Triumph of reason

8th July 2005 at 01:00
THE TRUTH ABOUT THOSE BILLY GOATS. By Katrina Law. Illustrated by Graham Philpot. Franklin Watts pound;3.99

JENNY AND THE JUMBLE SALE. By Sue Graves. Illustrated by Richard Watson. Franklin Watts pound;8.99 (hardback)

BERT THE FAIRIES' FASHION EXPERT. By Jeanne Willis. Illustrated by Korky Paul. Orchard Books pound;3.99

KEEPER'S BALL. By Rob Childs. Illustrated by Kate Sheppard. Corgi Pups Pounds 3.99

NITERACY HOUR. By John Dougherty. Illustrated by Georgien Overwater. Young Corgi pound;3.99

SIRENS AND SEA MONSTERS. By Mary Pope Osborne Illustrated by Troy Howell. HyperionTradewind pound;3.99

Jan Mark selects stories to engage independent readers

A new way with old tales is to subvert the readers' expectations by retelling them from the point of view of the ostensible villain. The Truth about Those Billy Goats is the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff, as told by the troll. It seems that the bridge they trip-trapped over was a toll bridge. "Do I look like a troll?" the narrator asks indignantly. Well, he does, rather.

You can see how the confusion arises when he collects tolls for the upkeep of the bridge. His usual customers - Goldilocks, Three Bears, assorted Big Bad Wolves - pay up cheerfully, but then the oafish goats arrive. Plenty of verbal and visual jokes keep this one rattling along; like Jenny and the Jumble Sale, it's an example of the consistently excellent illustrated stories for young readers from Franklin Watt's Reading Corner and Hopscotch series respectively.

In Sue Graves's book, Jenny and her family descend on a jumble sale to find something she can wear to a fancy-dress party. Well-meaning relatives offer her such accessories as a helmet, snorkel and flippers and wings, helpfully suggesting that she go as a firefighter, a diver or a fairy. Jenny is left with an armful of ill-matched items, unable to choose which to wear. But she is a lateral thinker. "I've got an idea," she says finally. "I shall go as... a jumble sale!".

More fairytale characters show up in Bert the Fairies' Fashion Expert, one of Orchard's Crazy Job series, all written by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Korky Paul, clearly a dream team. Ever so slightly camp, with designer stubble and shades, Bert can handle the most outre requests for outfits, permitting himself a bitchy aside at the sight of glass slippers and when Rumpelstiltskin demands that his heap of straw be spun into gold he sees him off with: "Gold is so yesterday." Then the Wicked Fairy blows in with an order for a cloak to be made of Tortoise Silk and Shark's Fur, and Bert is obliged to cut corners. Rollicking doggerel with sublimely silly pictures.

In Keeper's Ball, Alex's dad drags him to the park every week to help prepare for Sunday League matches. One of life's perennial substitutes, Alex occasionally gets a game, but suspects that this is only as a favour to his father. Tubby and unathletic, and spectacularly lacking in ball skills, he prefers to dream of Premier League glory without doing anything to achieve it until he accidentally discovers that he is a natural goalie.

His nickname, Jelly-Belly, shortened to a snappy J-B, which he decides is short for "Just Brilliant", Alex starts to take his gift seriously. Simply told, this story nevertheless leaves readers, and perhaps their wrong-headed dads, with something to think about.

Jim may be a headlouse, but like Don Marquis's archie the cockroach, he has the soul of a poet. Hatching on Gregory's head in school, Jim discovers that he has special powers; he can absorb the talents of anyone whose blood he drinks. Gregory is a good listener and Jim becomes enthralled by an excerpt from Treasure Island: but only an excerpt, this being the literacy hour. Longing to know how the story continues, Jim, who has named himself after Stevenson's hero, befriends other scalps in the class and finally realises his ambition of a life at sea, abseiling from one head of hair to the next. Niteracy Hour is a lousy pun and not strictly accurate since, as Jim keeps reminding us, he is not a nit, which is an egg. But this is mere nit-picking; the book is really about the enchantment of good stories and the pleasures of infestation.

Aimed at older primary readers, but well within the range of anyone who can handle Treasure Island, Mary Pope Osborne's Tales from the Odyssey retain the literary quality of adult retellings made manageable by digesting them into a set of six small, handsomely produced and decorated paperbacks with short chapters, each with a map, explanatory notes and helpful guides to pronunciation. The One-eyed Giant, The Land of the Dead and The Gray-Eyed Goddess are also available now and Return to Ithaca and The Final Battle will follow shortly. Only a very occasional difference in spelling betrays their American origin.

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