Beauty of the beast

11th July 1997 at 01:00
POTBELLY THE HAUNTED HOUSE. POTBELLY'S LOST HIS BIKE. POTBELLY NEEDS A JOB. POTBELLY IN LOVE. By Rose Impey. Illustrated by Keith Brunton

Animal Heroes: DOG IN DANGER. DOLPHIN SOS. MONKEY IN SPACE. CAT IN A CORNER. By Hiawyn Oram. Illustrated by Judith Lawton

Seriously Silly Stories: DAFT JACK AND THE BEAN STACK. (Pounds 3.99 pbk). THE RATHER SMALL TURNIP. By Laurence Anholt. Illustrated by Arthur Robins. Frank N Stein stories: MONSTER IN TROUBLE. MONSTER IN LOVE. By Ann Jungman. Illustrated by Jan Smith

QUANTUM SQUEAK. By Mary Hoffman. All Orchard Pounds 6.99 each

THE SEAL SINGER. By Carolyn Dinan. NO MORE TIME FOR PAISLEY. By Helen Dyrbye. Illustrated by Paula Martyr. ERIC'S ELEPHANT GOES CAMPING. By John Gatehouse. Illustrated by Sue Cony

PINK FOR POLAR BEAR. By Valerie Solis. Hamish Hamilton Cartwheels. Pounds 6.99 each

NARK THe MYSTERIOUS CROCODILE. By Brough Girling. Illustrated by Chris Smedley Hodder Pounds 3.99 (pbk)

Dennis Hamley gets his teeth into some creature comforts for new readers

A large crop of books for emergent and newly-confident readers here, ranging from near-picture books to short novels. Hamish Hamilton's Cartwheels seldom disappoint. Here are stories of distinction, with illustrations that contribute to the whole.

Carolyn Dinan's The Seal Singer has Jack and the mermaid rescuing seal pups from an oil slick. Clear, balanced prose and her own evocative pictures make a lovely book. Helen Dyrbye's No More Time for Paisley repeats a common childhood theme as Paisley the cat comes to terms with a new baby. John Gatehouse's Eric's Elephant Goes Camping has knockabout humour and inimitable characters. Pink for Polar Bear by Valerie Solis has the feel of folk tale and poetic rhythms in its prose.

Orchard is a big player for these age groups. Here are four series offering the security of familiar characters or themes in the knowledge that expectations will not be let down.

Rose Impey and Keith Brunton introduce the engagingly accident-prone pig Potbelly, in stories told in rap-like verse and broad comic-style illustrations.

In Potbelly and the Haunted House, Potbelly and his gang (almost modern, racy versions of Rupert Bear's friends) are tricked by their enemy, Fang, and fall foul of Sergeant Snout but end up happily with a feast and two pages of haunted house jokes.

So the stories continue, through Potbelly's Lost His Bike, with a nicely worked link between Potbelly Needs a Job and Potbelly in Love providing humour. Accomplished verse from a writer with an exact ear and - again - the priceless gift of inimitability of character.

Hiawyn Oram's Animal Heroes offer different forms of expectation. Each story is based on true events with satisfying plots that show animals being put under stress but winning through. In Dog in Danger, Sydney is abandoned but his adventures lead him to security. Dolphin SOS sees Nemo and Lemo dumped in a hotel pool by their owner - an international rescue operation saves them. Monkey in Space is about Chi, the first monkey to survive space travel. The story left a slightly sour taste, with too little questioning of a difficult issue, although Chi seemed remarkably happy to comply.

In Cat in a Corner, Robertson is having a great time with his owner's mother - catching birds for her is his way of showing appreciation. But horror - his offering is rejected and so is he. He learns his lesson and goes to sleep under the bird table. As a cat owner, I remain doubtful.

But these too are excellent productions, with well-worked prose set in short lines with the clarity of free verse, which enables the new reader to handle relatively sophisticated language and plot.

Laurence Anholt's Seriously Silly Stories, with Arthur Robins's riotous pictures are exactly that. Daft Jack and the Bean Stack is a madly logical reworking of the old story. The Rather Small Turnip moves with the same satisfyingly Pythonesque inevitability - a zany version of the old woman who swallowed a fly.

For newly-confident readers, come four small novels. Ann Jungman's Frank N Stein Stories follow Frank Norman Stein's own monster, cobbled together out of junk, but possessing a fine environmental bent - he eats rubbish so is in great demand. In Monster in Trouble he almost puts the dustmen out of work. In Monster in Love Frank builds him a mate (Monster is luckier than Potbelly).

These are pleasant stories with well-judged construction - but I have a difficulty with Monster and the laws of physics. Where does the rubbish go after he's eaten it? Children will ask: "How does Monster . . ?" Be ready. I can't help you.

Mary Hoffman's Quantum Squeak follows the mouse Cedric, familiar of Mungo the magician, who takes Alex and Carrie on a helter-skelter time-travel journey from prehistory to the future via ancient Egypt, the Vikings, native Americans, the Raj and the Blitz. They seek a 1940s cat, Beauty, for Carrie - her asthma means she cannot cuddle a present-day cat. There are pitfalls on the way but the quest ends more satisfyingly than the children expected.

Finally, Brough Girling's Nark, the Mysterious Crocodile is another saga about the hapless People of the Mud. This can be enjoyed in the same way as Carry On films. The humour - half subtle, half slapstick - will be loved by many children.

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