Philippa Davidson reviews fiction and plays for reluctant teenage readers. Motivating reluctant teenage readers and finding books with a manageable text that were not babyish used to be a problem for most secondary teachers. Then along came Spirals, a series of 48-page books with a limited language content and the kind of plots that make slow readers eager to turn to the next page.
Footprints in the Sand is a well-constructed mystery that instantly reminded me of Rebecca. Red-haired Linda takes a job as a stage manager in Devon. She dismisses tales about the ghosts of two lovers that haunt the beach and the mysterious disappearance of other redheads over the years. But when she falls in love with a young artist and a romantic encounter in a cave turns into a terrifying experience, it soon becomes clear that she is in line to be the next victim.
The plot of Ghost Train verges on the far fetched and therefore loses some of the chill factor of Footprints in the Sand. Paul and his girlfriend Jane are at a fair when Jane takes a ride on the ghost train and disappears. Paul, desperate to trace her, gets involved in a series of adventures that lead him via an unpleasant array of fairground folk into several skirmishes with the law. In the end Jane's ring prompts him to return to the ghost train where, after more nail-biting suspense, they are reunited.
The love-interest in these stories should make them popular with girls, and although the formula is obvious there are unexpected twists which make the endings to some extent unpredictable. The build-up of atmosphere in Footprints is all the more commendable considering its limited language.
Spirals plays are best approached in a state of suspended disbelief. It is no good reading them with an adult sense of humour or you will find it difficult to believe that anything quite so silly could ever find its way into print. However, they really do appeal to adolescents and with their one word expletives, puns and ridiculous characters you can guarantee that your students will be in fits even if you are waiting for the bell to ring. Cowboys, Jelly and Custard features two plays - Knees Gone to Jelly and Lumps in the Custard - with a Wild West setting. There are parts for characters such as Buster Bloodvessel, Miss Rhubarb Clingfilm, and Flossy Sue.
To analyse the plots would be to give them unwarranted importance, but all the ingredients of innuendo, misunderstanding and slapstick humour are present: "You're starting to crumble Rhubarb . . . don't be a fool," and worse.
In Breaking the Ice, Ted and Edna Plunge get locked in the supermarket overnight. Ted falls in the freezer and the pair get mixed up with Tracey Tweedle, the checkout girl who is planning to abscond with the takings. In this three-part drama, CFC stands for Chocolate Fudge Cake, a woman who beats someone to death with a box of cornflakes is a cereal killer, and it is difficult to tell the fish fingers from the human ones.
These plays have a maximum of five parts which makes them ideal for small groups or for special needs pupils working one-to-one with a teacher. Although aimed at students at key stage 3 with a reading age of seven or eight, they can be used equally well at key stage 4 - and could even form the basis of wider reading assignments at GCSE level.