves horrid things under the pillow instead of 50p. I can testify that it's a compulsive read, but don't ask me; ask a child. It's illustrated by Tony Ross, who has something of the subversive genius of Quentin Blake; for me there is no higher praise.

Rooftoppers (Faber, £6.99, Spectator Bookshop, £6. …

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