Life-changing meetings

4th April 2003 at 01:00
Thoughtful fiction for key stages 2 and 3 reviewed by Adele Geras

THE FOUR UGLY CATS IN APARTMENT 3D. By Marilyn Sachs. Illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger. Simon amp; Schuster pound;9.99, hardback

THE BREAKFAST MUSEUM. By Andrew Matthews. Red Fox pound;4.99

EVERYTHING ON A WAFFLE. By Polly Horvath. Scholastic pound;4.99

THE SILVER BEAD. By Helen Dunmore. Scholastic pound;9.99, hardback

The first book in this quartet, a delightful story about cats and the remarkable ability they have to change people's lives, will appeal to the younger end of key stage 2.

Mr Freeman, who lives in 3D, is not very much more attractive than his moggies. Lily seems to be the only one who understands him and his charges.

When he dies, the other neighbours in the block of flats are keen to get rid of the cats, but Lily is having none of it. The story of how she finds homes for the felines and, even more importantly, how the humans who inherit them are improved by their coming, is simply but effectively told and illustrated with delightful line drawings. This is a quick read with more to it than meets the eye.

Andrew Matthews' book The Breakfast Museum is not at all what you'd expect from the jolly Nick Sharratt cover. Sharratt has made an amazing contribution to the success of books (for example, those by Jacqueline Wilson), so it's no wonder that publishers use him often.

But this story is much quieter and more unusual than it seems at first.

It's really about misfits; we meet several of them during the course of the novel and very attractive they are too. They congregate in a greasy spoon cafe and their various problems and preoccupations are explored in a very deftly structured book which addresses children's concerns in a way that is serious without being heavy-handed. This is a novel which would be enjoyed by early teen readers so it's a shame that it's been given such a very young-looking jacket. A good and unusual story of life in and out of school.

Polly Horvath's novel has recipes in it, which immediately gives it an advantage over most other books. It's a terrific piece of work: eccentric, weird, upbeat, serious, hilarious and utterly compelling: a little like Annie Proulx for children. Primrose's parents are lost at sea, but she refuses to believe they are gone for ever. She lives in Coal Harbour with her Uncle Jack and spends a lot of time at a cafe called The Girl on a Red Swing where Miss Bowzer serves everything she cooks on a waffle. It's impossible to capture the book's flavour but do yourself a favour and read it, whatever your age. Pure pleasure from beginning to end, and very engagingly written.

Helen Dunmore's latest novel for upper primary children is another story about Katie and Zillah. They will be going to secondary school in September and the story takes place over the summer holidays. The bead of the title is wrapped into Katie's hair by a traveller girl called Rose. For a while, Rose and her family camp in the field behind Zillah's farm and there's tension as Zillah seems to resent a little the friendship that springs up between Katie and Rose. But when Zillah falls ill with leukaemia, Katie realises who her best friend is, and Rose moves on, but not before she and her great-gran have passed on something precious, symbolised by the bead.

Dunmore is such a good writer and uses the beautiful hair-wraps that Rose knows how to do, the wonderful cakes baked by Zillah's mother, and Katie's mother's paintings to stand for all that makes life worth living. There is no glossing over the illness and its effects but this is done unsentimentally and there is hope at the end. A deceptively simple and thoughtful book, which stays in the mind long after you've finished reading it.

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