Don't read, can't read, won't read?

10th January 2003 at 00:00
How can you convert pupils who are resistant to books? Eileen Armstrong suggests some secret literary weapons

Reading reluctance can be due to real reading difficulties but more often it is simply, as bestselling Australian author Paul Jennings put it, a case of "the reader not having found (or been shown!) the right book". Book promotion is a real responsibility and can make - or break - readers for life. Fortunately Jennings's own irresistible short stories fit the bill. Laugh-out-loud funny tales, with clever twists and just the right amount of rude schoolboy humour, leaving lots to think about. Read one aloud on a Friday afternoon and watch the rest of the series disappear from the classroom library for the weekend. Try Unmentionable!, Unseen!, Unreal! and other collections in Puffin, pound;4.99 each.

The equally inventive Philip Ridley can always be relied on to spin an original story with larger-than-life characters, cliffhanger chapter endings, wacky wordplay and creative page layouts. His latest, Mighty Fizz Chilla (Puffin pound;4.99), sees Milo the monster schoolboy packed off to live with an aunt by the sea, where a cave-dwelling neighbour changes the boy's life with his spellbinding stories. Ridley is the ultimate child-friendly author; his intensely visual urban fairy tales are incomprehensible to most adults and much undersold.

Readily recognisable cult author Terry Pratchett won the Carnegie Medal last year for The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (Corgi pound;5.99). In this clever spin on The Pied Piper, smart cat Maurice leads a pack of talking rats to part townsfolk from their cash. Important moral, social and religious issues run alongside Pratchett's in-jokes, in an ideal introduction to the Discworld series.

Another creature with personality is Daniel Pennac's Dog (Walker pound;3.99). This tale of an orphaned mutt who sets out to find an owner, both entertains and poses questions about why humans act the way they do. Canines also loom large in Sharon Creech's quirky, offbeat hit Love That Dog (Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;3.99). The diary of Jack, a reluctant writer who gradually realises that he's a poet, is both inspired and inspiring - and so short it's impossible to get bored. There's an important message for teachers as well as pupils in this book, and the same is true for Joey Pigza Swallows the Key by Jack Gantos (Corgi pound;4.99). Joey is an annoying but adorable 11-year-old with ADHD, who makes the reader feel that wired head-buzzing-with-bees feeling. The pages will turn at Joey's own breakneck speed in this important and potentially life-changing story, in which reluctant readers may recognise themselves, and a solution. There's a sequel, Joey Pigza Loses Control.

Character empathy is important at this age, especially for girls - who are sure to warm to Hilary McKay's latest heroine in Saffy's Angel (Hodder Children's Books pound;5.99). McKay is good at depicting oddball families and in this one the children are named after colours on a paint chart. When she discovers that she's adopted, Saffy sets off to Siena to find a stone angel - and herself - with the help of a feisty, wheelchair-using friend. The eyecatching Barbie-pink cover makes McKay's book eminently pickupable and once picked up it's impossible to put down.

Besides an attention-grabbing cover, Green Fingers by Paul May (Corgi pound;4.99) offers a funny, feelgood tale and an easy storytelling style. Kate's problems, associated with a new home, a dysfunctional family and reading difficulties (reinforced by an overburdened school system; incidentally, the book should strike a chord with teachers and be recommended HMI reading), are resolved through the empowering effects of ICT and gardening.

Utterly Me Clarice Bean, the first novel about Lauren Child's heroine (Orchard pound;8.99), is a must-read. Clarice's honest perspectives on school, friends and family when partnered by the class clown for a book project sends her bouncing off the pages, even more endearingly than in the picture books which provide an ideal introduction to her world. The book-within-a-book narrative, the meandering, enlarged-for-emphasis text and the trademark engaging illustrations all draw readers in.

Reading lets us try on other lives, and Adeline Yen Mah's Chinese Cinderella (Puffin pound;4.99) demonstrates real-life girl power. That the life is the author's own makes the account of growing up as an unwanted orphaned daughter in 1940s China even more appalling and striking. This children's edition of Falling Leaves is a page-turner, which will appeal to young people's sense of justice.

The horror genre crosses the gender divide and Neil Gaiman's Coraline (Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;9.99) sees a sparky 21st-century Alice finding a dark Wonderland through a bricked-up doorway. Beyond, there's a parallel home, parallel parents with buttons for eyes and talking animals. With relentless pace and nail-biting tension, this gripping, cover-to-cover adventure can't fail. It is frightening in the same way as a good horror film, but restores readers to a safe normality with a clear but never overt moral message: "be wise, be brave, be tricky". "I had to remind myself to keep breathing," says one 12-year-old boy in my reading group.

Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak series, now in its seventh volume, is becoming cool and collectable (Collins Children's Books, pound;3.99 each). The fast-paced adventures of an average bored schoolboy start when he steals a tarantula from a freak show, meets an array of half-human creatures and is forced to choose between life as a vampire and the death of his best friend. Overflowing with guts, gore and unguessable plot twists, this series is a stylishly written alternative to the now jaded Point Horror. More high-octane boy-friendly adventures from Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider, the reluctant MI6 schoolboy superspy forced to save the world from spectacularly evil baddies. In an obvious homage to James Bond (exotic locations, impossible gadgets and witty one-liners) Horowitz propels readers into the heart of the action. Fans can grow with Alex, who gets a girlfriend in the third book, Skeleton Key (Walker pound;3.99). See also Stormbreaker and Point Blanc.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer (Puffin pound;4.99, plus its sequel The Arctic Incident Viking pound;12.99) is an addictive, edge-of-the-seat glimpse at an alternative universe in which a wonderful mud-munching dwarf helps the young criminal mastermind Artemis fight back against the enemy organisation LEPrecon. It's ideal for hooking reluctant readers: not only is it hilarious and highly visual, but there's a linked computer game on www.artemisfowl.com. The publishers of Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events (now in its seventh book, The Vile Village, Egmont pound;5.99) uses similar tactics, with www.unfortunateevents.com accompanying the well-produced books about the luckless Baudelaire orphans. And www.go2outer.net supports The Outernet, a shiny new cyberspace adventure series from Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore (Scholastic Hippo pound;4.99 each). The two Steves know what reluctant readers need and deliver it in gigabytes.

Comic books often succeed where all other books have failed and Matt Groenig's Simpsons titles are surefire winners. His Big Book of Bart (Titan pound;8.99) sees the irrepressible boy hero falling in love, encountering aliens and more. Plenty in words and pictures to pore over with friends - and with the added attraction of grown-up disapproval.

The key to overcoming reluctance lies in knowing your books as well as you know your readers. It is also important to rave passionately and constantly about them, pick just the right extract for a read-aloud session which will leave them begging to borrow and create opportunities for reader-to-reader recommendation of those reads with real story appeal. Read on!

Eileen Armstrong is head of learning resources at Cramlington Community High School, Northumberland

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