SPY BABIES. By Ian Bone. Lothian Takeaways pound;3.99. TES pound;3.49. THE PUFFIN BOOK OF STORIES FOR NINE-YEAR-OLDS. Edited by Wendy Cooling. Illustrated by Steve Cox. Puffin pound;3.99. TESpound;3.49.
Realism, science fiction and pure fantasy are the stuff of these four titles for key stage 2 readers. In The Adventures of Jimmy Scar, Jeanne Willis portrays the grim day-to-day existence of Gemma Diamond and her over-protective father, Jim. Having been made homeless by an unscrupulous landlord, Jim is arrested trying to break into their flat to rescue Gemma's dog, Duke. Gemma takes off with Duke and reinvents herself as a boy, Jimmy Scar. When she is taken in by an eccentric old woman, Monti, who leads an alternative lifestyle in the woods, Gemma learns survival skills and discovers much about herself and real values.
Jeanne Willis writes superbly, creating credible characters and an intricate plot. After twists and turns, the various strands come together, perhaps a touch too neatly, but the story is ultimately satisfying for children aged 10 and above.
Australian author Ian Bones's Spy Babies strays further from reality with a plot that hinges on an alien life force. The heroine, Ellie, is another child living with a lone parent, this time a globetrotting workaholic mother Ellie runs away from home and is caught up in an undercover operation which, to her astonishment, is masterminded by her mother. This is a standard "goodies versus baddies" thriller, but none the worse for that. The goodies, Ellie's mother and her mother's friend Brand, are spies carrying out surveillance of the baddies who want to use alien technology for their evil ends.
Ellie and Brand are turned into babies but their minds are unaltered, and much of the humour is derived from their ability to communicate telepathically and their inability to control their baby bodies. The plot is fast-moving, funny and gripping to the end. It will entertain nine to 11-year-olds, probably many boys, who will not be as put off by the ghastly cover as adults may be.
Wendy Cooling can always be relied upon to come up with an interesting mixture of stories, and The Puffin Book of Stories for Nine-Year-Olds is no exception. Reality, myth, fantasy and humour are all here. I loved the juxtaposition of The Twelve Labours of Heracles retold by Geraldine McCaughrean with a contemporary tale by Francesca Simon about Susan, whose wish to meet Hercules is granted after she has refused to clean out the cat litter at home. She finds him cleaning the Aegean stables, her chores. These 12 stories are perfect for this age group and excellent for reading aloud.