Tales of the unexpected

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Michael Thorn finds quirky fiction for choosy readers in key stage 2

CHILDREN'S LITERATURE

Hands Up!

By Paul Magrs; Simon amp; Schuster pound;8.99

Stanley Bagshaw And The Short-sighted Football Trainer

By Bob Wilson; Barn Owl pound;4.99

Misadventures of Guy Strang 1: Not My Parents!

By Sarah Weeks; Hodder Children's Books pound;4.99

Moonmallow Smoothie

By Philip Wooderson; Aamp;C Black pound;4.99

There are always a few key stage 2 pupils whose reading tastes remain undeveloped or unclassifiable. It's often the quirky titles that appeal to these demanding readers.

Hands Up! by Paul Magrs is a decidedly peculiar black comedy about a puppeteer who makes a pact with the devil. Jason's dad was once the biggest name in ventriloquism, with his own television show, in which he appeared alongside Tolstoy the Long-Eared Bat. But those days are long gone and Frank Lurcher is an embittered has-been. In a vivid early sequence, Frank kills all the puppets in a store window, setting in motion the bizarre tale of serial puppet murders fuelled by a family vendetta.

Jason's much older stepbrother is the latest puppeteer maestro, with his own TV show, mansion and all the trappings of stardom. This does not go down well with either the father or with Tolstoy, the remaindered puppet.

At 13, Jason is older than the target audience, a fact that may well appeal to readers of nine-plus who find some children's fiction too juvenile. In a spoof "Mamazon" review, included in the book's epilogue, Paul Magrs has the make-believe reviewer question its "kiddie's book" credentials: "It's too nasty for them. Violent and horrible, with swearing in. And the devil."

The book does include swearing and passing references to Jason "getting a stiffy", so it's not going to be a title that primary teachers will choose to read aloud; it's one to have on hand for targeted recommendation.

One of many incidental moments of humour in Stanley Bagshaw And The Short-sighted Football Trainer occurs when a neighbour calling for sugar asks Gran the football score at just the same time as the radio commentator gives it, and the speech bubble reads: "Funny? She said that without moving her lips." But therein lies the only similarity between the black comedy of Hands Up! and the gentle humour in this rhyming football tale from the cloth-cap period in graphic format, now reissued. Stanley has failed to obtain a ticket for the cup game between Spurs and Huddersfield Albion.

Autograph-collecting, he sneaks into the changing rooms during the second half, is mistaken for the substitute goalie and saves a penalty in the dying minutes of the game. He is then surprised when the Spurs penalty-taker refuses to sign his autograph book. This comic-style picture book classic is especially recommended for children who like Raymond Briggs.

It's back to black comedy in Not My Parents, when 11-year-old Guy becomes convinced he and another boy were mistakenly switched soon after birth.

That seems to be the only way to explain the fact that he is lumbered with eccentric parents, while the goofy, nose-picking Bob-o, who shares his birthday, has a home-life of comfortable ordinariness. Of course, the upshot in this son-swap story (the two boys change families for a weekend) is that Guy comes to appreciate his parents' freakish ways after experiencing the sterile conformity of Bob-o's home life. The moral is predictable, but the writing and characterisation in this highly entertaining short novel make it a far-from-ordinary read.

The same can be said for Moonmallow Smoothie in the excellent Black Cats series of chapter books. It takes a tried-and-tested narrative formula (the foiling of fiendish plans) and breathes new life into it by the ingenuity of its central premise - a meteorite that creates a foam which, when mixed with ice cream, creates the "moonmallow smoothie". Even those children who turn their noses up at conventional juvenile crime novels should enjoy this.

Michael Thorn is deputy head at Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex

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