An artist behind the lens

20th August 2004 at 01:00
Under-10s will be seduced by tales of cameras, cats and knights, writes Fiona Lafferty

SMILE!. By Geraldine McCaughrean Illustrated by Ian McCaughrean. Oxford University Press pound;4.99 pbk.

COSMO AND THE MAGIC SNEEZE. By Gwyneth Rees. Illustrated by Samuel Hearn. Macmillan Children's Books. pound;9.99 hbk.

FREE LANCE AND THE FIELD OF BLOOD. By Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. Hodder Children's Books pound;6.99 hbk.

THE SILENT MAN: THE ABBEY MYSTERIES 2. By Cherith Baldry. Oxford University Press pound;4.99.

GHOSTLY TALES: THE PHANTOM OF BILLY BANTAM; The Ghoul of Bodger O'Toole. By Penny Dolan. Illustrated by Philip Hopman. Scholastic pound;3.99 each.

A TURN IN THE GRAVE. By Bowvayne. Usborne pound;4.99.

THE PONY-MAD PRINCESS SERIES: Princess Ellie to the Rescue; Princess Ellie's Secret; A Puzzle for Princess Ellie. By Diana Kimpton. Usborne pound;3.99 each.

FELICITY WISHES: Star Surprise; Designer Drama; Newspaper Nerves; Clutter. Clean-Out. By Emma Thomson. Hodder Children's Books pound;3.99 each.

ONCE UPON A WORLD: The Enchanted Gazelle; Guess My Name. By Saviour Pirotta. Illustrated by Alan Marks. Franklin Watts pound;8.99 each.

Younger readers between six and 10 are a particularly difficult audience to publish for, as the age at which children become fluent readers varies and one publisher's "beginner" is another's "newly fluent" reader. Inevitably, vocabulary and concepts are limited, which too often results in stilted language andor trite plots.

It is a joy, therefore, to come across a gem like Geraldine McCaughrean's Smile!, a mini-masterpiece of just 120 pages. Flash, a young photographer, finds himself falling through the sky as his plane hurtles out of control.

He is thrown clear in a remote desert, still clutching an instant camera.

Rescued by two young children and brought back to their village, he realises that these primitive people do not know what a camera is and have never seen a photograph. He has 10 shots left and, reassured that the camera's flash is not a gun, the villagers decide what he should take pictures of: a cow, a group of warriors, a feast.

This is a charming idea and its execution is warm, funny, and deeply moving. The typeface is a good size and well spaced for fluent readers aged seven to 10, and the illustrations wonderfully depict each photograph.

Another writer for this age group who stands out from the crowd is Gwyneth Rees. Cosmo and the Magic Sneeze features her familiar brand of magic, this time involving witches and their cats. Cosmo is the kitten offspring of Mephisto (a witch's cat) and India (an ordinary cat) and must take a test to find out whether he has inherited his father's magic powers. He is delighted to discover that he is 80 per cent pure witch's cat, but less sure about having to live with Mephisto's witch, Sybil, who is up to no good. The plot pits good witches against evil; Cosmo saves the day and the kitten population from a terrible fate. This is an entertaining and substantial read for competent readers of eight and above, with more girl than boy appeal.

For boys of the same age and level, Free Lance and the Field of Blood by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, the second in the Free Lance series, offers nail-biting excitement as the independent knight arrives to compete in a major castle tournament. Will he throw the final fight for a purse that is greater than the tournament's first prize and see the fair lady married to a brute, or will he win and risk his own demise? It's a tough choice for the plucky Free Lance. Beautiful production and superb integration of illustration and story make this a very attractive book.

Sticking with the medieval backdrop, Glastonbury is the setting for The Silent Man, the latest in the Abbey Mysteries series. The wealthy Lord Robert is prepared to go to dreadful lengths to procure a cure for his sickly son, but when his neighbour's daughter goes missing it is Bedwyn, a poor, shy mute, who is arrested. This is a satisfying, well-written mystery that cleverly weaves in Arthurian legend. It will appeal equally to boys and girls of nine and above.

Sticking with a historical theme are The Phantom of Billy Bantam and The Ghoul of Bodger O'Toole in the Ghostly Tales series. Penny Dolan's ghost stories have just the right amount of eeriness, but comfortingly reassuring endings, for younger readers of six to eight.

A Turn in the Grave is one of the first of Usborne's loudly heralded new fiction list. When Danny Cloke emails a request to his favourite author for help in creating a sticky end for his wicked stepmother, Cyril Spectre leads him on a wild and wacky comic adventure that will keep fluent readers over eight guessing. More "Misadventures of Danny Cloke" are promised.

If ever a book looked cynically market-led, it is Princess Ellie to the Rescue, the first in the Pony-Mad Princess series and another of Usborne's new fiction titles. The same could be said of the latest books featuring Felicity Wishes, a character associated mostly with the gift market. Each of the four new titles has three short stories about the dippy fairy and her fluttering friends. The stories have a syrupy moral for girly girls.

That said, both series are sure to appeal to beginner readers of between six and eight, and are suitable for reading aloud to slightly younger listeners.

Finally, the Once Upon a World series introduces folk and fairy tales that share a common theme, but come from a range of cultures. The East African story The Enchanted Gazelle is retold with Puss in Boots, both featuring talking animals. Guess My Name is a Celtic fairy tale that mirrors the theme of Rumpelstiltskin. Elegant design and beautiful illustrations make these striking books appealing for Years 2 and 3 classroom and library purchase.

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