Fear and favour

21st May 2004 at 01:00
BILLY AND THE SEAGULLS. By Paul May. Illustrated by Kate Sheppard

PATRICK THE PARTY-HATER. By Emily Smith. Illustrated by Georgie Birkett. Young Corgi, pound;3.99 each

THE QUIGLEYS: NOT FOR SALE. By Simon Mason. David Fickling Books, pound;10.99

THE LEGEND OF SPUD MURPHY. By Eoin Colfer. Puffin, pound;7.99

SIDEWAYS STORIES FROM WAYSIDE SCHOOL. By Louis Sachar. Bloomsbury Children's Books, pound;4.99

TALES OF TERROR: Final Cut. By Tony Bradman and Martin Chatterton. Egmont, pound;3.99

Michael Thorn chooses longer chapter books with appeal for children building reading stamina

Paul May's Billy and the Seagulls shows what can be achieved in just over 100 pages. Billy is neurotically scared by all manner of things. His older brother Eddie keeps a list of them. It grows daily and nothing is ever crossed off. Seagulls do not appear on the list until Billy, Eddie, their mum and stepdad move to live by the sea. Billy finds the headmistress scary enough, with her red nails and her big ears ("all the better to hear you with"). But it is the gulls swooping down on the playground to pick up crumbs that cause him to lose it, so much so that the headmistress bans playtime snacks, a decision that doesn't do much for the two new boys' popularity.

Their stepdad's job at the local landfill site proves useful in more ways than one. Eddie's class is doing a project on recycling but, more significantly, the landfill site uses a peregrine falcon to keep the gulls at bay, and Billy is not at all intimidated by the falcon.

The ways in which Eddie is shown to be exasperated by and supportive of his younger brother's timidity, and the increasing respect he has for his stepdad, are artfully handled by Paul May.

Just when you think the ending is a little too neat and sewn-up, one of Billy's phobias makes a curtain call appearance. A great feel-good short novel ably supported by Kate Sheppard's illustrations.

In another Young Corgi, Emily Smith's Patrick the Party-Hater, Georgie Birkett's illustrations unfortunately give the impression of protagonists several years younger than those in Smith's clever and wryly observant story. Nevertheless, some of the dialogue comes across as precociously brash, even for the characters' middle-class milieu. "Hey, tough call," says Tamsin, when she hears that Patrick's mother will make him attend a party when he doesn't want to go. The best moments in the story occur when Patrick meets another party-hater: the party-giver's father retreats to the shed for the duration.

More middle-class milieu in the latest batch of stories about the Quigleys.

In the first two collections there was a freshness about the way Simon Mason depicted his two-parent, two-child family inhabiting an idyllic suburbia in which minor domestic crises are the only waves rocking the boat of existence for Will and Lucy.

Stories obstinately confined within the bounds of everyday family life risk becoming boring, and that risk is not entirely evaded in Quigleys Not For Sale, the least satisfactory of Mason's books to date. The opening story, in which the family stay at a luxury hotel, would have been better preceded by the second, "Clever Lucy", because this story explains the family's better-than-expected financial predicament, following Dad's concerns about his income tax.

In a collection that's so quintessentially British it comes as a shock to find, in "Out with Mum", the children presenting their Mother's Day presents on a Saturday. Certain that this would form some kind of "twist", as the children discover they are a day early, I finished the story utterly bemused when the error remained unexplained.

No such reservations about Eoin Colfer's The Legend Of Spud Murphy, starring a fabulously diabolical and Dahlesque librarian, whose Gestapo-like approach to librarianship proves to have a satisfactory outcome for the two brothers consigned to spend three holiday afternoons each week in her charge. This is a little classic - a wickedly clever and un-PC fable about the adventure of reading.

Louis Sachar first published Sideways Stories From Wayside School more than 25 years ago. Finally available in the UK in the wake of the popularity of his novel Holes, the stories form a sardonic sequence about the members of Class Thirty which, because the school has been built sideways, is on the 30th floor. Each story hinges on an exchange of witty, Lewis Carroll-like dialogue and will appeal particularly to verbally-alert children.

It's not only younger pupils who benefit from short fiction. Many children in Years 5 and 6 still find a 200-page paperback daunting, let alone a Harry Potter whopper. Tales of Terror, a new series from Tony Bradman and Martin Chatterton, will appeal to such children. Try them on Final Cut, in which a character is given the confidence to face up to bullies after being cast as a "victim" in a horror film.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm Primary School, Hailsham, East Sussex

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