26th May 2000 at 01:00
THE WOODLAND MYSTERIES. By Irene Schultz. Kingscourt pound;3.75 each or pound;29.95 for pack of 10.

This series of 10 novel-length adventures is aimed at less able readers at key stages two and three. It features an American single-parent foster family with four children (including an African American and a teenage wheelchair user) and Mop the dog. If this sounds like a PC mix, it is, but the political correctness is seldom obtrusive and there is a lively, irreverent feel to the interaction between the children.

Some aspects irk. Why do British road signs show distances in kilometres? And how do Dave and his wheelchair get over streams and stone walls? The cover illustrations are curiously old-fashioned, especially for the target audience.

The titles - including Hunt for Pirate Gold, The Clue in the Castle and The Circus Mystery - indicate familiar adventure story fare, though this is not the Famous Five or the Bradys, and issues such as race, bullying and adoption are dealt with in an unsnctimonious, matter-of-fact way.

The plotting is uncomplicated (part of the fun is the predictability)and the pace is lively. Where longer polysyllabic words are used, the characters help the reader out. ("So what is an AR-key-oll-uh-jist?") The heavy emphasis on dialogue helps the stories move quickly and there is some enjoyable banter between the children.

The liveliest character is 10-year-old Sammy, who enjoys winding up his family and filling up his belly (there is a lot of food in these books). The adults, though, are rather stilted and one-dimensional, despite the tease of a romance between the foster mum and the police chief. Villains speak in rough voices, have dark eyes and names like Fred Sly.

The black and white illustrations help break up the large-ish print, while the short, punchy, cliffhanger chapters help give it the aimed-for high interest, page-turning quality.

Kevin Harcombe Kevin Harcombe is head of Redlands primary school, Fareham, Hampshire

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