Michael Thorn finds champion chapter books and sparky short readers
The Feisty Fairy By Anthony Bullock Magical Uncle Urlich By Richard Topping Monday2Friday Books pound;4.99 each www.m2fbooks.com
Under The Spell Of Bryony Bell By Franzeska G Ewart A C Black pound;4.99
Princess Mirror-Belle and the Magic Shoes By Julia Donaldson Macmillan Pounds 3.99 Noah's Rocket By Tony Frais Frais Publishing pound;4.99 Tel: 0113 269 6813.
Tower-block Pony By Alison Prince Orchard Books pound;4.99
Nag Club By Anne Fine Walker Books pound;3.99
Chapter books are the most undervalued and under-promoted sector of children's publishing. Barrington Stoke has done a lot to boost their profile, especially in regard to material for older, struggling readers.
It's good to see another new independent company establishing itself with chapter books for the younger audience. The first two "m2f" titles in a new series conceived for reading aloud to children aged five to eight, who are ready for stories longer than picture-book length, were launched last year by Monday 2 Friday. There are now two more, and the list is likely to grow to 20 by the end of 2006. Three of the four available stories are by the publisher, Anthony Bullock.
The concept is straightforward: one story, five bedtimes (or story times): five chapters, each just under 1,000 words, corresponding to 15 minutes'
reading-aloud time. How does the concept translate into practice? Very well indeed, on the basis of books 3 and 4. Particularly likeable is the way each chapter begins with a short "What happened last time?" resume of the previous day's reading. Although targeted at parents, this makes the books very user-friendly for teachers and helpful to children who were absent the previous day.
Bullock's own story, The Feisty Fairy, concerns a brother and sister camping in the garden with a much younger cousin. The constant doubt about whether the children will be allowed to spend another night under canvas is extremely well conveyed, in a manner that demonstrates Bullock's firm grasp of young family dynamics. The other title, Richard Topping's Magical Uncle Urlich, simultaneously an anti-bullying fable and an amusing story about various adult ineptitudes, shows that a different author can make equally good use of the tight constraints of the series. At the end of each book, children are invited to visit the website, type in a password and discover a short epilogue.
Uncle Urlich may be a clumsy magician, but he hasn't lost the magical touch. Poor old Ken Undrum, a down-on-his-luck magician who comes to stay in Franzeska G Ewart's highly entertaining Under The Spell Of Bryony Bell, is always causing more havoc than magic. Everyone in Bryony's family, apart from her dad and herself, is a member of The Singing Bells, a musical group that considers itself destined for stardom. Good characterisation and pacey narration make this 10-chapter story the perfect next step on from shorter chapter books.
Julia Donaldson's playfully appealing Princess Mirror-Belle and the Magic Shoes contains five linked stories, and has fun with the fact that Ellen's parents think Mirror-Belle is just a pretend friend and not a princess who can travel in and out of mirrors.
Noah's Rocket is a far-fetched, highly readable reworking of the Noah and the flood story. The modern Mr Noah escapes the flood in a rocket, and it's not a dove sent out to see if the waters have subsided, but a spider.
The jacket suggests using the story in RE. I would expect lively debate on a number of levels, from "How would Stanley the spider have been able to project himself in and out of the earth's atmosphere when on his reconnoitring expeditions?" to "Why was it the female animals that were being offered as free gifts by the Largest Pet Shop In The World?" Like many a self-published title, this book is poorly edited, with far too many "verys" on the first page.
Tower-block Pony by Alison Prince - the only book in this batch with a photographic cover design - will appeal to older readers who still like their fiction short and preferably horsey.
Nag Club isn't about the horsey kind of nags, but the whiney can-I-have kind, and is just the sort of short early reader that many an older, confident child will pounce on as a short after-lunch cover-to-cover read.
Essentially a series of masterclasses in the art of getting what you want, it could also be used as a prompt for improvised drama sessions with key stages 1 and 2.