Simple steps to success

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Dennis Hamley looks at books which help children become readers for life. Part of the task of a children's writer is to write texts which enable children to approach more complex works later on. It is fascinating to see how different authors and publishers deal with the process of making the newly confident reader a reader for life.

Textual demands don't only come through reading and interest levels - or even just length - but through form, convention and subtlety of response. Thirty years ago, Arthur Applebee showed how children becoming critical readers are continually construing, outgrowing, moving on the new levels of text: the books here, selected from new series fiction, give much evidence that authors take seriously the responsibility of leading children towards new competences in response to literary form.

Some books are beautifully constructed, with clues to their progress expertly placed for the observant reader and an authentic sense of satisfaction at the end.

Others bumble along amusingly but sometimes inconsequentially, raising smiles and even outright laughs, sometimes scary frissons. A few may move the reader on to other, greater works. One or two stagger the reader with their understated virtuosity.

Anne and Barbara Feinberg's Tashi stories, about Jack's new, strange friend, come from Australia (Little ArkRagged Bears Pounds 4.50 each). They have the feel of folk-tale and a charm which avoids whimsy. Of the other series here, Hamish Hamilton's Antelopes and A C Black's Jumbo Jets represent the extremes of traditional narrative and experiment.

Jean Richardson's The Doll Fight (Antelope Pounds 6.99) is a gentle, well-made narrative traditional in form, plot and moral, as Jenny realises that Dora, the demure doll Gran gave her, is superior to Sue's upstart, Barbie-type Shelley. Bob Wilson's Gosh, Look Teddy, It's a Werewolf, with its textual playfulness, is in a different world. Paralysingly funny, this displays its own workings like the Lloyd's Building, with an explosively intrusive author. If you liked Ging Gang Goolie It's an Alien, you'll love this.

Dynamite Deela in Lisa Bruce's series (Orchard Pounds 6.99) is an engaging, accident-prone Asian girl. Trouble for Deela introduces her and her family. I was especially impressed by Muddle Trouble, about the same girl. With Thomas Barham's Jackdaw of Rheims as a distant progenitor, this miniature mystery story contains cleverly placed clues for the attentive reader and a valuable process of recognition for the new reader. John Cramer's The Weather Wizards and the Great Bread Catastrophe (Orchard Pounds 6.99), by contrast, offers Munchausen-like humour and effective comic-strip illustrations.

Macdonald's Shivery Storybooks (Pounds 3.99 each) offer pleasantly fearful shocks. Herbie Brennan's Little House and Mary Hooper's Time Flies are nicely judged, intriguing narratives which introduce favourite conventions in children's literature. Anthony Masters's The Ghost Bus is more - a powerful ghost story in a tight format. What will young readers make of it? It scared me half to death.

Roy Apps's Twitches are engaging creatures. The Twitches' Bathday (Macdonald Pounds 3.99) keeps up the humorous standard of these eccentrically incompetent twin witches. Very different, beautifully written, with superb evocation of character and place, are Malorie Blackman's Betsey Biggalow Caribbean Stories (Piccadilly Pounds 6.99). Betsey's Birthday Surprise is a deeply satisfying narrative.

For many years, Young Puffins (Pounds 3.50 each) held the forest for new readers. Alexander McCall Smith's The Banana Machine provides a good, though rather implausible, story and another Caribbean setting. John Escott's The Brainwasher tells of children thwarting villainous adults with really dirty tricks, in a fight to save their school. Humphrey Carpenter's Mr Majeika and the Ghost Train shows this familiar hero bumbling along as he has for years. Betsy Duffy's Lucky on the Loose moves to a climax as effective as one would expect from the daughter of Betsy Byars, while in Tessa Krailing's The Great Dinosaur Kidnap new readers are taken into a full-length, fairly demanding novel to round off the process.

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