Mr Wolf leads the pack

14th January 2000 at 00:00
Michael Thorn picks out a fail-safe personal library for new primary teachers

Lists, the detractors say, lead to a lazy detachment and a reliance on someone else's judgment. Good primary teachers develop their own repertoire of poems, short stories and longer stories that "go down well", a fail-safe personal library, and they do this on the fly by trial and error.

Sometimes such personal libraries become stuck in a time-warp. Teachers sharing their favourite Roald Dahl, once too often perhaps, might at least be handling material with which they have become lovingly familiar, but they, as much as those newly entering the profession, could benefit from having more recent books brought to their attention - especially as reading aloud to a class is the most effective way of bringing the best of contemporary children's writing to the notice of its intended audience: the children themselves.

Caveat lector - reader beware! Reading a novel or a poem to a class merely because it appears on a casually-encountered recommended list could prove to be a disappointment to both reader and audience. Such disappointments cannot and should not be avoided at all costs.

All audiences vary. A class that laughs out loud at every scene in a comic novel might be followed by one that listens to the same book in stony silence. (I have had Year 6 children in distraught tears at the end of Andi's War by Billi Rosen, a moving story about a refugee, but not every time I've used the book.) Recommended fiction and poetry needs to have been read and appreciated by the teacher before being shared with a class. All teachers are conscious of their responsibility to enthuse about books and reading, but not all maintain the requisite knowledge.

Every teacher is also part children's librarian and, as such, should keep themselves in touch by regularly browsing bookshops, reading The TES and other reviews, and visit children's books-related websites.

The whole process is a lot of fun. Reader Beware, perhaps. But, ultimately, the aim is Reader Enjoy! The following titles should all be readily available in paperback.

Mr Wolf's Pancakes, by Jan Fearnley (Mammoth, pound;4.99). One of the best picture books of 1999, and destined to last and last. Children will love the way Mr Wolf turns the tables so remorselessly on his nasty neighbours.

The Wakening and The Midnight Hand, by Paul Stewart (Corgi, pound;3.99). Two separate titles, both gripping page-turners in the horror genre, recently reissued with much-improved covers. Why not buy both, read one and make the other available for loan? Also recommend: Stewart's fantasy series: The Edge Chronicles, written in collaboration with the illustrator Chris Riddell.

Helping Hercules,s by Francesca Simon (Orion, pound;3.99). Here the author of the very funny Horrid Henry series takes he cue from Nathaniel Hawthorne's A Wonder Book, weaving together a selection of classical myths but starting off each new chapter with a contemporary, domestic scene.

Dinosaur Pox, by Jeremy Strong (Puffin, pound;3.99). A winner of the Children's Book Award, Jeremy Strong has ridden the crest of a wave in the last few years, becoming one of the most popular writers for the mid-primary age group in the last few years. Read this to a class as a way of measuring reaction to writing that touches a seven or eight-year-old's funny bone.

The Giant Goldfish Robbery, by Richard Kidd (Corgi, pound;3.99). A beautifully-paced debut in which a couple of boys outwit a pair of dim-witted fraudsters. The hero's father has been forced by the European Fishing Policy to beach his fishing boat and move house, but the refreshing thing about this novel is its emphasis on action rather than subtext.

Read Me 2 - A Poem For Every Day of the Year (Macmillan, pound;4.99). A wide-ranging, eclectic anthology selected by Macmillan's in-house poetry editor and originally published to coincide with World Book Day, this volume, like its predecessor, Read Me 1, is an indispensable aid for those too strapped-for-cash to buy more than one poetry book. The Index of Poets leads off with John Agard, ends with Benjamin Zephaniah, but includes Cowper, Dickinson, Longfellow, Tennyson et al in between.

The Ring Of Words, edited by Roger McGough (Faber, pound;8.99). Simply one of the best anthologies of poetry for children in recent times. McGough's selection and arrangement is inspired. Printed on high-quality paper, with illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura, the book costs more than most paperbacks but is worth every penny.

The Silver Sword, by Ian Serraillier (Puffin Modern classics pound;5.99). This was a relatively recent novel when it was read aloud in the townhouse classroom of my childhood. Reissued with a striking black and white cover, it is still a terrifically moving story by an author who wrote other books, but nothing to compare with this.

The Takeaway Tales: Aliens For Dinner, by Lesley Howarth (Hodder, pound;3.99). Fabulously fast-paced top-notch series fiction from a top-rank children's author. Begins with an outrageous scene involving a tropical fish and a microwave oven. One author that all older primary children should be introduced to at some point.

Silverwing, by Kenneth Oppel (Hodder, pound;3.99). Winner of Canada's Mr Christie's Book Award, this is a talking-animal epic-journey story with a difference. The main character is an adolescent bat. "Would kids be able to identify with bats?" the author wonders, in his introduction. The fact that an animation option has been taken out and the sequel, Sunwing, has been written, suggests they can.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex

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