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The Frighteners by Pete Johnson
(Corgi Yearling, 4.99, 159 pages, paperback; published April 2001.)

Just the right size that it won't frighten child readers, this cover scanis a slim paperback with fairly large print, for children who love thrillers and horror stories.

Young Chloe moves to a new town, gets a hostile reception from most kids in her new school, so turns for friendship to the class outcast, Aiden. While none of the other children want to be friends with him, she notices that they are all deeply respectful of him. In fact, they are so anxious not to upset Aiden that it is clear they are deeply scared of him. Chloe soon finds out why. For Aiden has the power to bring the Frighteners to life, and the ability to make them haunt anyone who upsets him.

Chloe realises that Aiden's grip on the Frighteners might be slipping. At the same time, it seems that their grip on him is strengthening. There is no way that the boy is willing to give up his power, even though it is clearly getting out of hand. The question is, can Chloe escape the Frighteners and convince Aiden to stop unleashing them on anyone he dislikes, or will the Frighteners do more than just scare her?

The story of the outsider who turns to magical powers for compensation is not, of course, new. But Johnson, who won the Young Telegraph Fully Booked Award for his The Ghost Dog, manages to bring a fresh and exciting approach to bear.

There is plenty of action, the story moves along quickly, and there are many nicely described settings. Similarly, the children's personalities are clearly drawn. Aiden's feelings and motivations are easy to follow. Chloe is a sympathetic, feisty character whose hopes, fears and mistakes are entirely believable. And, both are given the opportunity to develop and grow during the course of the book.

I enjoyed the story as well as the language of the book, which is straightforward and includes plenty of modern youth expressions, which should appeal to young readers. Johnson avoids the twin dangers of writing for children -- either patronising them or using inappropriate, babyish words. Not expecting anything too sophisticated from a kids' book (now who's being patronising?), I was even agreeably surprised by the twist in the ending.

There probably is a moral message -- about alienation, friendship, loneliness and power -- but it is understated and very much in the background, so it never interferes with the pure story. However, the book does challenge thoughtful children to consider why Aiden, Chloe and their classmates all act as they do.

The ages of the children are not specified, so The Frighteners should appeal to a wide range of kids, from about age 9 upwards. Imaginative children should find it satisfyingly spooky, while extremely sensitive ones might want to sleep with the light on for a few weeks!

There are small, black and white illustrations at least every few pages, drawn by David Wyatt. Presumably, adding pictures is a device to break the text up for reluctant child readers, and give added attraction to the page. When done well, as these are, being atmospheric and apt, illustrations add to the enjoyment of the story. Overall, this is a good book, which can be recommended with confidence to the masses of children who like a good scare with their stories.

Review by Meredith.


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© Meredith 8 December 2001