A taste for spicy words;Children's Books

24th April 1998 at 01:00
Elaine Williams finds titles that will inspire newly confident readers children's books

A six-year-old was enjoying her first flush of reading fluency. "I like those words," she said, trying to explain how she had "savoured" the text. "They taste nice." Confident six to nine-year-old readers, freed from the shackles of reading schemes, are keen to sink their teeth into something with a little bit of spice.

They don't have to understand every word, but they do have to find the words enticing. Henrietta Branford is a mistress of enticing words:

"samphire", "caddis fly" and "milfoil" surface in her latest book, Ruby Red: Tales from the Weedwater (Collins pound;9.99). The separate but interlocking tales - each one just right for a single sitting - are compelling and wonderfully strange.

Branford's language is measured, rhythmic, with the occasional rhyme. Her heroine, Ruby Red, is a practically-minded, warm-hearted figure, reminiscent of Titania, the queen of the fairies in Shakespeare's AMidsummer Night's Dream. Ruby Red loves the inventions and adventures that she shares with a tin horse called Floyd, chickens called Crinkle and Columbine and a gargoyle. There's also Firecracker Fly, a gnomish creature, and his parrot, Fernanda Fly. Illustrator John Lupton's Rackhamesque line drawings are well suited to the text and enhance the rich literary compost from which these stories grow.

Dick King-Smith is another writer who delights in introducing children to the outlandish, albeit in a plainer manner of speaking. In How Green Was My Mouse (Viking pound;10.99) we have a farmerinventor who not only breeds mice in all colours of the rainbow, but stuffs them - and, yes, he uses the word "taxidermist". King-Smith's usual wit and wizardry makes this a favourite with six to eight-year-olds.

Children love inventors, a fact which children's writers are keen to exploit. In Judy Allen's Auntie Billie's Greatest Invention (Walker pound;6.99), mad Auntie Billie is threatened with a sticky end when her time spray goes wrong. Like all great inventors, she works in a shed at the bottom of the garden; but her niece and nephew become anxious when she fails to emerge from it. Chris Mould's spiky, speedy line drawings aptly accentuate the battiness of the tale. The story is an entertaining way of introducing concepts of past, present and future.

Michael Morpurgo's Red Eyes at Night (Hodder pound;9.99) is a witty story about the rivalry between two cousins, and of Millie's backfiring attempt to get the better of the sick-makingly sweet and clever Geraldine. Morpurgo doesn't let the hilarity drop and the fast, expressive illustrations of TonyRoss extend the text and add to the sharpness of the humour.

Harry the Honkerzoid by Brendan Hook (Puffin pound;3.99) is a thoroughly noisy experience, complete with glorious marching verse and musical score. A space creature incorporates the school band's musical instruments to help Chris wreak revenge on the pompous music teacher in an uproarious series of events.

This is a lovely way to introduce young readers to the ways in which words can conjure sound, aided and abetted by boisterous line cartoons from Jeff Hook (the author's father).

Mike Smit, a former primary head, is the new Government literacy consultant for North Yorkshire. In his first novel, All Tied Up (Transworld pound;3.99), he shows his ability to hold a reader's attention. This is a fairly long but adventurous tale, set in Whitby, about a bungled bank robbery. The story is enlivened by a constant stream of dry, witty one-liners.

The attraction of Jonathan Allen's Keep-Fit Canaries and Flying Squad (Corgi pound;3.99 each) is the zaniness of the characters - cool, mean canaries wearing shades. As with Smit's novel, these titles would probably suit the top end of the target readership, but they lend themselves well to being read aloud to younger children.

Elaine Williams is an education writer and parent

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