Stories to build readers

17th March 2006 at 00:00
Michael Thorn finds comedy, wizardry, anarchy and more packed into chapter books

The Magician's Boy

By Susan Cooper, illustrated by Serena Riglietti

Hodder pound;4.99

Billy Wizard

By Chris Priestley

Corgi pound;3.99

Billy Bonkers

By Giles Andreae, illustrated by Nick Sharratt.

Orchard Books pound;9.99

Man Of The Match

By Sophie Smiley, illustrated by Michael Foreman.

Andersen Press pound;4.99

Nannycatch Chronicles

By James Heneghan and Bruce McBay, illustrated by Geraldo Valerio Tradewind


Crazy Party At The House Of Fun

By Jon Blake, illustrated by David Roberts.

Hodder pound;4.99

These six titles demonstrate the range of stories available in short chapter book form. From a playful riff on familiar characters from nurseryland, through thoughtful dramas about feelings and being different, to surreal humour of the most outlandish variety, the books are there, waiting to find their audience.

Susan Cooper's fiction for children spans some five decades, from The Dark Is Rising sequence to the more recent Green Boy and Victory. In The Magician's Boy, a short tale for younger readers, she sets a character loose in the Land of Story. The Boy is a magician's apprentice who helps his master present a puppet show of St George and the Dragon. But at one child's party, the St George puppet is missing. Cue a quest and much inventive play with familiar figures from nursery rhymes and fairy tales.

The humour is never too clever for young children, but includes nods to any adults who may find themselves reading the book aloud. When the Boy asks The Old Woman (Who Lived In A Shoe) if St George is with her, she replies, "There's not a man in the land who would take on a family this size. Not even a saint!" This is enjoyable in its own right, and an excellent resource to stimulate children into creating their own variations on traditional tales.

In Billy Wizard, the wizardry is all bluff. Two new boys move into a class on the same day. Joe, like his father, is shy and nervous about new beginnings. Billy, bullied at his previous school, engages his "overactive imagination" and pretends to be a wizard. The result is that everyone finds him weird. A sensitive story about finding your feet and coping with aggression, and particularly notable for the depiction of father-son bonding.

A very different mood pervades Billy Bonkers, which contains three stories in which Billy becomes inflated by eating too much dry porridge, is shot out to sea on jet-propelled waterwings, and jumps so high on a trampoline he goes into orbit and crashes into a planet made of chocolate. Mr Bonkers is always saying, "The world's gone mad", while Mrs Bonkers' pet expression is "Lordy lorks". Nick Sharratt's illustrations include amusingly pseudo-scientific diagrams.

Man Of The Match is the second book about Bobby, a football-obsessed boy with Down's syndrome, and his considerate older sister, Charlie. Here, Charlie accompanies Bobby on an activity holiday for children with special needs. Bobby's insatiable enthusiasm and Charlie's attentiveness towards her brother are touching, but the author's main triumph is her sensitive depiction of a slowly thawing relationship between Bobby and Paul, a presumably autistic boy who does not speak until the very end of the book.

If I could keep only one of these books, it would be Nannycatch Chronicles.

The authors are Canadian, though all the names used for places surrounding Nannycatch Meadows in the Great Forest are taken from English villages, tarns and becks. The cosiness (there is much tea-drinking and eating of buttered scones) and black humour (a death in nearly every chapter), coupled with the scratchy style of Valerio's line illustrations, give the book a left-of-field atmosphere. These animal stories with a difference will appeal to any child developing a sardonic sense of humour.

For those whose humour is more wildly anarchic, Jon Blake's second book about Stinky Fingers and friends (and what happens when one of the operators presses the wrong switch during their visit to the Brain Drain) is every bit as wacky as the first. David Roberts is the perfect illustrator for a world ruled by Blue Soup, the mysterious force from outer space and contributor of witty notes throughout the story. My favourite interjection is an apology coming in the middle of an overlong chapter - it's an empty rectangle, with an invitation to "get out your nice crayons and do a picture", with the footnote "kindly donated by Blue Soup".

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm Primary School, Hailsham, East Sussex

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