Getting started

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Michael Thorn chooses fiction for newly independent readers

Tilly and the Wild Goats By Joan Lingard, illustrated by Sarah Warburton Orchard pound;8.99

Akimbo and the Crocodile Man By Alexander McCall Smith, illustrated by Peter Bailey Egmont pound;3.99

Stinky Finger's House of Fun By Jon Blake, illustrated by David Roberts Hodder pound;4.99

Dogsbottom School Goes Totally Mental By Jon Blake, illustrated by Sarah Nayler Oxford University Press pound;4.99

Muckabout School By Ian Whybrow, illustrated by Steve May Collins Pounds 3.99

Saint Jenni: Super Hero By Meg Harper, illustrated by Jan McCafferty Lion Children's Books pound;4.99

Indie Kidd, How To Be Good(ish) By Karen McCombie, illustrated by Lydia Monks Scholastic pound;4.99

Which of these titles would have best pleased that seven-year-old me, on summer evenings when hayfever and other allergic reactions meant I was confined to a darkened room? It's easy to pick out the two titles that could travel most comfortably back in time through several decades and not surprise readers of the past. Tilly and the Wild Goats by Joan Lingard is a traditional adventure in which children take matters into their own hands and get into deep water, but through the timely intervention of adults all is resolved and rogues are arrested. A thoroughly satisfying yarn, and I'm sure the seven-year-old me would have thought so too.

I'm equally sure I would have enjoyed Alexander McCall Smith's Akimbo and the Crocodile Man. John has written a book about crocodiles - a fact that much impresses Akimbo - and is visiting Akimbo's home while he sets up a study of the crocodiles that live nearby. John already has a badly scarred arm from a previous crocodile attack. The climax comes when he is attacked again, and Akimbo is called upon to be the man's saviour. McCall Smith never breaks sweat as a narrator. Everything, including the crocodile attack and Akimbo's dash for help at the wheel of a truck, is described sedately and in a manner which even the most faltering reader will be able to follow.

Had a copy of Stinky Finger's House of Fun by Jon Blake found its way to my bedside all those years ago, it certainly would have been a surprise. At times reminiscent of Paul Jennings' and Morris Gleitzman's "Wicked" collaboration, the story is set in a madcap world where all the adults have been vacuumed up and everything is controlled by a mysterious force called Blue Soup, whose various interruptions throughout the narrative never failed to make me chuckle. There is lots more to chuckle over in this racy, inventive tale of three mates besieged by pigs baying for "people pie", not least Stinky Finger's revolting personal hygiene, or lack thereof.

The same author's Dogsbottom School series is also highly entertaining, if in a less off-the-wall manner. In Dogsbottom School Goes Totally Mental, headmistress Mrs Whiffy asks Bernie (Bernadette) to try to turn the goody-goody pupils into "bad apples" so that she can be eligible for a Problem Pupil grant and get the same resources as a neighbouring school.

Teachers reading this book to their classes will have to smother wry smiles.

Ian Whybrow's Muckabout School is built on a similar concept. All the school rules are the reverse of what you would expect, and an appropriately named new boy, Gary Goody, just can't help saying sorry and being otherwise good.

A character's over-strenuous efforts to be dramatically good are the focus of attention in Meg Harper's Saint Jenni titles. Since Jenni was given a Book of Saints, she has had the ambition of becoming a saint herself. One way or another, when making the grand gestures, she manages to put her foot in it, particularly with her best friend, Daisy. The books are rather overtly moral in asserting that Jenni herself and readers by implication have been and can be saintly in small, incidental ways.

Indie Kidd, How to be Good(ish) is the first title in a new series from Karen McCombie. Indie and her mum, who works at the Paws For Thought rescue centre, are both nuts about animals. This exuberantly illustrated animal-friendly story, which charts Indie's struggle to name her top three talents, is going to be a big hit with similarly minded readers.

It's particularly important that books for newly independent readers are rigorously proof-read, so it is disappointing to note that the Lingard title has two significant textual omissions, on page 82 and page 136.

One more annoyance is the habit of footnoting references to previous titles in a series, a practice used to a tiresome degree in the Saint Jenni books.

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

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