Upper primary

7th July 2000 at 01:00
THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE. By Louise Erdrich. Orion pound;4.99. TOAD RAGE. By Morris Gleitzman.Puffin pound;3.99. FLINT. By Neil Arksey. Corgi pound;3.99. THE HOLY TERRORS. By Josephine Feeney. Collins pound;9.99. ZARCONI'S MAGIC FLYING FISH. By Kirsty Murray. Allen amp; Unwin pound;4.99

Upper primary readers have varying tastes, but most will find something to suit them in this batch. For children who like an open-air, back-to-nature story, The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich, already known for her novels for adults, provides an account of a year in the life of a seven-year-old Native American girl in the mid-19th century.

Omakayas, an Ojibwa child rescued as a foundling from a small island whose every other inhabitant has succumbed to smallpox, is taken into safety by a spirited trapper and medicine woman, Old Tallow, to be raised on Madeline Island, Lake Superior. The book contains marvellously observed descriptions of moose-hide tanning (a task Omakayas loathes but at which she excels); talking with bear cubs; appearances of a pet crow; and the seasonally driven routines of the tribe, such as the erection of the birchbark house each spring.

This reverent (but never solemn) book contains exceptionally moving scenes. Those with susceptible sensibilities will be heart-wrung at the end, stirred by the dignity of the language. A small example: after a dog has been killed for biting Omakayas, there is in the owner's step "the sadness of parting with an old but dangerously foolish friend". The book is the first in a cycle retracing the author's own family history.

Morris Gleitzman's fans will know not to expect a reverent tone in his new novel, Toad Rage. Indeed, when it comes to the dietary details of the cane toad, the book's irreverence is positively scatological. Limpy sets out to discovr why humans hate toads and delight in flattening them on the highway. His pet phrase is "Stack me", and the stacking of "dead rellies" in his room takes up much of his time. He muses at one point that some CD racks are just what he needs.

The humour is very much front-stage in this book, but discerning readers will also appreciate it as a sideways look at how people respond to ugliness. One of the funniest scenes is when Limpy and another toad appear on a big screen in a sports arena and the whole crowd starts to make gagging noises. Children will enjoy squirming at the body fluid references.

Flint, the latest book by Neil Arksey, is a footballing novel in which the football plays second fiddle to a story about a boy's uncomfortable relationship with his scrap-collecting, dodgy-dealing, night-burgling dad. Both Flint and the dad are vividly believable characters, and Arksey gets the social divide between Flint and the middle-class boys he sneaks games of football with spot on. Readers are invited to identify with Flint and, in the end, to sympathise with his illiterate father.

The Holy Terrors is Josephine Feeney's sequel to Dadhunters. Here Gary's parents are back together, remarried and thinking of having another child. List-making Gary and friend Robert are determined to thwart this notion. The novel is a shorter, lighter read than the other books, and the characters more one-dimensional.

For a longer, traditionally narrated story, Zarconi's Magic Flying Fish by Kirsty Murray is a dramatic Australian novel about circus life, containing likeable characters, a finely modulated sentimentality, and dialogue that uses the odd expletive in a perfectly acceptable way.

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

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today