Hyperactive delights

10th September 2004 at 01:00
Jan Mark chooses fiction to build reading confidence and enjoyment

HALF A PIG. By Allan Ahlberg. Illustrated by Jessica Ahlberg. TALES FROM THE WATERHOLE By Bob Graham. Walker Books, pound;10.99 each

SUGAR BAG BABY. By Susan Gates. Illustrated by Sebastien Braun. MONKEY-MAN. By Sandra Glover. Illustrated by Garry Parsons. Orchard Books, Green Apples series, pound;8.99 each

POLLY AND THE FROG. THE CROCODILE BROTHER. By Bob Hartman. Illustrated by Brett Hudson. Lion, pound;3.99 each

FLYNN FLIES HIGH. By Hilary Robinson. Illustrated by Tim Archbold. Franklin Watts, pound;3.99

Mr and Mrs Harbottle are joint owners of the pig Esmeralda, and after their divorce Mr Harbottle attempts to repossess his half. To sweet Mrs Harbottle, Esmeralda is a beloved pet, but her repellent ex is thinking only of sausages. He sends in the heavies: the Swiggins brothers, abetted by the Swiggins sisters. Mrs Harbottle's reinforcements are the children next door and a handsome policeman - well, as handsome as you get in an Ahlberg book.

Jessica Ahlberg's exuberant illustrations (pictured), while all her own, are very much in the spirit of the original Janet-and-Allan collaborations. His text is disarmingly complicit in the reader's experience. A chatty introduction lists some of the words (and silly noises) to be encountered, such as "sausage-coloured", "Aaaargh!", "cold front" and "baked aubergine", and a useful heap of assorted conjunctions.

He also promises a hippopotamus, although forced to admit at the end that this was wildly over-ambitious. There are even footnotes. Part reading book, part picture book, this is a hyperactive delight from start to finish.

Waldo is not exaggerating when he announces his family's walking holiday.

"We go every year," he says, "with my zillions of relatives." Waldo is a wildebeest. Told and illustrated with great charm and humour by Bob Graham, Tales from the Waterhole concerns a group of friends and their families in a vaguely veldt-type environment. Although drawn as animals, they are any bunch of children worried about first love, un-cool clothes, little brothers and embarrassing parents. None of the mothers has much dress sense and Billy's mum, being a tortoise, does not look her best in a bikini.

Christopher's life has been blighted from birth. A premature baby weighing less than a bag of sugar, his survival so delighted his mother that she now fundraises tirelessly for incubators, wheeling out the hapless Sugar Bag Baby as proof of the wonders of medical science. The whole village regards him as a kind of special pet and when he realises what his reputation will do for his chances at the Big School, Christopher decides on a radical change of image. He tries for a hard haircut and a life of crime but he is temperamentally unsuited to villainy. Only the fortuitous birth of an even smaller infant, the Tea Cup Kid, gives the grown-ups something else to coo about. Essentially light-hearted, this is also a cautionary tale for sentimental adults.

Sandra Glover's Monkey-Man, from the Green Apples series for confident readers, is another lively well-written comedy. A giant, gingery yeti is seen in the neighbourhood, terrorising old ladies and eating cats. With every sighting it grows larger and more ferocious.

Only Kerry and Max know the truth. Sure that their widowed father's baldness is all that prevents him from finding a girlfriend, they buy him a miracle hair-restorer from a catalogue. Dad applies it without reading the instructions and sprouts luxuriantly from every follicle. Hiding in the house and emerging only at night, he sees his legend grow at the same rate as his hair. Can Kerry and Max save the day?

Polly and the Frog and The Crocodile Brother are new additions to Bob Hartman's one-man series of Storyteller Tales. Retellings of folk tales, some are familiar from Aesop and La Fontaine and the European tradition, others will be new to most readers; a source list is included. Hartman retains the oral storyteller's voice: brisk, matter-of-fact, resisting the temptation to embellish. He knows how to hold an audience and has a light touch with a moral. The lumpy line drawings of Brett Hudson, the series illustrator, are deceptively clumsy-looking and full of witty detail. Two Christmas collections are due to follow.

The texts of Franklin Watts Hopscotch books are accessible to new readers, but Flynn Flies High should reward older children of limited ability without condescending to them. Archbold's attractive artwork, which has a look of Quentin Blake about it, suggests secondary-school kids in Hilary Robinson's story of two loners, Flynn the Traveller child and speccy, thoughtful Jack, his one school friend. Only Jack notices that Flynn has stopped coming to school and when a class visit to the circus reveals Flynn as a gifted acrobat, Jack is the only one invited to join him in the ring.

At just over 300 words, every page in full colour, it is a fine piece of storytelling.

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