Tales from the kitchen sink

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Michael Thorn wonders if the latest crop of fiction for young readers is leaning too heavily on domestic detail

BEAR'S BAD MOOD. John Prater. First Young Puffin Pounds 3. 99.

GOODNIGHT MONSTER. Carolyn Dinan. First Young Puffin Pounds 3.99.

DELILAH DIGS FOR TREASURE. Rachel Pank. Mammoth Blue Banana Pounds 3.99.

ALL ABOARD FOR THE MILKY WAY. Karen Wallace. Hodder Read Alone Pounds 2.99.

SICK AS A PARROT. Michaela Morgan and Trevor Dunton. Colour Jets. A amp; C Black Pounds 6.99.

LUCKY NUMBERS. Clare Bevan. Macdonald Pounds 8.50.

FREE THE WHALES. Jamie Rix. Walker Pounds 6.99.

JENNIFER'S DIARY. Anne Fine. Puffin Pounds 3.99.

PEST FRIENDS. Pippa Goodhart. Mammoth Pounds 3.50.

NAME GAMES. Theresa Breslin. Mammoth Pounds 3.99.

DILLY AND THE CUP FINAL. Tony Bradman. Mammoth Pounds 3.99

Once upon a time there was a rainbow. Each colour of the rainbow was a good colour, but the best colours - the prizes at the end of the rainbow - were silver and gold. The journey was made as straightforward as possible for all young travellers. Follow the green track, follow the yellow. Plod to the end of the road.

Wizards from distant parts arrived. Some thought them wise. Others thought them wicked. The wizards put a spell on the rainbow and jumbled its colours together. They took the silver and the gold and turned them into glittery dust. They sprinkled this dust among the jumbled colours and allowed the young people to scamper about as they pleased.

Writers of books for newly independent readers do not presently care for the language and structures of folk tale or fairy tale, preferring everyday situations of school and family life.

In Bear's Bad Mood, John Prater's anthropomorphic family of bears is complete with two bickering sisters, a moody brother and a mum who sings along with the radio while doing the drying up.

In another First Young Puffin, Goodnight Monster, Carolyn Dinan deals with a boy's fear of the dark. After repeatedly calling out to his mum because he is imagining things under his bed, the boy discovers that there is a monster there after all. But it is friendly, doe-eyed and can talk.

Distinctive formats and eye-catching trademarks are all helpful means of identifying appropriate reading material. Mammoth's Blue Banana titles are instantly recognisable. In Rachel Pank's Delilah Digs for Treasure, Delilah gets a pirate's hat for her birthday and is determined to find some treasure. The speech bubbles and the match of pictures to text make this a small format picture book, rather than a chapter book - very much for the beginner readers at whom it is aimed.

Hodder's Read Alone series delivers titles with short chapters, large type and lots of pictures. Karen Wallace's All Aboard for the Milky Way, about a school trip into outer space (and through time), has several laughs at the expense of the accompanying teachers. Nasty Mrs Thudwaite is turned into a baby and the headmaster is almost cooked by Stone Age cannibals. All good fun, but I should think that even six-year-olds are likely to question the device of having the story told by Charlie on postcards sent home.

In Colour Jets, heavy use of illustration and speech bubbles persists, but the stories are a little longer and organised into chapters. Excellent writers are doing work for this series and the team of Michaela Morgan and Trevor Dunton has come up with a gem in Sick as a Parrot. The Sullivans' family-life is turned upside down when a pirate, Short Bob Silver, moves in. All children will love his rendition of "What shall we do with the dirty nappy?". Even the parrot joins in: "Yo-ho-ho and powder his bum!" On the back of Clare Bevan's Lucky Numbers (a jolly morality tale about a family who win the lottery and end up miserable) we read: "Storybooks with red spines are ideal for reading aloud or alone." Tut tut. This will have to be reported to the wizards. Surely publishers can see that, rather than colour coding, it is much better to go for the banana-type trademark.

Jamie Rix's Free the Whales is a large-print chapter book which all children (and parents of same) who are obsessive about articles of clothing will enjoy. In a kind of Free Willy III, Rix's main character, Alistair, refuses to take off his favourite whale-print T-shirt. It gets crustier and crustier until one day his mum gets her way and it's put in the wash. Cue for the whales to swim free.

The quality of longer chapter books gets better all the time. Anne Fine seems able to write brilliantly at every level. Jennifer's Diary is about two very different girls. Iolanthe is imaginative, dreamy and articulate. Jennifer, short of ideas, can never think what to write in her diary. Iolanthe is only too pleased to lend a hand.

The bright pink cover signifies nothing, but will make it easy to spot this delightful read on the shelf.

Pippa Goodhart's Pest Friends (a Mammoth Storybook) is also about two girls. Maxine lives in a loud, crowded, messy home - she is the dominant one. Her new friend Minnie is quiet as a mouse. They make a resourceful pair. Especially impressive is the understated way in which Goodhart lets the reader know that Maxine is confined to a wheelchair.

Theresa Breslin shows in Name Games that, like Anne Fine, she can write as well for younger readers as she does for older ones. This is a hugely entertaining story about name-changing, which also manages to take a thought-provoking look at the assumptions we (especially teachers) make about people on the basis of their names.

With more than 20 titles in his Dilly series, and a television tie-in, Tony Bradman has clearly struck a winning note. The dinosaur children are surprisingly formal with their talk of "Father" and "Mother". In the latest, Dilly and the Cup Final, we have four separate stories, rather than a continuous chapter book. The title story has play-by-the-rules Father deciding that a cup tie is just the occasion for his son Dilly's special screaming skills.

Good as these books are, their determined domesticity might tempt a wizard to wonder what place the yellow brick road has in the imaginative life of the average seven-year-old reader.

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