Tales to mix and match

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Collins Cascades series. A Twist in the Tale. By Jeffrey Archer. Pounds 5.75.

My Family and Other Animals. By Gerald Durrell. Pounds 5.99.

The Bully. By Jan Needle. Pounds 5.75.

Collins Longman Imprint series. My Family and other Natural Disasters. By Josephine Feeney.

Maphead. By Lesley Howarth.

The Book of the Banshee By Anne Fine.

A Pack of Liars By Anne Fine.

Step by Wicked Step. By Anne Fine. Longman Pounds 4.95.

Global Tales. Edited by Chris Donovan, Alun Hicks and Beverley Naidoo. Longman Pounds 4.99.

Some years ago, Jan Needle lamented the dichotomy between concerned adults trying to encourage children to read while disapproving of, or actively suppressing, the very books young people choose and enjoy. These titles for key stage 3 or 4 show how unjustified this criticism is. They include Ms Needle's own captivating read, The Bully, which avoids the glib answers of formulaic fiction.

Ironically, professor of education Ted Wragg's notorious "mad curriculum disease" has intensified demand among teachers for books that grip the attention of all children, not just the white middle classes.

The eclectic literary mix of these two collections should satisfy teachers and children alike. To reinforce the point, the covers of books in the Cascades series carry student-reviewers' eulogies, including those for Jeffrey Archer's short stories. Mock not. For me, Global Tales is more significant than A Twist in the Tale. But if it is important for young people to meet a range of genres, why not include the banal-best-seller and politically incorrect?

Anne Fine and Jan Needle both tackle the problematic without ignoring what Geoff Fox, editor of Children's Literature in Education, calls "the intractable, jagged nature of actual experience". Key stage 3 (more than most) needs such writers, or young people - particularly boys - are likely to stop reading fiction.

In her novels Fine identifies with writer Susan Sontag's comment: "Sometimes I think the most useful thing I can do is increase the sense of the complexity of things," a thought repeated in the denouement of The Bully by the headteacher, Mrs Stacey.

This moral ambiguity is one reason teenagers can approach Fine's work at several levels, the importance of which is recognised by Will in The Book of the Banshee.

She and Needle share a reputation for gritty realism, as shown by the trench warfare of family life in Step by Wicked Step. But Fine, never panders to sentimentalised teenage self-absorption. That would cheat her readers.

Nor do Josephine Feeney and Lesley Howarth. Incidentally, libraries and class book-boxes would benefit from opportunities for comparisons between several of these books. My Family and Other Natural Disasters with The Book of the Banshee, Mapped and Step by Wicked Step are examples.

Both series are excellent value, not only for content but their durability and eye-catching packaging. Cascades are hardback "plain" texts, while Longman's are study texts - too pervasively so for some teachers ("big worksheets with novels inserted"). But pay your money and take your choice.

Longman's Writers on Writing sections carry some intriguing insights into the writing process (Step by Wicked Step, for example, germinated in a lavatory).

The study programmes should generate active responses (research, genre transformations and so on). They are sufficiently numerous and varied to allow teacher-pupil negotiation.

Brian Slough was a member of the working group on English in the national curriculum and a head of English for 30 years

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