Cats catch criminals too

15th September 2000 at 01:00
The books on offer to children when they have reached the stage of reading independently ought to be the finest that writers, illustrators and publishers can conspire to produce. Otherwise, why should the young reader continue reading? There are few real stinkers among the latest batch of "first readers", but quite a number of shrug-the-shoulder, so-so efforts with a been-there-done-that feel about them. For an adult reviewer to be disappointed by an insipid title is one thing, but the effect on an eager six-year-old could be disastrous.

The best books fizz with energy and ingenuity, both writer and illustrator showing an evident delight in engaging the interest of young readers. One such is Police Cat Fuzz by Karen Wallace, illustrated by Trevor Dunton (First Young Puffin, pound;3.99), easily the best book reviewed here. Fuzz wants to join the police force to prove that cats are as smart as dogs when it comes to catching criminals. The villains, Wrestler and Rat, are masters of disguise, but are always recognisable in Dunton's lively artwork. Wallace is not being originally witty when she writes: "It is a well-known fact that the best policemen have huge feet so that they can stamp out trouble, fast", but she is crediting young minds with an ability to appreciate the joke.

The Witch's Dog and the Crystal Ball by Frank Rodgers (Colour Young Puffin, pound;3.99) makes a good companion title by virtue of the fact that in this story the dog, Wilf, has to put up with taunts from Sly Cat and Tricky Toad who claim that dogs just weren't made to be witches' companions. The interaction of text and pictures is crucial at this stage of reading development - to engage interest and to provide visual clues for reading. The picture of a tiny broomstick flying up a wizard's nose performs both duties.

Jeremy Strong and Nick Sharratt ought to be a dream team, but their new First Young Puffin, The Monster Muggs (pound;3.99), is a disappointment. The story begins with bottom-humour and ends with scary face-pulling, but never amounts to much else.

Sharratt's artwork is not only below standard but strangely coloured, as if he was using up some cheap paints.

The Adventures of Captain Pugwash is a television tie-in series. Sue Mongredien (who has written some Sleepover Club titles) has adapted the television stories based on John Rya's original Pugwash books. The result is a set of brief adversarial tales, narrated with economy and humour. The Double-Dealing Duchess (Red Fox, pound;2.99), in which Cut-Throat Jake's mum dresses herself up as an aristocrat, is especially enjoyable. The jovial and continually gullible Pugwash with his "shivering sharks" and "cackling catfish" is an appealing character. A companion title, Best Pirate Jokes, compiled by Ian Rylett, although full of groaners will attract the nibbling reader. Jokes, after all, can introduce children to puns and homophones. "When is a boat the cheapest? When it's a sail boat." Another reworked series has been concocted from Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle books, "retold" by Charlie Sheppard (Red Fox, pound;2.99). The result is a saccharine presentation of the original, but one that will appeal to children's instinctive love of animals.

Fans of Joyce Dunbar's Mouse and Mole will want to get hold of a new triplet of delightfully simple stories, Hip-Dip-Dip With Mouse and Mole (Corgi Pups, pound;3.50). Mouse helps Mole make up his mind; Mole is frightened by some billowing white sheets; and in the last story Mole is a rather selfish nurse to Mouse, despite his best intentions.

Several titles in the Arthur series by Marc Brown (Red Fox, pound;2.99) introduce the idea of characters day-dreaming, which is rendered in italics. Arthur and the Lost Diary and Arthur Rocks With Binky are more sophisticated than their appearance implies - ideal for pupils who are ready to read on their own at seven or eight, rather than six.

Those who like lots of speech bubbles and prominent illustration will enjoy Bob Wilson's series for Macmillan, Pump Street Primary. Number 1, Dangerous Daisy, is a good starting-point, although there is no need to read the six simultaneously published books (pound;3.50 each) in sequence, as each individual title features a different central character.

Daisy Poborski is the kind of girl who holds scissors up to her eyes to see if they're sharp. When it comes to preparing a birthday surprise for the headteacher, Miss Twigg resorts to her tried-and-tested damage-limitation ploys, but to no avail. Lots to amuse adults, particularly the spoof Qamp;A extracts from "A Guide For Trainee Teachers".

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

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