10 DECEMBER 1988, Page 37

Children's Books

The way it was for the moment

Juliet Townsend

Looking at the Leslie Howard film of The Scarlet Pimpernel or at a Roman scene by Alma-Tadema I am always struck by the way in which nothing dates so much as a past period's picture of the past. One would expect the Plantaganets to remain the Plantaganets, but how different they are viewed through Augustan or Victorian or 20th-century eyes. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the world of children's fiction, where history reflects every passing fashion, from the sensitive mediaevalism of Charlotte M. Yonge to the robust narrative sweep of Henty. And what a heavy respon- sibility the writer of such fiction bears, for we all remember far more clearly the snippets of history we picked up from children's books than all the scholarly tomes we may dutifully study later in life. What is absorbed in childhood is also believed. Nothing will persuade me that Henry VIII did not prove his strength by breaking a horse's leg with his bare hands,

though I last read about this dubious anecdote in a children's novel at the age of ten.

Not only should good children's historic- al fiction give an accurate account of the facts, it should also give us the feel of a period, its smells and tastes and sounds. No one does this better than Leon Gar- field, and in Blewcoat Boy (Gollancz, £6.95, pp.96) he transports us to the filthy slums of Victorian Westminster, 'the stink- ing muddle of alleys and lanes, of crazy houses where folk lived like rats ... where smells were so bad that birds flying over- head turned giddy and faint, and even the sun went green when it looked down on Devil's Acre.' Young Nick and his sister, Jubilee, Irish street urchins, find a home in this improbable sanctuary, a father-figure in the person of the genial thief Christmas Owen and a free education at the Blewcoat School. This is the first of the new Acorn series, published in association with the National Trust, each of which will be inspired by one of the Trust's properties. It is a good story, short and straightforward enough to be accessible to slower readers, and a vivid introduction to a visit to the Blewcoat School.

Another book which it would be useful for an older child to read before a visit to the spot is At the Palaces of Knossos (Peter Owen, £12.95, pp.218) written 40 years ago by Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek. Here we are in that borderland where myth meets history. Minoan civilisation is in decline, and the story of Theseus and the Minotaur is played out against a vivid backdrop of the life of the great palace and its people. The setting is minutely observed and the story well told, but the text does read rather obviously as a translation, with words which would tax the most literate child, 'acmic' for example, or 'aspergilla'. It is a translation, too, which is aimed at Amer- ican readers. The descriptive passages have a certain old-world charm. 'The tears flowed copiously from his aged eyes,' and Theseus is 'the audacious youth,' but the dialogue could be from any modern Amer- ican film: 'Skip the formalities and get to the report' ... 'What's eating you?' ... 'It's scary', and sometimes this overflows into the narrative: 'The time had not yet come to tangle with the King of Crete.'

Happier in style is Kevin Crossley- Holland's Wulf (Faber, £7.95, pp.128) whose language catches brilliantly the fla- vour of Anglo-Saxon imagery, expressed in simple modern English. The subject is the bringing of Christianity to the East Saxons in the seventh century by the down-to- earth missionary Cedd. Wulf the Saxon boy is his first convert, and, as one of his monks, experiences the conflict between the new religion and the old, the hostility of the villagers and his own family and finally the dreadful outbreak of plague which swept through Cedd's northern monastery at Lastingham. The story is based on Bede's account and captures admirably the facts and feeling of this remote age.

Also set in the distant past, but fairy tale rather than history is The Emperor's Panda by David Day (Piccadilly Press, £5.95, pp.112). It is the story of the young Chinese flute-player Kung, who sets out on a dangerous journey to rescue his uncle from three wicked wizards. He is be- friended in his many adventures by the Lord Beishung, The Master Panda, 'that rarest and most magical of beasts,' who had helped create the world. The Panda is a delightful character, philosopher and humorist, with something of the flavour of Asian in the Narnia stories. With excellent illustrations by Eric Beddows, this book is good value and like Wulf would suit children of nine plus.

There are some good illustrated books for younger children this Christmas. The Story of Horrible Hilda and Henry by Emma Chichester Clark (Bodley Head, £5.95, pp.32) is a lively and funny story in the tradition of the old Buster Brown cartoons, with fiendishly naughty child- ren with maniacal pin-point eyes and cries of 'Boo' and `Yeeee00000w' coming in balloons out of their mouths. Horrible Hilda and Henry are eventually tamed by Brian the lion, or are they? Lulu, in Lulu and the Flying Babies by Posy Simmonds (Cape, £5.95, pp.32) is also in an unco- operative mood when she is taken to the museum because it is too cold in the park for her baby brother. The pictures of the dumpy scowling figure hunched mutinous- ly on the bench — 'Don't want to see the dinosaur!' — are very funny. So are Lulu's adventures with the flying babies, cherubs from the museum's Works of Art, who carry her off to play in some of the painted landscapes on the walls.

Noah's Ark has always been a favourite topic for children's books. Traditionally there have been alternative approaches, the religious and the secular. The first is a retelling of the Bible story, the second concentrates on the comic antics of the animals. In Noah's Ark (Macmillan, £7.50, pp.32) Sophie Windham steers a curious middle course, retelling the Bible story without mentioning God — although I assume he is the benign old man shown in one of the pictures perched among the gathering rain clouds. The book is fun for small children who will enjoy the little windows in the page, through which one can see the animals' faces peering out through the portholes or the sun shining into the Ark after the rain. The illustra- tions are particularly rich in satisfying detail.

Finally, if you want a handsome book of fairy tales to read aloud, try The Faber Book of Favourite Fairy Tales by Sara and Stephen Corrin (£9.95, pp.256). The text is full of dramatic force and the colour plates by Juan Wijngaard excellent. I wish there were more of them.