The awkward age

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
SOPHIE AND THE ALBINO CAMEL. By Stephen Davies. Andersen Press pound;4.99

GRANDPA CHATTERJEE'S THIRD EYE. By Jamila Gavin. Egmont pound;4.99

THE AWFUL TALE OF AGATHA BILKE. By Sian Pattenden. Short Books pound;5.99

ARAMINTA SPOOK 1: MY HAUNTED HOUSE. By Angie Sage. Bloomsbury pound;5.99

SAMMY AND THE STARMAN. By Anne Cassidy. Barrington Stoke pound;4.99

MAD IRIS GOES MISSING. By Jeremy Strong. Barrington Stoke pound;4.99

WILDLY WEIRD. By Kaye Umansky. Barrington Stoke pound;4.99

Michael Thorn selects short fiction for Years 2 to 4

The hardest readership to cater for falls between younger picture books and full-length novels: Years 2-4. These children are becoming independent readers, many of them gobbling short chapter books at the rate of one or more a day, while others, somewhat reluctant, need enticing material actively promoted.

Short fiction for newly independent readers performs so many important functions - hooking children into the reading habit, widening vocabulary, broadening outlook, helping to understand relationships and emotions - it simply has to be well-executed. Most importantly, it must be neither dull nor overtly didactic. Beware books that boast of their links to the curriculum, or ones that make a self-conscious contribution to citizenship or PSHE. On one level Sophie and the Albino Camel, written by a missionary who lives among the Fulani herders in West Africa, is pure adventure story about a girl on a dangerous journey who encounters various risks from snakes to murderous bandits. Sophie learns much about life and customs in the desert and about how to care for a camel from her companion and guide Gidaado, a young storyteller. So, too, will readers grow in awareness of life in a faraway place. An exceptional short novel.

Jamila Gavin's first two Grandpa Chatterjee story collections have been immensely popular and widely used. Justifiably so. Many teachers will be as excited as Neetu and Sanjay at the news that Grandpa Chatterjee is back for another visit from England, in half a dozen new stories, each as charmingly told as previous ones. My favourite story in this new title is "Grandpa Leicester's Party", in which the guests join Grandpa Chatterjee under the long dining table to listen to his story about Garuda, the eagle who saved the world.

I couldn't help wondering whether the author had to resist editorial pressure to simplify her vocabulary. There are words here that no average eight-year-old will have at their command. Airline passengers sigh with patient "fortitude". Grandpa Chatterjee is described as "incorrigible" by Grandpa Leicester. Mum looks at him with a "baleful" eye. But such words are neither too frequent nor essential to understanding. And isn't one of the functions of young fiction to develop vocabulary?

"Children are not always known for their good behaviour," Sian Pattenden correctly observes at the start of The Awful Tale of Agatha Bilke. Indeed they are not, and as readers they will not always want the edifying fare of the first two books. Agatha is a horrible girl who sets fire to things and can only converse by yelling. She is sent for therapy with other strange children such as Paul, who is afraid of toast. It may all be a little too off-the-wall for the younger end of this audience, but this highly original, self-illustrated story will appeal to fans of Philip Ardagh and Lemony Snicket.

Much more widely accessible age-wise will be the likeable new series Araminta Spook from Angie Sage. Araminta enjoys living in a spooky old house and in the first book does everything in her power to thwart her aunt's attempts to sell it.

Barrington Stoke sets out to cater for struggling or dyslexic readers, but the excellence of this publisher's output makes the books just as popular with the general newly independent reader. Particularly memorable is the little alien in Sammy and the Starman. Nothing startlingly original here: an alien stranded on Earth is befriended and protected by a boy, but Anne Cassidy manages to invest Jax the visitor from space with more character than is usual.

Mad Iris Goes Missing, Jeremy Strong's second book about an ostrich who has been adopted as a primary school's mascot, has a footballing theme. Iris is kidnapped by another school on the eve of a crunch game, but the kidnappers get more than they bargain for.

Wildly Weird is the third book about the Wild family. Here they enter a potted plant contest, in which their entry devours the opposition. Umansky has served this audience well for a very long time, and she is as surefooted in her humour here as ever.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm Primary School, Hailsham, East Sussex

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