Happy to lose control;Books

27th March 1998 at 00:00
Dennis Hamley opens three-pages on reading with "real book" schemes

What with the forthcoming Year of Reading, the National Literacy Strategy and primary schools receiving book money, nobody can blame publishers for seeing a growth in school and parental markets. Educational publishers make reading texts look just like mainstream paperbacks: publishers of mainstream fiction for new readers aspire to reading scheme status.

Blooomsbury's Reading with Confidence list consists of three mini-series for five to seven-year-olds, billed as covering "all our children's early reading needs". Of the texts sampled here (pound;3.99 each) the Crazy Gang series by Nicola Matthews, illustrated by Eleanor Taylor, attracts attention for purpose as much as content. The stories, "Og Fo" says the Space Bug, Do I Look Funny To You?, Pets Just Want to Have Fun andI Don't Like Space Glop, concern Max, dog Pat, and friends Jazz the Space Kid and Zug Zug the Space Bug. They wander through narratives of "zany and madcap" slapstick chaos.

Each book, referred to as a "phonic reader" with "controlled vocabulary", has an introduction, seemingly aimed at parents, about reading with phonics, a system "encouraged by the Government". I would have more confidence if, when Bloomsbury says the texts "compliment" phonic reading in schools, "complement" were not spelt with an "i".

The relentless use of one-syllabled words raises questions. One sees the control. One asks merely, is this its right place? When it slips and complicated words like "complicated" appear, is this a deliberate evocation of Beatrix Potter and the "soporific" syndrome? I applaud simple texts appearing as real books. I see what Crazy Gang's aim is. I am not sure the target is hit.

Mary Hooper's Best Pets series needs no such framing. The texts, for more confident readers, present "comforting stories with a thrilling conclusion". In Gita and Goldie, Goldie the dog finds the lost Gita; in Timmy and Tiger, Tiger the cat rescues Timmy's family from a fire. The texts read naturally, with no obvious attempt at "control", and have shape and satisfying resolutions.

Significantly, the Corgi Pups series for beginner readers (pound;3.50 each) now boasts Prue Goodwin, of the Reading and Language Information Centre, at Reading University, as series consultant. In Paul Stewart's Dogbird, Alice's budgie barks like a dog, driving the family's dogs and their neighbours mad. A beautifully written story offers a fitting resolution.

From Mammoth come two series - Storybooks, "for building confidence", and Reads, "short novels for fluent readers". In the first, Elana Bregin's A School for Amos, illustrated by Sharon Lewis (pound;3.99), is a superbly tight story of how Amos, a South African boy, finds the schools to which his people are now admitted are full. His community builds another and President Mandela himself visits. Carly's Luck by Rachel Anderson, illustrated by Harmen Van Straaten (pound;3.99), is a real novel. Carly finds her fat, old foster parents are really the best people in the world. A fine read for any age.

These books remind us that stories are read in ways other than the literal. Alison Prince's Fatso's Rat (Hodder Read Alone, illustrated by Caroline Jayne Church, pound;2.99) is beautifully constructed. How Murdo's problem is solved through his pet rat adds up to a little triumph of narrative form. Perhaps a controlled vocabulary is not the only route to literacy.

Dennis Hamley is a former English adviser for Hertfordshire

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