Is it possible to combine good stories with a simplified vocabulary? A number of popular children's authors writing for series such as Blackie Bears and Flippers show that it is. Publishers have responded to primary teachers who are looking for books which fulfil the dual role of offering exciting stories with a reasonably structured and simple vocabulary. All the series claim to be ideal for children who are just starting to read by themselves. Some, indeed, are excellent to add to a classroom, library or home loan collection, but I would not recommend buying a whole series on the basis of one good book. With care, a valuable set of books for readers at key stage 2 can be put together for home and school use.
All the books are sturdy and most are hard-back; most have an illustration (often black and white) on every page and many work through a mixture of simple texts and speech bubbles. All bend over backwards to have a range of strong female characters, although there are few families of Asian background.
How good is the story? is the first question I asked of the latest series fiction to be published. Will it appeal to most children in the class or at least to those I especially want to encourage to read independently? Will children want to return to it? Can the story successfully be read aloud? Does it deal with an important issue? Is it part of a coherent series which children will want to follow? How far will the book fit into current classroom themes or be a stimulus for other areas of the curriculum? Will it appeal to parents if I want to use it as part of a homeschool reading programme? Does the book reflect Britain as a multi-cultural society? Are any books particularly suitable for the older reluctant reader?
I found the Blackie Bears series to be exceptionally good. Many of the stories are geared towards inner-city life and the publishers have attracted well-known authors such as Elizabeth Beresford, Pamela Oldfield, Chris Powling and Martin Waddell. A short piece "About the Author" is a personal touch to begin each book and holds the series together well. A simple yet detailed black and white illustration features on every page and the books are generally well laid-out. The stories are appealing and deal with important issues. The Cat with No Name by Pamela Oldfield about a homeless and ill-treated cat looking for an owner at Christmas can hardly fail. Marlene the Monster by Tessa Krailing will strike a chord with all children with messy bedrooms. Elizabeth Beresford tells the appealing story of Jamie and the Rola Polar Bear about a lonely little boy living at the top of a high-rise block of flats who manages to combat his fear of lifts. Luke's Dog by Linda Jennings also deals with the problems of inner-city life and poverty. All these stories are well-written, will be enjoyed by children and their families and could form the starting-point for class discussions.
Hamish Hamilton's three series: Cartwheels (the simplest), Gazelles (harder) and Antelopes (the most difficult) include stories which need closer scrutiny, particularly with regard to intercultural issues. concepts of normality and so on. I would find Benny's Best Friend by Thelma Lambert in the Cartwheels series impossible to present to children, whether or not pupils of Chinese origin were in the class. It shows a newly arrived immigrant child doing everything wrong (including the most unlikely action of taking all his clothes off in P. E. - to the hilarity of all the class) until he is befriended by Benny, an English child.
I found the Cartwheels series the weakest of all those reviewed. Not many teachers will want to encourage their pupils to read about bubblegum being blown into adults' faces in Bubblegum Bother. There are good picture books available for emergent readers which I would prefer to spend my money on.
Finally, there are some books which teachers might wish to purchase with specific themes in mind. The Jupiter Jane series would be an excellent starting-point for work on the planets. They also figure girls in strong roles (although mother seems only to wash dishes and vacuum). The Teachers' Secrets series could also be a good starting-point for further forays into the "secret lives" of teachers. Other books are excellent for older reluctant readers; books which do justice to the interest and intelligence of top juniors who find dense print difficult. I would recommend teachers to take a look at the Animal Crackers, Flippers and Tigers series. Animal Crackers, for example, lives up to its name with a final page full of jokes on the story. Rose Impey's hilarious Phew Sidney! The Sweetest Smelling Skunk in the World gives us a good introduction to skunks, a good laugh and proof that simplified readers need not be a bore.
Blackie Bears Pounds 4.50 each.
Flippers. Pan Macmillan Pounds 4.99 each Cartwheels Pounds 5.50 each. Gazelles Pounds 4.50 each. Antelopes Pounds 5.50 each. Hamish Hamilton Jupiter Jane Stories.
Orchard Readalones Pounds 2.99 each Animal Crackers. Orchard Pounds 5.99 each.
Teachers' Secrets. Doring Kindersley Pounds 3.99 each