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Off-beat and on target

Anne Faundez finds stories with a choice of realism or magic to keep readers keen

LITTLE DARLINGS. By Sam Llewellyn. Puffin pound;4.99

LILY QUENCH AND THE DRAGON OF ASHBY. By Natalie Jane Prior. Puffin pound;3.99

EATING WORDS FOR BREAKFAST. Book Aid International in association with Puffin pound;5.99

BEST FRIENDS. By Jacqueline Wilson. Doubleday pound;10.99

FIDDLESTICKS. By Alan Fraser. Corgi Children's pound;4.99

Stories that offer enjoyment, quality and variety are essential to keep middle primary children enthusiastic about reading. This selection would be ideal for the Year 5 class library.

There's a laugh a minute in Sam Llewellyn's entertaining and subversive Little Darlings. The lives of the precocious Darling children - Daisy, Primrose and Cassian - are transformed when Nanny Pete steps in. Disconcerted by the nanny's sympathetic, decidedly unconventional behaviour, they are also outraged when they witness the theft from under their noses of a shield enclosing a tatty brown object they call the Bear's Bum.

But what makes this threadbare piece of plush so valuable - and covetable? And so begins a crazy adventure in which nothing is as it seems, involving a steamship, a lachrymose chief engineer, a glamorous captain with painted toenails and a bunch of crooks. Larger-than-life characters, an outlandish plot and a wicked sense of humour make this book a winner.

An encounter between a dragon and a dragon-slayer sets in motion a magical adventure in Natalie Jane Prior's Lily Quench and the Dragon of Ashby. Ashby Water, once a town of gardens and laughter, is under the thumb of the evil Black Count.

When a fiery dragon swoops from the skies, setting the factory alight, havoc breaks loose. Lily, as the last in line of the dragon-slaying Quench family, is called in to kill the beast. But she soon discovers that nothing is straightforward; she's a fearless Quench on her father's side but a peace-loving Cornstalk on her mother's. And where does her loyalty lie - with the Black Count and his cohorts, or an elderly dragon with golden eyes?

The intrusion of the present on the past - a sports car here, a penthouse there - adds humour and originality to this entertaining read. Look out for Lily Quench and the Black Mountains, coming soon For children who prefer variety and the particular satisfaction of a short story, Eating Words for Breakfast will provide hours of enjoyment. Produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the charity Book Aid International, this is an eclectic collection to suit every mood. Contributions range from the realistic, as in Eoin Colfer's opening story about bullying; to the magical, as in Jeremy Strong's piece that stops short of being a fairytale; and the humorous, as in Dick King-Smith's "Brother Giants".

There's an assortment of characters, differing in motivation, experience and lifestyle, and stories by authors from Ghana, Nigeria, Palestine and Uganda, as well as two welcome poems by Benjamin Zephaniah. Royalties go to Book Aid International.

With characteristic skill, Jacqueline Wilson balances an "issue", a familiar setting and contrasting characters in a finely crafted story. Best Friends traces Gemma's anguish when Alice, her life-long friend, moves house. Both girls are affected, but Gemma feels the loss more as the humdrum life of home and school continues, with nothing to replace that friendship. And now, to make matters worse, she's been assigned a class project with Biscuits (hero of Cliffhanger and Buried Alive), whose presence is a constant reminder of Alice.

A roller-coaster of emotions disbelief, anger, sadness, possessiveness and jealousy - gives way to acceptance, as she understands that friendship can take many forms. Told from Gemma's point of view, this fast-paced story, at once funny and touching, exemplifies yet again the author's ability to get to the heart of children's experiences.

A first-person narrative also drives Alan Fraser's Fiddlesticks. Here is Charlie's story about his friendship with Stef and the hobbies each develops - factors that are key to resolving an injustice. Charlie has a world opened to him by Beryl, his elderly neighbour, when she shares her passion for jazz, tells of her days in a jazz band and teaches him to play the drums.

Stef's new-found delight in magic is soon put to good use when the boys discover that Beryl has been swindled. The story flows effortlessly, weaving adventures involving magic and music into short, pacy chapters that focus on either Charlie or Stef. This is a highly accessible story, simple in plot and satisfying in its celebration of friendship, between peers and between the generations.

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