Reading alone

15th June 2001 at 01:00
CAT PATROL. By Paul May. Illustrated by Peter Bailey. GREAT GOAL! By Rob Childs. Corgi Pups. pound;3.50 each. TES Direct pound;3.50 each.

POLICE CAT FUZZ RIDES AGAIN!. By Karen Wallace. Illustrated by Trevor Dunton. Puffin pound;3.99. TESDirect pound;3.99. 10 copies pound;35.

YIKES! IT'S A YETI. By Karen Wallace. Illustrated by Michael Reid. Puffin pound;7.99. TESDirect pound;7.49. 10 copies pound;70.

UNCLE TOM'S PTERODACTYL. By Colin West. Aamp;C Black Comix. pound;7.99 each. LILLY AND THE LADYBIRDS. DANNY LONGLEGS. By Damon Burnard. Hodder Children's Books. pound;3.50 each.

BACK-TO-FRONT BENJY. By Dick King-Smith. Puffin pound;3.99. A book described as "perfect for new readers just embarking on real books", as Corgi Pups are, needs to be very special. It also begs the question: what kind of books have these "new readers" encountered previously? The days when the answer would have been vocabulary-controlled graded texts from a reading scheme are surely over. Young readers coming to the titles under review will already have enjoyed picture books and other shared stories. What will be "new" about the type of reading experience these books provide and aim to develop is the element of independence - reading a book from cover to cover with limited adult intervention, or none.

This is the most difficult and precious audience to write for. Yet the authors of early readers and first chapter books are rarely given plaudits, unless they write for other age ranges, too. The quality of material available might be better if awards paid this category more attention. As it is, the best titles easily stand out from the crowd.

Cat Patrol is a wonderful and wonder-inspiring book. Told in five short chapters, it packs an emotionally charged and life-enhancing storyline into its 64 pages. Ben is a bird-lover. He is distraught when new neighbours move in and hack down the bushes in their overgrown garden, depriving the birds of cover. Worse still, they bring Sammy the cat with them. When Ben discovers a young bird crashing about his garden, unable to take flight and apparently injured, he is quick to apportion blame. However, the bird turns out to be a swift which has become accidentally grounded, and it is Mr Jones, the new neighbour, who helps Ben put the bird back to rights. Paul May's faultless text is exquisitely supported by Peter Bailey's gently expressive illustrations.

Inanother Corgi Pup, Great Goal! by Rob Childs, the subject matter might appeal, but the style and quality of writing risks deterring readers. Even an adult may have to read the following sentence twice, to determine how much of it is governed by the conditional "if": "Things might well have been a lot worse if Hannah had not been on top form in goal and she was soon in the thick of the action again." A comma after "goal" would have helped. A youngster reading a book alone for the first time can do without such stumbling blocks.

Karen Wallace has won prizes for her non-fiction picture book texts. She is also one of the best writers of fiction for developing readers. Police Cat Fuzz Rides Again! is a great 26-page crime-foiling story in which the police "cat" and Sergeant Malcolm succeed in protecting the Stars of Hendon diamonds.

Wallace also has a title in Comx, the young comic-book series from Aamp;C Black. In Yikes, It's A Yeti! snail-collector Norman Nomates bemoans his unexciting life until a camping trip with his granny turns out to have an unexpected destination: the foothills of the Himalayas.

Again, not all the titles are of such high standard, but Uncle Tom's Pterodactyl by Colin West, in which Terry's Uncle Tom has a pterodactyl that can perform as a live metal-detector (giving rise to one of the funniest illustrations in the book), has all the ingredients.

For children who need a simpler level of entry into independent reading, you can't do better than Damon Burnard's Little Bugs series. Lilly and the Ladybirds and Danny Longlegs are touching, witty stories of social exclusion and the longing to participate. Much of the humour is communicated by Burnard's line drawings.

At 90 pages, Back-to-Front Benjy is the most sophisticated text reviewed here. Benjy grows up doing everything backwards. His parents wonder if it could have something to do with their preference for travelling with their backs to the engine on trains. King-Smith's easy reading style and the amusing premise behind the story will give it enormous appeal to young readers, who will especially enjoy re-reversing Benjy's sentences (excellent practice in syntax). Again it done has Smith-King Dick.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussexl More primary fiction in Primary magazine, out June 22


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