On the ball

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Michael Thorn looks at the wealth of fiction available for older readers.

It is surprising how oftenfluent readers in upper primary classes return from the library with a Young Puffin book or similar, despite the rich choice of material that bridges the gap between illustrated chapter books and full-length fiction. Some readers make the leap on the wave of a craze such as Goosebumps or Harry Potter, but many make unsuccessful choices and soon revert to books which are no longer a challenge to them.

There have never been so many options open to the Year 5 and 6 age group, so it should always be possible to match reader to book. The football tale genre has produced a few duds, but the trend is certainly upwards. Terence Blacker's The Transfer (Macmillan pound;3.99), Neil Arksey's MacB (Puffin pound;3.99) and Paul May's Troublemakers (Yearling pound;3.99) - all excellent recent football novels vying for championship status - have further competition in Steve May's Dazzer Plays On (Mammoth pound;4.99).

The book is a triumph of first-person narrative. Chris, captain of the school football team, lives next door to Danny, a tubby and unco-ordinated wretch who is always being picked on. Chris spends time with Danny in a neighbourly way but he keeps quiet about this in front of his true friends. Until, against his better judgment, he gets fired up to help Danny achieve a "goal" set him by an idealistic form tutor. There are two wonderfully comic but sympathetic adult characters: Miss Gilbey, whose motto is "If you want to, you can do", and the passionate, partisan football coach, Mr Stockwell.

Chris's mission is to help Danny score a proper goal in a real game, with posts and a net. Chris's feelings shift between a sense of duty, frustration, protectiveness, annoyance and comradeship. The book's climax is thrilling and heartwarming. The humour throughout is spot-on. The fact that it is set in a secondary school and aimed at 12 to 13-year-olds as well as 10 to 11-year-olds will increase its appeal among its younger readers.

Helen Dunmore's Zillah and Me (Scholastic Press pound;4.99) also contains adult characters depicted with a keen but not too barbed sense of humour. There is Mr Trevelyan, the headteacher, a mite overenthusiastic bout computers, who uses the Internet during school time to order organic chickens to replace those eaten by a fox. And there is his wife, the frightfully well-spoken earth mother who invites older girls into her parlour.

But these are minor characters. The focus of this excellent, novel is the relationship between Kate and Zillah, a bad-tempered girl, not disposed to cosy friendship. Kate and her mother have arrived in a tiny village in Cornwall following the recent death of Kate's father. Zillah appears on the scene and intimates that her old aunt has been murdered. Readers will easily tune in to Kate, who says early on: "Sometimes I really wish adults could have the experience of being introduced in the same way as children."

Truth or Dare by Celia Rees (Macmillan pound;9.99) is an unsettling, unputdownable mystery. Josh and his mother, a writer, spend the summer looking after his grandmother. From comics and magazines stored in his attic room, from chapters written by his mother on her computer, and other thrilling investigations, Josh pieces together his uncle Patrick's secret past.

The novel skilfully evokes late 1950s childhood - both the idyllic freedom enjoyed by the well-adjusted child, and the damage suffered by others as a consequence of ignorance about autistic spectrum disorders.

For readers who prefer something more light-hearted, books don't come more madcap than Killer Mushrooms ate my Gran (left) by Susan Gates (Puffin pound;3.99) or Totally Unsuitable for Childrenby Simon Cheshire (Walker pound;9.99). Susan Gates's fungoid frightener is the perfect book to recommend to a child who is reluctant to move away from comics and graphic novels, so will be able to call on a well-developed visual imagination as the mushroom spores invade and take possession firstly of Maggot's grandmother's lover, then of Gran herself.

Contrary to its title, Simon Cheshire's bizarre action-packed spoof about a touring theatre from outer space is totally unsuitable for adults. As with theme-park rides, the narrative pace of some books is so fast and furious as to render them no-go areas for those the wrong side of puberty.

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

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