Elizabeth Hammill looks at series fiction for beginner readers
Tale of the Terrible Teeth By Hazel Townson Heinemann Pounds 4.99. Fort Biscuit By Lesley Howarth Walker Pounds 5.99 (Pounds 3.50 pbk). A Mouse in the House! By Gerda Wagener North-South Pounds 4.50.
The Other Side of the Bridge By Wolfram Hanel North-South Pounds 7.99. Care of Henry By Anne Fine Walker Pounds 5.99. Lizzy Fights On By Elizabeth Beresford Macdonald Pounds 3.99. Smart Girls Forever By Robert Leeson Walker Pounds 6.99
Series fiction for emergent readers is an in-between form, neither picture book (although the books may be heavily illustrated) nor novel, but a succession of staging posts from one to the other. As such, what their texts teach readers about narrative, form, language and what fiction has to offer for them is crucial.
Take Hazel Townson's Tale of the Terrible Teeth. A bizarre "what if?" notion drives the plot: what happens if an Egyptian holiday is disrupted when Grandpa's "new" false teeth, freed from Pharaoh Cheops's sarcophagus, demand food after "starving for centuries"? Slapstick mayhem, of course; lots of toothyfoodie word play; chapter headings and plot devices which echo cinema and comic-book liter-acies; and an intro-duction to cliff-hanger chapter endings. Russell Ayto's exaggerated illustrations add a filmic edge to the broad comedy of this mini horror saga. Fict-ion here is a place for play.
So too is Lesley Howarth's Fort Biscuit, a Lawrence of Arabia day-dream tale of desert disaster and heroism, spun from a small boy's misunderstanding of a phrase in a song and the name of a biscuit. The freshness of Howarth's prose in her novels for older readers, such as Maphead, is missing but there is mileage in the wordplay. The daydream action is lickety-split (there's little time to catch your breath in much series fiction) but Howarth captures the way the young can inhabit two places, two stories, at once.
Interaction, not action, and the adventures and dramas of everyday life inform four slice-of-life tales. Each has a density of experience that sustains the reader's continuing involvement. In A Mouse in the House! by Gerda Wagener, Julia's first-person narrative concerns her attempts to save the mouse her cat has caught and accidentally let go from both the cat and her mother. For her, the mouse represents adventure, for mother, a problem; as for the cat, read Uli Waas's pictures for a third point of view.
Perspective is also important to Wolfram Hanel's The Other Side of the Bridge. This tale celebrates the individualism of Andy who prefers nature study to sport, and Old Jasper, reputed to "eat children", who saves him when he ventures into the woods in search of Spring and encounters a freak snowstorm. There is genuine drama here, heightened by the lore surrounding Jasper, and a subtle, delicate quality that invites reflection.
In Anne Fine's Care of Henry, Hugo's unorthodox use of a questionnaire to decide who will care best for him and his dog, Henry, when his mother has a new baby, provides a framework for Fine to explore three distinctive adult-child relationships and responses. Rounded characters, revealing dialogue and voices, and mother's help in resolving Henry's problem make this one of those stories which transform familiar sights into insights.
In Lizzy Fights On, Elizabeth Beresford invites readers into life as a young evacuee. Alongside Lizzy's everyday affairs helping with the war effort, runs a darker story about her father, missing in action. The historical period, its constraints and small daily triumphs, and a sense of community are simply evoked in a way that extends readers' understanding of the complexities of the world outside home, now and in the past.
Robert Leeson reminds readers that the past is often reworked in stories when he invites them to celebrate six feisty folk heroines in Smart Girls Forever. Smart girls, like tricksters, are adept at defying "danger, death, robbers, giants, slavery and sorcery", and Leeson's retellings are as "bold" and "outrageous" as the girls.
Tales like these remind selectors that amid the surfeit of banal, impoverished stories offered to emergent readers in series are some gems that happily keep literature in good shape.