Older boys can be notoriously reluctant readers. But it doesn't have to be like that. With World Book Day just a week away, Geraldine Brennan meets two book-loving brothers who have started a website to spread the word about their favourites; overleaf, Elaine Williams gets to grips with a fantasy game that is introducing boys to the magic of the printed word.
The latest pile of library books on the Cross family's kitchen table includes three Jennings stories, The Swiss Family Robinson, two thrillers by Robert Westall, a Redwall novel by Brian Jacques, Robert Swindells's Voyage to Valhalla, a Library of Horror Dracula tale, a Terry Deary Horrible History title, a cat story called The Nine Lives of Montezuma by Michael Morpurgo, James Herriot's Dog Stories, and Pig in the City, a novelisation of the film sequel to Babe. Tim Cross, 12, was disappointed in that one. "I could tell it wasn't by Dick King-Smith; it wasn't quite his style."
There are no big surprises in this boy-friendly stack except that it's now Wednesday teatime and Tim and his 13-year-old brother, Chris, expect to have read the lot by Saturday. Then they'll collect their weekly ration of 10 books each from Torpoint library, the nearest to their home in a remote patch of south-east Cornwall, unless of course they've read everything in Torpoint and have to move on to branches in Liskeard and Looe. The only problem is that the libraries swap their children's stock, so every month or so the boys discover that they've read everything in Cornwall. Then their mother, Jette, lets them buy something. "But I won't buy Tim a book with fewer than 150 pages, because it won't last him an evening," she says.
Tim reads between 12 and 18 books a week during termtime (mostly novels and true-life adventure tales) and up to 25 in the holidays. Occasionally he manages 30, the maximum capacity of his own library card plus those belonging to his mother and brother. Chris reads slightly fewer books than Tim - he's currently spending most of his free time building the website they've set up to spread the word about their favourite titles (www.cool-reads. co.uk).
They read in bed every night; they are pleased they don't suffer from travel sickness, because nearly every outing in their part of the world involves a car journey and often a ferry trip - a waste of valuable reading time. And they wish their 20-minute train journey to Devonport high school for boys was longer. "You can't get stuck into a book," Chris complains.
Tim has written two-thirds of the 146 (and counting) reviews on the website, which was launched last month after some intensive labour over the Christmas holidays. The boys had the idea last summer and their parents, who publish an academic journal from home, paid for their domain name and internet service provider subscription. "It was a marriage of their two enthusiasms," says their father, Malcolm. "Chris is a nerd in waiting. He was starting to work his way through sophisticated computer programs and needed a clear purpose. And Tim has a particularly insatiable appetite for books."
Apart from this start-up investment and Jette's involvement in checking spelling and grammar, cool-reads is an adult-free zone, showing the potential of the internet for allowing young readers to develop critical faculties and share word-of-mouth enthusiasm with their peers rather than making token appearances on review pages and award judging panels controlled by adults. After doing their homework, the brothers spend between one and two hours a night maintaining the site and adding reviews. The flurry of encouraging emails from as far afield as Australia and the United States since the site opened has spurred them on. "It's great to get the feedback," says Chris. "We want people to argue with us."
In the summer, they are more likely to be distracted by other interests - the beach (20 minutes from their house), their springer spaniel, Ben, skateboarding, watersports courses in the Plymouth Mounbatten Centre - but cool-reads is an ideal wet-weather enterprise.
The site carries an appeal for guest reviewers aged 10 to 15, but at the moment it's an engaging snapshot of two individuals' reading tastes. Pithy and shamelessly partisan reviews grade books according to a star system, from a single star for "only if you've got nothing better to do" up to five for "a cool read - get hold of this book". Criteria for the star ratings (always a fuzzy area in review journals that adopt this approach) are not spelled out, but they're clear from the titles that get five stars - the boys go for exciting stories and a cracking pace.
Meticulous classification means you can search, for example, for survival stories with only child characters - difficult to do in a library unless you meet the right librarian. The self-imposed slot for recommending other favourite works by a featured writer occasionally defeats them when the author is annoyingly prolific. "There's loads," is Tim's impatient answer to his own demand for other titles by his hero, Dick King-Smith. Roald Dahl, too, is airily dismissed with "too many to list"; readers are directed to amazon.co.uk for further research rather than to a library or a reference book. Perhaps by now the boys have found the new Dahl site, www.roalddahl.com. They list - and criticise - other book-related websites, but so far haven't found any hosted by young readers.
