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Warm fables and dark tales to enchant young minds

There are some books that seem as if they might fit snugly into almost any stocking, no matter how old or young the owner's foot.

Sharon Creech's The Boy On The Porch (Andersen, £9.99) is one. A young couple find a child asleep in an old cushioned chair on their front porch. A note accompanies him, saying: "Please taik kair of Jakob. He's a good boy. Will be bak when we can." They know nothing else about this silent child, and he cannot tell them, since he can't speak, though he creates music through tapping and rhythm.

So begins a warm, refreshing and rather whimsical story, pared down and understated as a Raymond Carver tale. First the boy arrives, then a cow, seemingly left there for the couple. Then we learn that the boy rides cows. This is a fable, with a message about opening ourselves up to what we are given; a book to be shared or possibly left on a porch with a message saying "Please read this book. It's a good one. And pass it on when you can."

For children in the pre-teen age group, The Demon Dentist (Harper Collins, £12.99) may be the title on every Christmas list, but I'm not entirely sold on it. Unsurprisingly, given that it is written by David Walliams, this tale of Alfie, the boy with the rotten teeth, and the terrifying dentist, Miss Root, is hilarious and rattles along, but I can't say I loved it in the same way I loved many of the books reviewed here.

With a clutch of children's books already under his belt, it feels as if Walliams is wriggling further under the shadow of Roald Dahl, refusing to come out from beneath mountains of sweeties, grotesque female caricatures and poverty-stricken orphans. Fortunately, for children this doesn't matter too much. They mostly don't care if The Demon Dentist seems like The Witches meets Matilda via a quick trip into the Chocolate Factory. What counts to them is that this one is a gobbler, a book to wolf down, with plenty of rib-tickles, pace and, to kids' delight, gruesome nasties.

A quieter, more surprising gem for this age group is Tom Moorhouse's The River Singers (Oxford University Press, £10.99), which follows a family of water voles caught in a battle for survival as a dangerous new monster brings danger to their river. It was about time some British author took us back to our hedgerows and waterways and breathed new life into the grand tradition of children's anthropomorphic nature writing.

Written by an Oxford University ecologist, The River Singers has similar qualities to Watership Down and Tarka The Otter, combining pacy adventure with wildlife knowledge and a feel for our connection with nature. Will Sinethis, the river god, take care of the water voles? Will they learn, as she teaches, to "Flow with me?"

Meg Rosoff, who won the Carnegie Prize for Just In Case, uses teenage intellect and serious emotional concerns as a launchpad for proper literary invention and magic. In Picture Me Gone (Penguin, £12.99), a kind of mystery story about how families work and why they sometimes break down, she has made real a whole world of teenage experience not often tackled.

Rosoff captures the complex identities of some families in today's globalised world, creating a heroine whose father is part-Portuguese and a translator, and whose mother is Dutch, but who herself seems more attuned to the language of dog: to smell and body reading. Mila comes from a seemingly happy family, but when her father's friend goes missing, she sets out on a journey across America to find him, which reveals secrets about other people's families, and her own.

Though not Scottish herself, Berlie Doherty has set her latest novel, The Company Of Ghosts (Andersen, £6.99), on a remote island, with a lighthouse, near a place called Kyle. Central character Ellie is in a bad place at the start of this tale: her father has left and moved to Cornwall, and her mother is about to go off on a honeymoon leaving her home alone. But it's not as bad as where she ends up, when, through a series of unfortunate events, she becomes marooned.

The isle is full of noises, not to mention what seems to be the ghost of a female lighthouse-keeper. Doherty is a master tale-teller, and what might seem far-fetched in other hands seems plausible and hauntingly absorbing.

But the truly breathtaking publication of this season is Sally Gardner's Tinder (Orion, £9.99), a book that is both a dark, haunting fairytale with werewolves and treasures, but also a horrifying exploration of war and its impact on young men. Gardner has created a pitch-black world, setting the tale in a Middle Europe ravaged by fighting. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's The Tinderbox, its backdrop is the very real brutality and horrors of war, cruelties and savageries that belong to other times and other places, but also our own time.

It's no surprise to learn that Gardner talked to soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is fairytale as nightmare. Her hero, a young soldier, has lost his parents, brother and sister in a brutal raid. Will the pursuit of beautiful, red-haired Safire redeem him, or only take him to darker places? All the narrative devices and fairytale conceits are there, but this is raw and haunting, made all the more disturbing by David Roberts's illustrations, reminiscent of woodcuts and etchings, which sometimes feel like a dream reaching out from the page to drag the reader under.

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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