Escape from the shelf life

24th March 2000 at 00:00
The nature of narrative - its ability to transport and transform us, to terrify, to make us joyous or tearful, to show us who we are - is a theme that Anne Fine exploits to good effect in her latest novel, Bad Dreams (Doubleday pound;10.99).

Fine employs her originality and innovation to full effect in this quirky but gripping tale for confident primary readers in which stories escape from between the covers. Mel is a bookworm who unashamedly shuns her classmates in favour of splendid isolation in the library. She is none too pleased when her teacher asks her to look after Imogen, a new pupil.

However, as a girl obsessed with the conjuring power of words, Mel becomes fascinated with Imogen's "curse". If Imogen touches a book, she knows instantly how the story will unravel. She can touch a photograph and see what's in store for the people in the frame.

Not only that but the story, often a distressing or frightening one, becomes her reality. Mel knows a thing or two about stories - that they can ground you, make you feel rounded and complete. To lose yourself in stories is good, to be controlled or taken over by them is bad. That's why Imogen has to be saved.

Yet again Fine has transformed some complex, challenging ideas into a highly entertaining read for children.

Allan Ahlberg also takes up the theme of stories with lives of their own, to great comic effect, in his latest picture book with Paul Howard, The Bravest Ever Bear (Walker Books pound;10.99). Deconstructing traditional tale has become a minor industry; in the hands of a skilled writer like Ahlberg a traditional story can take on a new, and often hilarious, lease of life.

In The Bravest Ever Bear, Baby Bear can't quite control the story he wants to tell. When he does get the better of it and marries the princess, she objects and sets off to write her own ending. That provokes Troll, Dragon and Wolf to pen their own version of events. But how does the Sausage or the Penguin view matters? As the bear says: "This is ridiculous." Paul Howard's illustrations include a great deal of clever detail, with something new to discover on each reading. The book is uproariously funny and wholly absorbing for younger primary children.

Alison Prince's latest novel Dear Del (Hodder Children's Books pound;3.99) presents a fine, sensitive account of what happens when two girls with radically different backgrounds are thrown together for a week on a remote Scottish island.

Fran is a studious but lonely girl who finds making friends difficult. Della lives in inner-city Glasgow with her alcoholic father and is streetwise beyond her years. She comes to stay with Fran and her family in the Western Isles as part of a children's holiday scheme and, after a troubled first few days, the two girls realise they have much to learn from each other.

Prince's writing is clear and evocative. This story reveals how first impressions can fall far short of the full picture and gives much food for thought for older, fluent readers.


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