Flying starts

7th February 2003 at 00:00
Jan Mark selects the best early readers

FAST FOX, SLOW DOG series. By Allan Ahlberg. Illustrated by Andre Amstutz. Viking pound;10.99 and pound;4.99

SAM'S BUSY NIGHT; SAM'S A SLEEPYHEAD; SAM IN A FIX; SAM FLIES HIGH. By Jaume Carera. Illustrated by J Vila Declos. Book House pound;3.50 each

FOLLOW THE SWALLOW. By Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Martin Ursell. Egmont Blue Banana pound;3.99

GOING UP. CUP RUN. By Martin Waddell and Russell Ayto. Walker Starters pound;3.99

I FEEL SICK! By Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom. Franklin Watts Wonderwise, pound;7.99

Fast Fox is not all that fast and Slow Dog is usually asleep, but he is all that stands between the dastardly fox and Mother Hen's three innocent, succulent chickens. In all the excellent Fast Fox, Slow Dog stories (there are now eight) the premise is the same. Mother Hen is distracted while Fast Fox is hatching a plan to seize and cook the chickens, but at the last moment Slow Dog wakes up in time to foil the fox, usually by accident, and rescue the chickens. All ends happily, until next time.

The series is an unqualified triumph of artlessness raised to high art, with limpid illustrations and a deceptively simple text, the repetition necessary to new readers put to the service of cranking up the tension. The high point of each book comes just when you think it is finished. "Now turn over. Did you like this story? Would you like to read another?" There follows a brief illustrated digest of the next cliff-hanger, ending always "Oh no! Those poor little chickens...who can save them?"

The appearance and handling qualities of books are as important to small children as they are to adults. The Sam series is another delectable set of stout shiny paperbacks, originally published in Spain - no translator's name is given - which follows the adventures of dreamy inattentive Sam at home and at school. Loud noises and exclamations are printed in bold type so that new readers can join in. Artwork is bright and appealing, and not quite English - the European tradition is different from ours - and the books have intriguing shapes nibbled out of the corners.

Follow the Swallow in the Blue Banana series by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Martin Ursell, packs an amazing amount into its 48 pages.

Chack the blackbird and Apollo the Swallow meet during their first year out of the egg, while learning to fly. Chack cannot believe that Apollo will soon be leaving for Africa, Apollo doubts that his brown friend will ever be black or that the blossom-laden tree where they meet will one day bear berries. On the day the berries ripen Chack flies to tell Apollo only to find that he has just migrated. Undaunted, he sends a message after him, via various animals who all mishear it, so that the story develops into a strip-cartoon version of Chinese Whispers. By the time the message catches up with Apollo he is ready to come home again, where he finds that Chack has indeed become a blackbird. The tree, though, is covered with white blossom again. In common with other entertaining Blue Banana books from Egmont, the text is reinforced with speech bubbles, the illustrations busily attractive.

For the newly confident and, dare one say it, the newly reluctant reader, Walker breaks new ground with the Starters series. Printed throughout in two or three tones, including the text, these books are good to handle and look at, inside and out. The illustrative techniques employ pen and ink, wash, crayon bits of collage; the text is broken up with letters, posters, captions, maps, diaries, speech bubbles, but continuity is never sacrificed. In Going Up Cup Run, Martin Waddell and Russell Ayto have chronicled the triumphs of the Belton Goalbusters in their progress through the Holt Boys League Third Division as videoed by various parents. The video frames all have the time in the corner, just like the real thing.

Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom's Wonderwise series of information books from Franklin Watts uses the easy-going narrative voice of fiction to keep the pages turning, complemented by factual passages in italics, for adult interpretation, perhaps. At the end comes suggestions for related activities and a glossary.

I Feel Sick! is a cheery canter through infectious ailments, how they incubate, are passed on and cured, and ends with everyone feeling better except the doctor who, having treated the patients, is now coming down with something nasty. You feel that Mick and Brita really enjoy themselves doing these books. That, too, is infectious.

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