Change into complexity

20th June 1997 at 01:00
BUBBLEGUM GUY. By Joost Dros. Bloomsbury Pounds 3.99

QUEEN LIZZIE RULES OK!. By Margaret Ryan and Wendy Smith. AC Black Jumbo Jets Pounds 6.50

FOREVER AMBER BROWN. By Paula Danziger. Heinemann Pounds 8.99

THE SILKIE. By Sandra Ann Horn. Hodder Pounds 2.99

Elizabeth Hammill reads stories dealing with the theme of emotional growth

The literary journey for emergent readers aged between seven and nine is a trip of discovery - not only about kinds of narrative, form, voice, and language but also about the innumerable ways in which the same or similar stories can be told. Change - both emotional and circumstantial - is the subject common to the following tales, but look at how differently it is treated.

Joost Dros's Bubblegum Guy is unusual in its choice of form: a 19th-century moral tale in modern guise, about a boy with a unique disability. Born with a piece of bubblegum in his mouth, Guy blows enormous cartoon-size bubbles whenever he gets angry. These inevitably burst over whoever has vexed or provoked him and he becomes alienated from friends and family.

A chance encounter with a wise old man who teaches Guy breath control by taking him pearl diving provides the self-knowledge, confidence and restraint which enable him to change. This is an oddly intriguing fantasy which, despite its didactic intent, has a universality which may appeal to more reflective readers and serve as an early excursion into the realm of abstract ideas and speculation about behaviour.

Like Guy, Lizzie in Queen Lizzie Rules OK! is "in trouble" but of a very different sort: she is one of those accident-prone children whom "trouble just seemed to follow . . . around". The reader may be in similar territory to Bubblegum Guy but the graphic Jets format ensures a humorous, contemporary, multi-dimensional narrative approach.

When Miss Forbes, Lizzie's out-of-date teacher, plans an historical pageant with only great men in it to celebrate the school's centenary, Lizzie, outraged, plans an alternative version with great women in it too which will send up the official pageant. A recipe for disaster or some good fun? Both as it happens, but tied to the theme of the trouble-prone child who is, in fact, a genuine but unrecognised innovator, and to issues of gender, this is more than a romp.

The changes touched on here concern perception: not self-perception as in Guy's case but other perceptions of Lizzie as well as her own alternative perception of what can be done in an historical pageant - or, indeed, by girls.

Change is something that Paula Danziger's Amber Brown should be used to by now but, when her mother is proposed to by Max, both of them need to adjust to the notion of a stepfather and second husband respectively. In Paula Danziger's fifth book about Amber, we are finally in the modern world, still exploring "big issues" but lightly. Danziger gets Amber's nine-year-old voice just right: chatty, assured, perceptive, confused, jokey in turn. Unlike Bubblegum Boy where the focus is on action and textual reflection or Queen Lizzie Rules OK! where action and humour take centre stage, here we are given characters and relationships that live and grow on the page. When Amber tells her old "best" friend "I want everything to go back to normal", Justin replies: "This is normal. It's weird. Things change and then they become normal. I think that's what grown-ups already know and we have to learn." Perfect nine-year-old philosophy.

Sandra Ann Horn's The Silkie (Hodder Pounds 2.99) is also about love but uses a variant on the traditional SelkieSilkie tale to explore it. Told by a grandfather who recalls her grandmother's telling, the tale within the tale is about the power of love.

When Jeannie falls in love with a Silkie (half human, half seal), she entraps him initially by trickery and magic - placing his life at risk. As he nears death, Jeannie changes and, realising her folly, releases him back to the sea, thereby gaining his love forever. "'Is it a true story, Granny?' I asked. " The observant reader will have found clues to the answer in a text which provides a rich experience of language, poetry and insight.

For developing readers, change is a constant, although, like Amber, they may not yet have realised it. Exploring the "what-if?" possibilities of change through story in its many varieties extends young readers' understanding not only of the complexities of life but also of story's ability to render that complexity personally meaningful and of value.

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