THE STATUS OF children's literature is skyrocketing, with best-selling authors writing for children in increasing numbers. Publishers are excited by the potential of cross-over sales. In the case of Clive Barker's Abarat (Harper Collins $135) their optimism is justified. His use of the classic theme of ordinary characters escaping to extraordinary worlds is hugely entertaining. Candy Quackenbush is an average misunderstood teenager with a chip on her shoulder. She has a morbid streak that is not helped by living in Chickentown, the most boring place on Earth. But after learning of an intriguing and tragic story about a strange death in one of the rooms in the local motel, she goes beyond the town limits to the zone between real life and fantasy. A lighthouse marks the starting point of her journey to an archipelago of 25 islands, one for every hour of the day plus one to spare. Peopled by fantastic creatures, the islands are defined by their appointed hour and have a complex relationship with each other. The inevitable arch-demon, Christopher Carrion, Lord of Midnight, looms over the whole piece seeking to destroy anything, including Candy, who would wreak havoc with his plans. The book has a wickedly witty style and comes up with original twists at every turn. Almost as successful is Isabel Allende's City Of The Beasts (Flamingo $170), a classic adventure in the grand manner that rattles along at a cracking pace, but feels somewhat dated. When Alex Cold's mother contracts cancer, Alex is sent off to accompany her eccentric grandmother, Kate, on an international geographic expedition into the depths of the Amazon forest. The focus turns to mythical creatures resembling huge gorillas and their link to an isolated indigenous tribe. The plot seethes with mysticism, intuition and magic and addresses the issue of living with and against nature. Although a few elements of the story stretch incredulity to the limit, Allende's fluid, precise prose holds it all together. There is a subtler, sexual subtext and real drama at work and there is violence that provides food for thought rather than meaningless sensationalism. It all combines to provide readers with a genuinely entertaining experience with substance. Another novel with references to past classics is Julia Bertagna's Exodus ($130). It is one of the first Young Picador titles, a new line by British publisher Pan Macmillan. In a kind of Stig Of The Dump meets Melvyn Burgess' Bloodtide, the author projects a teenage girl, Mara, into a world flooded by the rising waters caused by global warming. When the ocean threatens to engulf his small island, she leaves on a perilous journey looking for the fabled New World cities. The one he discovers built over a flooded Glasgow turns out to be a fortress full of false, shallow people jealously guarding the privileges of its pampered inhabitants. Is Mara the long-awaited saviour of the underdogs and can she lead them to the Promised Land as prophesied? Can she help them see beyond their electronic nirvana and use an advanced form of the Web to foment revolution? Bertagna weaves several plot lines with consummate skill and has produced a thoughtful piece that challenges readers to re-examine their own attitudes and those of society to environmental protection and the ultimate survival of the human race.