Short and to the point

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
Michael Thorn selects illustrated stories that will appeal to six to nine-year-olds

THE CAT WHO GOT CARRIED AWAY. By Allan Ahlberg. Illustrated by Katharine McEwen. Walker Books pound;9.99

THE QUIGLEYS AT LARGE. By Simon Mason. Illustrated by Helen Stephens. David Fickling Books pound;10.99

THE LAST CASTAWAYS. By Harry Horse. Puffin pound;3.99

THE GOLDEN GOOSE. By Dick King-Smith. Illustrated by Ann Kronheimer. Puffin pound;3.99

DOCTOR QUACK. By Geraldine McCaughrean. Illustrated by Ross Collins. Hodder Children's Books pound;7.99

A seven-year-old I once taught read the entire Narnia sequence in a fortnight. But the majority of children in the six-to-nine age group, while being equally voracious in terms of book turn-over, need shorter stories, written (and ideally illustrated) in a style that is appealing and not intimidating. All five of these books fit the bill.

Everything about Allan Ahlberg's The Cat Who Got Away is perfect.

Brilliantly illustrated by Katharine McEwen, as are the first two books about the Gaskitt family (The Man who Wore all his Clothes and The Woman who Won Things), the book fizzes with visual and verbal inventiveness. The Gaskitts are a conventional family unit. Gus and Gloria could be the Topsy and Tim of the new millennium (this book opens with them both on mum and dad's bed looking at family photographs), except for the anarchic mayhem unleashed in the story development.

Chapter One is called "The Barking Pram". The narrative is lightning-paced and peppered with sufficient humour to keep adults chortling while reading the book aloud (witness Mr Cruncher the PE supply teacher, who loves running). Ahlberg asks many a question along the way, especially regarding Mrs Gaskitt, who spends the entire book in bed - "What's wrong? Is she poorly?" - and at various stages a map is introduced to take stock and summarise the state of play so far. "There's Mrs Gaskitt in their car."

This is both an entertaining and (for inexperienced readers) an immensely helpful device. The Quigleys are a similarly conventional family unit - mum, dad, two kids. But there's nothing anarchic or surreal about the Quigleys' world; the point of these stories is that the most mundane of lives has its quirks. The Quigleys at Large is Simon Mason's second collection of stories about them and, just as in the first book, he derives his storylines from everyday domestic situations - cleaning out the birdcage, a school fete, a holiday in France.

With sketchy black line illustrations, this is a more substantial read than the Gaskitts books, but it's written in a breezy, approachable style which is great for reading aloud. The one story that doesn't work so well concerns an adventure Will has on his own, with the rest of the family sidelined for too long. Keep it in the family through out for book three, please.

The print in Harry Horse's The Last Castaways is rather small but frequently broken up by the author's own intricate pen-and-ink illustrations. Grandfather and the little dog Roo, having a last voyage on the Unsinkable in a quest to sight King Cod, become castaways on a desert island. The book is narrated by the Grandfather in a tone of gentle exasperation, in the form of letters and a ship's log.

Few authors can have served this age group so well as Dick King-Smith. The Golden Goose will quickly become another favourite. Farmer Skint lives with his wife and children on Woebegone Farm. All is doom and gloom until one of the geese lays a golden egg, which hatches into a golden goose, which in turn brings good fortune to the family. King-Smith's narrative voice is, as always, gently and reassuringly avuncular. He can throw in a morsel of information - "Geese are good watchdogs, which is why the Romans..." - without risking a yawn. And he can base a wildlife presenter (David Otterbury) on David Attenborough without its seeming silly. Children are often asked to write in the style of a traditional folk-tale. Geraldine McCaughrean's immensely entertaining Doctor Quack shows the way to do it.

Think up a story with repeating segments, set it in a timeless past, have a hero down on his luck and a world-at-large apparently determined to thwart his efforts (Benedick is a "quack" seller of potions), then throw in some surprise twists, love interest and individual cunning. And you have a quacking good tale.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm Primary School, Hailsham, East Sussex. He introduces the shortlists for the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals in TES Friday magazine today.

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