Invitation to style and form

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Dennis Hamley uncovers books to challenge emergent readers. At their best, narrative picture books contain possibilities often stunning to children and adults alike. As text takes over, can this delight continue for emergent readers?

This crop of books contains a variety of approaches, some move on from picture-book style - text complete on each page referring to one illustration, with repetition and refrain - others have more continuous narrative looking forward to novel form. Within this range are stories developing notions of form and a grammar of narrative. Cartwheels (Pounds 6.99 each) are close to the picture books they lead from. Hilda Offen's Rita the Rescuer, in which little sister Rita becomes Superwoman, is funny, gently wish-fulfilling and strongly rhythmic, as is Annie Owen's delightful The Too Late Pig.

Brian Ball's Bella and the Beanstalk and Tony Kenyon's The Crocodile in the Piano are more ambitious narratives, closer to Viking's Read Alone series (Pounds 6.99 each). Of those, I liked Alexander McCall Smith's The Watermelon Boys, in which Misipo and Sepo save Ma Rosie's watermelon business, and the ever-dependable Ann Jungman's There's a Troll at the Bottom of Our Street.

Cartwheels and Read Alones tend to metamorphose into First Young Puffins (Pounds 2.99 each). I was surprised that Sheila Lavelle's Harry's Aunt waited 10 years for a paperback edition. Harry's Aunt Winnie is an out-of-control witch in this funny, beautifully constructed story. Wendy Smith's Bubblegum Bother works through pleasingly hyperbolic action.

Aunt Winnie in particular exemplifies an important feature in young stories - the character defeating normal expectations. Closely allied is the inimitable character, attracting the response, "Oh, she would do that". Such characters often beget stories.

Here are two examples, both about gangs. Pat Moon's The Jungle Bunch stories are a riot, with linguistic energy, pointed dialogue, economical plots and comic illustrations. I loved Ready, Steady, Go, Cheetah (Orchard Pounds 6.99) with its Aesopian overtones. By comparison, Stan Cullimore's anthropomorphic dogs in George's Gang in Trouble (Piccadilly Pounds 7.99), though intermittently funny, strive too hard for effect. Two Hamish Hamilton Gazelles (Pounds 5.99 each) also contain familiar series characters:Catherine Sefton's imaginary Fred in Watch Out, Fred's About, and Ann Forsyth's Monster Maze, where Tom's class's baby dinosaur turns up in a stately home. Both possess the feel of longer novels.

Tigers (Andersen Press Pounds 6.99 each) and Corgi Pups (Pounds 2.99 each) are always dependable. Barbara Mitchelhill's Eric and the Striped Horror (Tiger) combines broad humour with a fine sense of justice. Dick King-Smith's Happy Mouseday (Corgi), has all of the author's virtues in miniature.

Anyone would get a frisson from Yo Ho Ho! (Corgi) by Marjorie Newman, which features Mr Cutlass, the new teacher with a past. Elizabeth Dale's Maxie's Music (Pounds 8.50) is both structured and funny: Macdonald Storybooks, too, cater well for this age-group.

The extraordinary blend of text and graphic work in A C Black's Jets marks them out from the other titles here, except possibly The Jungle Bunch. Rattle and Hum, Robot Detectives by Frank Roberts (Pounds 5.99) is a hoot - with a fine sense of plot design.

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