Tell it again

20th January 2006 at 00:00
Huw Thomas selects short stories for key stages 2 and 3

Old Tales from Africa: The Girl Who Married a Lion By Alexander McCall Smith Canongate pound;4.99

The Boy Who Fell From the Sky: 50 Greek Myths By Lucy Coats Illustrated by Anthony Lewis Orion Dolphin pound;5.99

One Voice, Please By Sam McBratney Walker Books pound;4.99

Outsiders By Kevin Crossley-Holland Orion Children's Books pound;8.99

Higher Ground Edited by Anuj Goyal Chrysalis Children's Books pound;4.99

There are many retellings of traditional tales available, so a volume with freshness and charm stands out. Take The Girl Who Married a Lion, in which Alexander McCall Smith, creator of the Number 1 Ladies'

Detective Agency, retells short folk tales from Africa with sweet simplicity.

Stories of trust and deception, hunger and selfishness unfold, as sharp plot turns are related with lively scattiness. The humour stays with you long after reading. There's the moment when a boy with the power to save his nagging aunt from a strange animal's belly asks, "Do I have to?"

and the absurd lengths the brother of the Lion Bride reaches to check whether his nephews are lions. The tales carry a depth of wisdom, without being overbearing. There is no labouring of morals in their endings; instead, matter-of-fact final lines to make a reader smile.

Lucy Coats' large-format illustrated collection of 100 Greek myths in Atticus the Storyteller is now available in two attractive smaller paperbacks. The brevity of these retellings makes The Boy Who Fell From the Sky (and its companion volume, The Wooden Horse) a must-have resource for anyone teaching myths or Ancient Greece. The stories are well chosen and, where they link together, well organised. The usual crowd are here - Prometheus, Pandora, the Gorgon and the Minotaur - but presented in a way that makes them more accessible to young listeners than more drawn-out retellings. This book reminds us not to isolate these great myths in the class "doing the Greeks", but to let loose their primeval chaos throughout the school.

For all the fun of the folk tale, turn to Sam McBratney's One Voice, Please. This collection gathers shorter short stories (two to four pages), each with a pearl of wisdom or nugget of quirky humour. They are memorable tales, told with joke-like simplicity, and the book is a great resource for budding storytellers. I would have liked information on the origins of the tales, but instead there is the pleasure of reading the ramblings of a good storyteller, skittishly trotting out tales from a range of backgrounds.

Each of these titles retains the power of their stories while providing cogent retellings, making them an ideal resource for story times and literacy lessons, and I shall be using them in assembly over the coming months.

For older primary and secondary readers, Kevin Crossley-Holland's Outsiders is a collection of British folk tales, each involving the intrusion of outsiders (a sea wife, a wild man and so on) into a closed world.

Crossley-Holland has used language to estrange the reader from the simplicity of the stories and evoke alien worlds. The power of these tales lies in the way he places the reader squarely in the shoes of the outsiders. In the tradition of great storytelling, the stories have been renewed with a contemporary twist, at a time when society is struggling with the concept of inclusion. Quick mention must be made of Christian Birmingham's black and white drawings, capturing moments of expression or posture that vividly enhance the tales.

The anthology Higher Ground is a response to recent events: stories by contemporary writers including Melvin Burgess, Judy Allen, Gillian Cross and Alan Gibbons, stem from the tsunami disaster and its aftermath, drawing on the lives of real children caught up in the tragic events and including artwork by young tsunami survivors (Friday magazine, September 23). Again, we encounter events from a range of perspectives, with common themes of loss and post-disaster chaos.

The description of the wave is interwoven with tales such as Narinder Dhami's "Colours", which recounts a child's experience through her pictures, abandoning colours she once loved for the grey of grief. Neil Arksey's "The Last Boy on the Planet" tells of Santoso, wandering the beaches of Aceh, Indonesia, for 19 days.

Through such personal accounts terror, loss and courage, this volume reawakens an understanding of how disaster affects real people. A year on from the tsunami, as we continue to struggle for a response to more recent natural catastrophes, this book is the antidote to compassion fatigue.

Huw Thomas is head of St John's CE Primary School, Sheffield

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