A boy who can turn into a fox or a falcon; a girl who can heal with her touch; two brothers who can move objects with their minds; girls who channel messages from the dead; a boy who can make sure people see things which aren’t there; a girl who can make sure people don’t see things which are there: these are some of the Children of Limitless Ability – COLA kids. Each of them motherless from a young age, they are sensed by Pauline Sartre, diviner and head of a special government-sponsored residential school, and brought there by Owen Hind, a Special Forces agent who is responsible for their safety as well as teaching them about woodwork and backwoods craft. The children have normal lessons with long-suffering but sympathetic teachers and development classes where they train in the use of their particular special powers.
This is the backdrop to the Shapeshifter series from Ali Sparkes. The books are accessible to any average pre-teen reader, although they are a slight cut above the norm in the way of vocabulary and structure. The stories are action-based and dialogue-driven but there are individual character arcs and multiple story threads running through the series. The just-adolescent characters are engaging and believable, and the principal supporting characters have a certain depth to them. Themes running through the series which might be of interest or concern to parents include: the children’s supernatural gifts; messages from the dead; alien ancestry; a powerful and vindictive 12-year-old girl; children’s ability to trust adults; family difficulties; general themes of friendship, support and forgiveness; and particular instances of characters who knowingly fight against their passions for the sake of other people. The children’s gifts include those which one might consider neutral: telepathy, telekenesis, pyrokenesis and various forms of mild hypnosis including a form of invisibility. In addition, though, we have the titular shapeshifting of Dax and the extensive dealings with the dead principally via Lisa’s gifts – which also include dowsing and telepathy – and occasionally in dreams or visions to the others.
One small but important trait of Ali Sparkes’ characters appears here as elsewhere: a determination to do the right thing for its own sake, to overcome an inclination to anger or cowardice or selfishness for non-utilitarian ends. It’s relatively easy to find characters elsewhere who are physically brave and persevering, who fight enemies on behalf of their friends, or on behalf of some perceived good. But it’s rare to find those who will fight their own bad inclinations. Dax, age 12, knows that he’s jealous of Gideon’s new-found twin brother. And he does his best to overcome the moodiness which that jealousy brings for the sake of Gideon and Luke. Earlier, he keeps control of pent-up anger when Gina his selfish stepmother treats him badly. In the final act Spook – Dax’s school enemy – is big enough to overcome his antipathy in order to help Dax and ultimately the other children. Overall, there are several issues which might cause concern to parents especially parents of children as young as nine, the publisher’s target audience. But the series as a whole and the majority of the characters have the right intention.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.