Chris is a fantasy buff, a fan of Robin Jarvis and Darren Shan, on the brink of breaking into Terry Pratchett and keen to read more Diana Wynne Jones. Tim favours any fiction with animals to the fore (he has a weakness for books with "dog" in the title), the adventure-narrative end of non-fiction, especially if it involves wildlife (Gerald Durrell, Meredith Hooper) and survival tales from the contemporary (Gary Paulsen) to classics such as Coral Island by R M Ballantyne and The Swiss Family Robinson by J D Wyss, which he's read several times, putting him well ahead on this week's library quota. He's seen one of this week's Jennings volumes before too. "Some books I have to read again and again," he says.
Both boys include anything by Anthony Horowitz or Malorie Blackman in this category, and the Edge Chronicles series by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. They like the Harry Potter books (five stars for The Philosopher's Stone, four for Goblet of Fire and Chamber of Secrets, three for Prisoner of Azkaban) but J K Rowling's output is a drop in their ocean of print. The site content is drawn from books they've read themselves over the past year, leaving out lots that they read before then (Philip Pullman's Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife are among titles waiting to be re-read before review).
Significant but girl-friendly authors such as Jacqueline Wilson and Anne Fine are conspicuous by their absence. "Yes, I've seen those books," Tim says, politely but distantly, when Wilson is mentioned. There's no sign of any poetry - "we haven't found any we really like" - but no football fiction either. Some gaps here for guest reviewers to fill.
Tim and Chris's appetite was whetted by Enid Blyton's Famous Five books at six and seven, but their parents credit their entrenched reading habit to the low profile of television in their lives (they watch a maximum of two hours a week and don't appear to miss it, although they see films - they both loved Chicken Run) and to the efforts of their primary school.
St Nicolas Church of England primary in Downderry is a 67-pupil school overlooking the sea with a mixed intake from local farming families and professionals who have moved to Cornwall. Headteacher Lindsey Fear is creating a culture of reading for pleasure through a reward system - Year 5 and 6 pupils get a gold certificate for reading 20 books, silver for 15 books and bronze for 10 books. Tim, who left St Nicolas last summer, put a strain on the gold certificate supply. Mrs Fear remembers him as one of a group of keen readers. "Some of the current Year 6, too, are very enthusiastic and their standard of writing is superb. They're very interested in the boys' website."
Reading volunteer Ros Toms spends two afternoons a week hearing pupils' book reports. "Most children easily get a bronze certificate and they can take as long as they need to read the 10 books, but they have to be able to talk to me about them," she says. "The books are the children's choice - we encourage them to use the public library and choose a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. They can't get a certificate for reading 10 books in the same series.
"The scheme includes everyone, because children who don't get a bronze certificate get some team points. With some children, their enthusiasm for the books shines out and that's such a joy."
"It buys into their competitiveness and gives a purpose to those who might look on reading as a chore," says Year 5 and 6 teacher Peter Dunstone, as he prints out cool-reads reviews to add to a book display.
Back at site HQ, there's a lot to do. Of around 150 books on the boys' shelves, only half are marked with the silver star sticker that indicates a review on the site. Chris is working on a filtering system to screen guest reviewers' contributions. "All rubbish will be deleted," he warns. Tim was given Kevin Crossley-Holland's Arthur: The Seeing Stone for his birthday, and a correspondent urges him to read Jamila Gavin's Coram Boy, which recently won the Whitbread Children's Book Award (he did within a few days, and gave it five stars). But first, "I've got to finish the Dog Stories," he says, his eyes aglow at the prospect.
TIM'S FIVE-STAR READS
Coral Island by R M Ballantyne; Firebringer by David Clement-Davies; My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrel; Menagerie Manor by Gerald Durrell; Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin; The Pole-Seekers by Meredith Hooper; South by South-East by Anthony Horowitz; Babe and Other Pig Tales by Dick King-Smith; Sunwing by Kenneth Oppel; Blue Light by Gary Paulsen; Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J K Rowling; The Kingdom By the Sea by Robert Westall; The Swiss Family Robinson by J D Wyss.
CHRIS'S FIVE-STAR READS
Dangerous Reality by Malorie Blackman; Horowitz Horror by Anthony Horowitz; Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz; The Alchemist's Cat by Robin Jarvis; The Fatal Strand by Robin Jarvis; The Protectors by Pete Johnson; Zarconi's Magic Flying Fish by Kirsty Murray; Aquila by Andrew Norriss; Cirque du Freak by Darren Shan; The Vampire's Assistant by Darren Shan; Walking the Maze by Margaret Shaw; Beyond the Deepwoods by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell; Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones.