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Raining stories, cats and dogs

Michael Thorn picks top tales for beginner readers

LIZZIE LONGBODY GOES TO SCHOOL; Lizzie Longbody Gets an Itch. By Tessa Krailing, illustrated by Sarah McConnell. Hodder Children's Books pound;4.99 each

Tales from the Box: THE COUNTESS'S CALAMITY. By Sally Gardner. Bloomsbury, pound;4.99. The Forever Street Fairies: NOGO AND HIS MUFFLING MAGIC. ELFIE'S MAGIC SEE-SAW. By Hiawyn Oram and Mary Rees. Hodder Children's Books pound;4.99 each. Starters: PERCY THE PINK BIG WIG. Both by Colin West. HAL THE HIGHWAYMAN. by June Crebbin and Polly Dunbar. Cup Run. By Martin Waddell and Russell Ayto. Walker Books, pound;3.99 each.

It is remarkable how consistently a cat andor dog feature in stories for beginner readers. The first two Lizzie Longbody titles play appealingly upon the differences between a cat's and a dog's life.

In Sally Gardner's marvellous The Countess's Calamity, it is a park-keeper's puss (Mr Cuddles) who, from the point of view of five marooned dolls, is anything but cuddly. The dolls have been left in a box in the park. A dog does sniff at the box on the first page, but thereafter the canine-feline contribution is left to the aforementioned Mr Cuddles.

Both cat and park-keeper pose a considerable threat to the dolls, whose predicament is assisted by a family of compassionate mice.

This is a book that can be recommended to any newly independent reader, whether aged six or nine. It reads aloud well, but a full appreciation requires Gardner's charmingly evocative illustrations. Some of these are set against soft-focus photographic backdrops, emphasising the Borrowers-style plight of small beings in a large and threatening environment. One of the dolls, the frightful and snobbish Countess from the Land of Lounge, has a larger-than-life personality. Her transformation into a much more pleasant person at the end of this first book risks depriving future Tales from the Box of a character readers can enjoy hissing at.

At just over 100 pages, The Countess's Calamity may be on the long side for a first reader. Try these two Forever Street Fairies titles, featuring the cat Cyclone, considered by the fairies to be a White Beast, who usually ends up playing a considerately complicit role in their affairs. The telling is sprightly and the illustrations engaging. These books should be in any key stage 1 book corner.

As should all Walker Books' Starters, a distinctive series of cat-and-dogless first readers, characterised by the wit of both text and illustration.

Each book is printed in just two colours, which includes the colour of the text. Big Wig by Colin West - in which a giant's wig blows off and is used as a thatched roof by the Little People - makes clever use of blue and orange. When Jonathan the little shepherd first spots the giant's wig, he approaches "the ginger thing gingerly".

Percy The Pink (brown and pink), about a king obsessed with the colour pink, offers a laugh for the grown-ups when Eric the Wise Man spends "a week in a special Think Tank" coming up with a brilliant idea: the picture shows a bearded man sitting in an empty fish-tank.

Any child who doesn't get the jokes in Hal The Highwayman (dark blue and light blue), should be referred to the Crack-A-Joke Co-ordinator for a sense of humour screening test. This book about Hal's hopelessness in his role draws comedy from letters, a kit list and a map showing both good and very silly places to hold up a stagecoach.

The humour in Cup Run (green and red) is contained within the sequence of Russell Ayto's video freezeframes and matchplay diagrams. Much of Waddell's narration is mere captioning, such as "This is the ref blowing for time," which makes the book ideal for any football-mad child struggling to build up reading fluency.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex

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