Primary fiction

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
Children of all ages love animal tales, especially when a fight for survival is involved and four-footed, furry or feathered friends steal a march on humans. Roald Dahl capitalised on this with Fantastic Mr Fox, Dick King-Smith with The Sheep-Pig (which became the film Babe) and Nick Parks in the film Chicken Run.

Helen Armstrong, a former teacher and debut novelist, has created a similarly inventive, funny and touching animal odyssey with The Road to Somewhere (Orion Children's Books pound;9.99). Ratty, with his no-messing view of life, recounts his journey with Cow and Woolly Woolly Baa Lamb to escape the slaughterhouse.

Cow, who is far too skittish to make good milk, has the "one-way ticket to never-come-back" and Ratty takes pity on her. Sheep has been given a number instead of a name - he's "for the lamb chop". The threesome hit the road and adventure beckons.

Armstrong's style is light and lucid, although the admirable simplicity of description belies the playfulness and subtlety of the humour. A delightful read for eight-year-olds upwards, fittingly illustrated by the lively, knowledgeable, black and white line drawings of Harry Horse.

For a journey of another sort, Robert Ingpen has reinvigorated Jules Verne's classic Around the World in Eighty Days with intricate and exotic illustrations. Verne's tale of this idiosyncratic race against the clock has never lost its power to thrill, and in this edition (Pavilion Children's Books pound;14.99) Ingpen adopts the kind of detail and realism in his pictures so admired in the 19th century, when this novel was written.

Verne's account of the intrepid explorer Phileas Fogg and his manservant Passepartout, as they travel throug India on elephants, through the South China Sea in the teeth of a typhoon and through snow-covered plains of the American Wild West, is richly imagined by Ingpen, who captures the story for new readers.

Kate DiCamillo has created a powerful novel in The Tiger Rising (Walker Books pound;7.99), the story of a caged rather than domestic animal. Rob Horton and Sistine Bailey become comrades in adversity. Both targets for the high school bullies, they are also united in grief - one for a mother who has died, the other for a father who has walked out.

When Rob finds an incarcerated tiger that belongs to his father's bully-boy boss, securing the animal's freedom becomes their new focus. As in her first novel Because of Winn Dixie, DiCamillo offers a memorable, lyrical narrative, rich in emotional insight, any tendency to over-richness balanced by the invention and poetic succinctness of the prose.

Vivian French can spin a rattling yarn, and her latest collection of stories Singing to the Sun and Other Magical Tales (Walker Books pound;9.99) is a glorious journey for the imagination, full of astonishing twists and turns.

These eight original stories, rooted in the fairy tale tradition, have the feel of much-loved classics - they are new creations but layered with the familiar images and themes of folklore.

This is a book for confident readers to curl up with in a quiet moment. Equally it is one teachers would find invaluable as a resource for creative writing. Stories such as "The Apple Child", of a benign spirit, born of an old apple tree, who saves a village, or of Tomkin, who makes his three-legged stool prime minister, will prove an inspiration.


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