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Thursday, Jan. 13, 2005


"The Time Wreccas," "Winnie's Magic Wand"

"The Time Wreccas," Val Tyler, Puffin Books; 2005; 338 pp.

Children's fiction these days is so all-knowing, so cynical, even, that possibly only a first-time writer can bring back to it the naivete that it has all but lost. Perhaps Val Tyler, author of "The Time Wreccas" has not noticed how popular the wickedness of Artemis Fowl is, or the glibness of Hermione Grange (from the Harry Potter series), or maybe she has opted not to take a cue from them. If avoiding the vogue for cynicism is a conscious decision, it's pretty brave of her.

Tyler's heroes, Tid and Sofi, are absolutely bad -- at being bad. Tid is a Guardian, grandson to Old Father Tim. Unknown to the human world, his people secretly look after the most precious thing of all, Time. He looks up to his grandfather, who is just putting the finishing touches on a magical timepiece that took 100 years to make, but will keep time for 1,000 years more.

Sofi is a Wrecca. Her people dwell in the Underneath and know her only as Snot. (It isn't such a bad name, when you consider that her brethren have names like Snivel and Stupid.) They are all as bad as their names, except for Snot, of course, who just cannot bring herself to be as quarrelsome, dim-witted and wicked as Wreccas are supposed to be.

Guardians know to keep well away from Wreccas, but Snot disguises herself as Sofi and goes Topside (otherwise known as the World), to befriend Tid and steal the Tick, without which Old Father Tim's timepiece won't work.

Tid is taken in by the ruse and he divulges where his grandfather keeps the Tick. His indiscretion has dire consequences -- the Wreccas smuggle the Tick away and time will stop for eternity if the Tick is not found. While Tid is berating himself for his naievete, Sofi does some soul-searching of her own, and finds that she doesn't really want to be a Wrecca.

Soul-searching is something our little heroes, Sofi and Tid, do well: They have pretty large consciences. They feel so much guilt about what they have done, they join hands to find the Tick. Sofi re-disguises herself as Snot to penetrate the Underneath and bring back the Tick in time to save the world -- and she must escape discovery while she is at it.

She doesn't have Artemis' conspiratorial skills, or Hermione's sharp wit. In fact, the Snot-to-Sofi-to-Snot transformation is the only dissembling that takes place. Even when her own life is in peril, Sofi behaves exemplarily. She hesitates to place anyone else in danger; stops to save another Wrecca; and feels guilty for lying in order to get out.

This overdose of goodness gets so cheesy at times, it makes you want to say: Come on, who are you kidding? They don't make children this good any more. But you still end up rooting for Tid and Sofi. You want the poor blighters to come out OK just for being as absurdly good as they are.

The only "wicked" thing in this first instalment of the "Greenwich Chronicles" is the Wreccas -- and maybe that's what makes it so much fun to read about them. Vividly imagined, they are filthy, petty characters with wonderfully squalid names like Scratch, Spit and Slime. For all her efforts to back the good guys, even Tyler can't resist the Wreccas. It's no wonder then that they end up stealing even the title of this book from the Guardians.

For children 8-12 years.

"Winnie's Magic Wand," Roger McGough, Bloomsbury; 2004; 188 pp.

If you've had enough of Tid and Sofi and being good, try this for a change. "Wicked Poems" is a collection of works by classic and contemporary poets all of whom seem to have sprouted devil's horns and pointed tails to celebrate wickedness in all its forms.

Some of them write about wicked deeds: Steve Turner about bad language in "Old Swear Words;" David Orme about children duped by strangers in "Eddy Scott Goes Out to Play;" George Szirtes about lying while standing, and standing while lying in "No Rest for the Wicked."

Others use their words wickedly, like the anonymous chap who penned "The Smiling Villain." It goes:

"Forth from his den to steal he stole, His bags of chink he chunk, And many a wicked smile he smole, And many a wink he wunk."

Yet others -- like Mike Jubb in "Haiku" -- experiment with form. A haiku is a Japanese three-line poem with five syllables in the first line; seven in the second line; and five again in the third. It's pretty difficult writing anything that makes sense when you are so restricted, but Jubb pulls it off in a little poem that cautions against talking behind your friend's back.

Most of the poems are jokey, tongue-in-cheek or downright hilarious, like "Bad Report -- Good Manners," Spike Milligan's funny little poem in which a son explains a bad report card to his father by saying, "I stood aside -- to let the others pass," and Carol Ann Duffy's "Jamjar," which surprises you at the end with its reversal of roles. Others, though, are heartbreaking -- like Brendan Kennelly's poem "The Stones" about the viciousness that children can be capable of -- while some are gruesome, like Harry Graham's "Mama Mama."

"Mama, Mama, oh what is this That looks like strawberry jam? Hush, Hush, my dear, 'tis poor Papa Run over by a tram."

My personal favourite is Philip Gross' "White Ones." It is a marvellous example of double entendre, where the poet leads you to suppose that "White Ones" refers to his pet white mice. It does at the outset, but goes on to signify something much larger.

This poetry collection is also a super introduction to the old greats, like Lewis Carroll and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. If you are the type to shy away from poetry, thinking it to be a serious, somber business, this should be a pleasant surprise, and Neal Layton's wild illustrations make it even more enjoyable.

Funny or morbid, all the poems here wield rhythm and rhyme like a devil weilding a pitchfork. Take it from me, wickedness and poetry has never been so entertaining.

It has to be said: The devil has the best lines.

For children 8 years and up.

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