Inspired by Mount Olympus

21st July 2006 at 01:00
Fiona Lafferty finds ancient tales retold to great effect for key stage 2 and beyond

Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters

By Rick Riordan

Puffin pound;10.99

The Pig Who Saved the World

By Paul Shipton

Puffin pound;5.99

The Secret History of Tom Trueheart, Boy Adventurer

By Ian Beck

Oxford University Press pound;6.99

The Mystery of the Darkstone

By Val Rutt

Puffin pound;5.99

The Cairo Jim Chronicles: Cairo Jim and the Alabastron of Forgotten Gods; Cairo Jim and the Sunken Sarcophagus of Sekheret; Cairo Jim in Search of Martenarten; Cairo Jim on the Trail to Chacha Muchos By Geoffrey McSkimming Walker Books pound;4.99 each Myth and magic seem to be the flavour of holiday reading for primary-aged children, with the publication of sequels to two hugely popular reworkings of Greek mythology, a foray into the Land of Stories, stones that harness magical power and adventure in the ancient world.

Percy Jackson, Greek demi-god, burst spectacularly on the top primary fiction scene last year in the gripping, action-packed Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. His creator Rick Riordan introduced the concept that Olympian Greek gods are alive and wreaking havoc in 21st-century America, where their relationships with mortals have produced a host of half-blood children. To recap: Percy, the son of Poseidon, spent his holidays at Half-Blood Hill, a summer camp for demi-gods, helping his father avert a war. Previously reluctant readers (particularly boys) could not put it down.

The sequel, Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters, is equally fast-moving: Percy sets out on a quest to find the mythical Golden Fleece, the only thing that will save the camp from destruction. Monsters and other vengeful demi-gods attempt to thwart him at every turn, but, with the help of Annabeth, Athena's daughter, and Tyson, his newly-discovered Cyclops half-brother, and his satyr friend Grover's dream sequences, he manages to brave the sea of monsters and return triumphant. A wry humour punctuates the action: Hermes, messenger to the gods, has an electronic signature pad.

Paul Shipton's The Pig Scrolls has built a receptive and appreciative following. Gryllus was one of Odysseus' crew transformed into pigs by Circe, but unfortunately absent when his shipmates were changed back. He has a great line in stand-up comedy and returns with more of the same in The Pig Who Saved the World. While he attempts to find Circe and be transformed back to human form, it appears that Sisyphus has captured the Olympian Gods, the Cosmos is once more in danger and Gryllus must again be a reluctant hero.

Rick Riordan and Paul Shipton have an irreverent attitude to Greek myth that should give readers confidence to seek out the originals. Where Riordan's humour is loud, streetwise American, Shipton's is unashamedly, understatedly British. Percy Jackson is an all-action hero; Gryllus relies on lively banter, jokes and puns. Both approaches will find keen readers aged 11 and above, and the result in both cases will be complete enjoyment.

Not surprisingly, Ian Beck's first full-length novel for children, The Secret History of Tom Trueheart, Boy Adventurer, (pictured) takes the fairy-story tradition as its theme: Beck is famed for illustrated retellings of classic tales. The family Trueheart are adventurers: seven brothers wait for the delivery of a letter that will call them to the Land of Stories to embark on a new adventure.

On his 12th birthday, Tom, the youngest, is sent on a quest to find all his brothers whose own adventures have mysteriously gone awry. With Jollity, a talking crow, Tom encounters characters who throw light on each brother's sinister disappearance in their stories. This is a charmingly written tale; the ending is predictable once the reader has figured out the pattern of events, but the quaint story is none the less likeable for that.

The chunky hardback is attractively produced and text is illustrated with elegant silhouettes. It would be satisfying to read aloud to children over seven and for readers of nine and over to read for themselves.

Val Rutt also returns with a sequel and another adventure for Phil and Kate, who in The Race for the Lost Keystone discovered that they had inherited their great-aunt Elizabeth's ability to use the power of magical heartstones. Elizabeth's malicious sister, who evaded capture in the first book, is back in The Mystery of the Darkstone, this time running a centre for errant boys in Africa. Finding out what she is up to with the powerful Historograph makes for another exciting escapade in exotic surroundings.

Val Rutt, who moonlights as a primary teacher, has a lively imagination and an easy relaxed style that makes enjoyable reading for over-10s.

Finally, altogether more lightweight are the Cairo Jim Chronicles, previously published in Australia. Cairo Jim, archaeologist and little-known poet, with Doris the macaw and Brenda the Wonder Camel in tow, tracks down relics of the ancient world in Greece, Egypt and Peru. Think Indiana Jones with a clipped English accent, in pith helmet and long shorts. Great fun to read aloud to Years 3 and 4.

Fiona Lafferty is librarian at St Swithun's junior school, Winchester

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