Liferaft for nervous swimmers

10th March 2000 at 00:00
Critic's choice Leaps and bounds: independent readers

We all know children who kangaroo-jump the first-reader chapter-book stage of reading. At a single leap, they become gluttonously insatiable for full-length books.

And thank heaven for them. For others, it is as if both stamina and confidence have to be built up. They have to be coaxed into more extended fiction, one small step at a time. Then there's the children who adopt a laid back, belly-flop approach. Recommend a book, and they'll give it a try. But they are just as likely to go through the motions, rarely reading titles the whole way through.

Well informed librarians and teachers will have a mental list of authors and titles with which to tempt the varying types of reader. Several newly-published books, many by top-flight children's authors, merit immediate addition to such lists.

What better way to tempt the "nervous swimmer" style of reader into the deep waters of longer fiction than with a book of connected short stories? In The Famous Adventures of Jack, by Berlie Doherty (Hodder pound;10.99), a girl called Jill is sent to visit an old woman in a cottage.

There the stories begin, each magically entertaining in its own right, and quickly leading on to another in a manner that finds Jill herself involved in the action. Doherty clearly enjoyed bringing together different elements of giant folklore and folktale.

Anne Fine must also have enjoyed writing Bad Dreams (Doubleday pound;10.99). Mel, her heroine, is the class bookworm, who says: "I don't mix much with the others because I like reading better." Imogen is the perfect friend for Mel: stand-offish, unpopular and with the ability to suck the plot out of a book by touching its cover.

At 150 pages, Bad Dreams is a full-length novel, but it is printed in a large, bold, reassuring typeface with plenty of illustrations by Susan Winter. These are used rather cleverly to underscore a major theme of the book: the difference between fiction and real life. Mel rapidly realises that Imogen's "gift of instant and lifelike experiencing of stories is actually a curse.

Jacqueline Wilson's latest book, The Dare Game (Doubleday pound;10.99), is a step up in length at 250 pages but, with Nick Sharratt's illustrations and Wilson's fluent first-person writing style, it's impossible to imagine an independent reader floundering on the basis of page-count.

Wilson, whose last book, The Illustrated Mum (now in paperback, Corgi Yearling pound;3.99), has just won the booksellers' Children's Book of the Year Award, is on top form yet again in this sequel to The Story of Tracy Beaker. It has to be admitted that the central predicament - a girl's relationship with her birth mother and foster-parent - covers territory not immediately appealing to many boys. The story's "dare game" element, however, will appeal, involving as it does the voluntary removal of Tracy's knickers.

Stormchaser (Doubleday pound;10.99), is the second part of The Edge Chronicles, a fantasy adventure trilogy by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. Though very long at 400 pages, like Beyond The Deepwoods (the first book, now in paperback at pound;4.99), it has a narrative structure based on lots of short, colourful incidents, so that less confident readers can take it a little at a time. Chris Riddell's brilliant illustrations make it easier than in many fantasies to keep track of the range of creatures and characters.

At a more manageable 140 pages, The Poltergoose - A Jiggy McCue Story, by Michael Lawrence (Orchard pound;3.99), is a mix of sitcom farce and hardboiled American detective novel.

There are times when the author overstrains in this latter direction. A sentence that works well - "Angie has been a tough cookie from the day she gave up rusks" - can be followed by one that simply puzzles: "He shuffled his feet like two playing cards who've been kicked out of the pack for cheating."

But Lawrence's feel for comedy is more even, and the book's climax - the reburial of a goose with a restless spirit - features a hilarious sequence in a ladies toilet.

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