Explosive reading;Children's books

24th September 1999 at 01:00
Michael Thorn looks at real - life and fictional tales of adventure.

If you know young readers who screw their noses up at pure fiction and fantasy, and only want to borrow big illustrated information books from the library, get them to try one of these "true story" titles. In True Disaster Stories (Scholastic pound;3.99), Terry Deary has dramatised seven major catastrophes, describing each of them from the point of view of key participants. The Scottish rail disaster of 1915, in which 227 people died at Quintinshill, is seen through the eyes of the signalman, as he is cross-examined in court.

For his account of fire at a Chicago theatre in 1903, Deary moves the spotlight from one of the actors to a brother and sister in the audience. The writing is swift to capture attention. Children who remain uncomfortable with narrative writing at this level are rewarded with fact-files at the end of each chapter.

Animal magic

Sue Welford's volumes of True Animal Stories - Devoted Dogs and Heroic Horses (Hodder pound;3.99 each) - have covers that might deter older children. This would be a pity. Welford is an experienced writer of fiction for older readers, and here she tells her moving and compelling real-life stories in a style that wouldn't be out of place in Readers' Digest.

As well as the more familiar tales of Greyfriars Bobby, Balto and Gelert, Devoted Dogs contains moving accounts of Rats, the stray who became the troop dog for the Royal Marines at Crossmaglen in Northern Ireland, and Micky, the Jack Russell who digs up and revives the body of his enemy, a chihuahua, believed dead and buried after a road accident. Heroic Horses has an account of Alexander's first ride on his horse Bucephalus. The same story is made more immediate in Horse Stories That Really Happened by Diana Kimpton (Scholastic pound;3.50), a book that shares with Deary's title the technique of leavening the narratives with "Did You KnowI?" sections.

* Edge of the seat

Noting the success of disaster movies, publishers are testing the children's books market. Can adventure fiction compete with the special effects industry? Puffin clearly hopes so with its SURVIVE! series (pound;3.99 each). In Earthquake Alert, Ben and Carly, on holiday in Italy, sneak out before dawn to climb the mountain. The earthquake strikes, they are separated from their families and the nightmare begins. Bridges break, buildings tumble and Carly's baby sister is buried in the rubble. The narrative flows effortlessly and provides easy escapism.

Eco Crash by Terrance Dicks (Piccadilly pound;5.99) is a much more feverish read. In this second Changing Universe title, Tom and Sarah return to Trafalgar Square and find a London turned chaotic as a result of global warming and genetic experimentation.

* War of words

From Anthony Masters' opener, "Deserter", set in the Falklands, to the closing story by Jonathan Kebbe about an orphaned refugee, real-life and real battles are there on every page in Gripping War Stories (Corgi pound;4.99), the new paperback edition of the latest anthology from Tony Bradman. In an excellently varied collection, the most moving stories often concern battles in which "the war" is merely a backdrop. Linda Newbery's First World War story "The Christmas Tree" is the sad account of a father and son's estrangement, and a daughter's defiant defence of her brother. The war in Ad le Geras's "Sardines" is the 1948 siege of Jerusalem, but the true battle is with the narrator's conscience, her sense of wrongdoing and the wise sympathy she receives from a man previously perceived as intimidating. All the stories appear in this highly-recommended anthology for the first time.

* Have-a-go heroes

For some decidedly unreal but entertainingly heroic action for younger readers, try Super-Saver Mouse (Corgi Pups pound;3.50) by Sandi Toksvig. Boris is a brave and resourceful underground mouse. Which is just as well for the station cleaner who falls on to the track. Keith Brumpton's highly graphic Superheroes Down the Plughole (Macdonald pound;8.50) is set in a home for geriatric British heroes, nostalgic for the golden age before they were displaced by fitter and stronger American versions. It is not exclusively for younger readers. Older children will appreciate Brumpton's unique brand of humour.

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