Touching tales and alluring fables

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
Jan Mark explores fiction to build reading confidence at key stage 12

Dogs Don't do Dishes

By Rebecca Lisle, illustrated by Tim Archbold

Andersen Press pound;4.99

You can do it, Stanley

By Irena Green, illustrated by Susan Hellard

Corgi Pups pound;3.99

White Wolves series:

Buffalo Bert

By Michaela Morgan, iIlustrated by Ian Newsham

Swan Boy

By Diana Hendry, illustrated by Jim Eldridge

AC Black pound;4.99 each

The Starburster

By Berlie Doherty, illustrated by Lesley Harker

Young Corgi pound;3.99

The Coldest Day in the Zoo

By Alan Rusbridger, illustrated by Ben Cort Puffin pound;3.99

The idea of the sentient robot has been a staple of fiction for a long time. In Dogs Don't Do Dishes, Tom, who is a junior inventor in a large corporation, constructs a robotic dog - a maintenance-free pet which will also do all the housework.

Metal-Mutt is indeed an electronic marvel who will work tirelessly because that is what he is programmed to do, but in his heart he is all dog. Falling into the hands of the bone-idle Crumm family he cooks and cleans and waits with pathetic canine trustfulness to be loved and patted and taken for walks. It doesn't happen.

His disappointment, skilfully conveyed in Tim Archbold's drawings, is heart-rending. An accident gives him the chance to save someone from drowning like a real dog, earning himself his happy ending.

You Can do it, Stanley is a lovely little book that's funny, touching and beautifully written. Ben, along with the rest of his class, is given a sunflower seed to germinate and nurture; ultimately, there will be a prize for the tallest plant. Grandad, a keen gardener, advises Ben to talk to his seed and give it a name, so Ben calls it Stanley, after Grandad, and loves it like a brother: "By the end of another week Stanley had six leaves and was supporting United."

By inference, Ben is clearly not one of life's achievers, but with his attention and encouragement, Stanley streaks ahead. For the last leg of the competition all the sunflowers are planted in the school garden where snide and simpering Jennifer Sugden, who wins everything, has base designs on Stanley, but at the last moment Stanley repays Ben's devotion in the only way a sunflower can.

As a witty well-written read, and an educative introduction to the mechanics of heliotropism, Irena Green's first book is a triumph of finding magic in the commonplace.

Embarrassing parents are a universal problem. Children are usually more tolerant of grandparents, but there are limits. Sunny's grandad in Buffalo Bert is a line-dancing, country-and-western-singing urban cowboy, used to be her hero, now he is a potential blight on her social life. What will people think? Bert wears his spurs in the high street and shouts "yee-hah!"

in the post office, until Sunny tactlessly suggests that he find a hobby more suited to the mature man. "Sometimes it's hard to be a grandad," he sings mournfully.

In the end it is Sunny who adapts, learning not to second-guess other people's prejudices.

Also from the White Wolves series is Diana Hendry's Swan Boy, taking up the legend of the Children of Lir, after the happy ending. Caleb is left with a wing instead of an arm when he and his brothers are released from the spell that had turned them into swans. While Caleb regards his wing as a reminder of lost freedom, to the family it is an unsightly disability. This is a simply-told but thought-provoking fable.

The Starbuster is a modern story based on the legend of Tam Lin - modern, that is, in that the family uses toothpaste and owns a pram, but when the new baby vanishes they fail to call the police, since it has obviously been stolen by fairies and a changeling left in its place, which they reject because it is ugly.

Tam, with the changeling, sets off for the land of Faery to recover his little sister. Lesley Harker's pictures are sweet and the story ambles along pleasantly, but it's a rather boneless rendering of a very tough tale.

Alan Rusbridger's The Coldest Day in the Zoo relates the misadventures of a group of keepers who take their charges home for the weekend when the central heating breaks down. Probably written "as told to the author's children", the syntax is an uneven mix of compound sentences with subordinate clauses and Blairite sentences without any verbs. Cheerful knockabout fun, but even a book this short can benefit from the attentions of an editor.

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