Pages of unbroken text can make literacy lessons seem like a life sentence for poor or reluctant readers. But, reports Michael Thorn, an abundance of lively illustrations and fast-moving storylines should give these three new series plenty of appeal
Publishers' lists are filling up with books aimed at the slightly reluctant reader. The first four graphic novels in the much-heralded Epix series prove worthy of the anticipation.
Each title is an individually devised brew of ingredients high on older primary boys' reading wish lists - adventure, humour and pictures. But girls also like Epix, and both sexes enjoy reading them in pairs in class to share the humour of the pictures and story.
The resulting titles, each from a different authorillustrator team, are very much for the reluctant rather than the struggling reader. Some Year 6 children stumbled on "seraph" and "Beelzebub" in Garry Kilworth and Mark Oliver's Heavenly Hosts v. Hell United, but it didn't seem to matter. The storylines are much more substantial than a flick through the pages suggests. My own favourites were Circus Twins in Dynamite Summer (primarily for the artwork of Stik, aka Bill Greenhead) and Derek Dungbeetle in Paradise, a story by Nick Storme which was the source of this exciting new series.
Barrington Stoke, a new publishing company based in Edinburgh, will be concentrating on bridging a perceived gap between reading schemes and "real books" to encourage struggling readers at primary and secondary level. The company slogan is "Less effort, more fun".
One of the first titles, Wartman by Michael Morpurgo, contains a good deal of fun, mainly at the first-person narrator's expense. Football-loving Dilly is distraught when a playground accident reveals the wart on his knee to the world. Morpurgo, as is to be expected, has written this story without a false note, and without apparently having to make any effort to cater for a special audience. Sentences are short, but appropriately so for Dilly's voice.
Screw Loose by Alison Prince is about a prankster who enjoys loosening screws on school furniture. While Wartman is obviously set at primary school level, Screw Loose is just as obviously in secondary territory. Its entertainment value comes in the main character being put in charge of the school for a day.
In Billy the Squid, Colin Dowland takes delight in giving the watery and fishy version of every stock phrase in cowboy and crime stories. Quickclaw McClaw is "the big fish, the codfather of crime", and the showdown takes place at "high tide". This is the most sophisticated of the first batch of Stoke titles (which include stories from Ad le Geras, Vivian French and Mary Hoffman). The sentences are more complex, and commas more frequent.
Surfers is a more established series of "fast pacy reads for the less committed reader". Children may need to have Surfers pointed out - the logo is discreet - and there is no guarantee that a child who enjoys one Surfer will enjoy another. There is little in common, for example, between K M Peyton's excellent boy's-own adventure, Danger Offshore, and Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore's hilarious spoof on the Odysseus legend, A Touch of Wind! in the Mad Myths mini-series (another Mad Myth, Must Fly!, is coming this month.
Louise Cooper's Storm Ghost, a spooky lifeboat story, is not at all like Jenny Alexander's Haunting For Beginners, the first half of which is a lingeringly well-written examination of a young girl's sense of resentment and her relationship with an elderly neighbour. The important common factor is the quality of the stories, and the books achieve their desired effect. K M Peyton excites, and the two Steves make the reader laugh.
Children and teachers can get a measure of what is between the covers in each series. A Surfer will have wide line spacing and will be about 100 pages long. A Barrington Stoke will be around half that length, and usually contain short sentences, with added line breaks to help the presentation of dialogue.
With the commissioned authors unconstrained by uniformity of theme or approach, book-phobes will probably be persuaded to give up some TV-viewing and bike-riding time, and settle down to a satisfying read.