Voyager, spy, plant collector

8th April 2005 at 01:00
Michael Thorn looks at stories that will take young children on colourful and thrilling journeys

Corby Flood. By Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. Doubleday pound;8.99.

Pirates, Plants and Plunder! By Stewart Ross. Illustrated by David Roberts. Eden ProjectRandom House pound;4.99

Secret Agent Jack Stalwart: The Mystery of the Mona Lisa; The Escape of the Deadly Dinosaur; The Treasure of the Sacred Temple; The Caper of the Crown Jewels. By Elizabeth Singer Hunt. Chubby Cheeks Publications pound;3.99

Freddy the Detective. By Walter R. Brooks. Duckworth pound;12.99

Bravo Grace! By Mary Hoffman. Frances Lincoln pound;8.99

The Kazillion Wish By Nick Place. Illustrated by Ross Collins The Chicken House pound;6.99 It might sound like the publisher talking, but I really do think Corby Flood is Stewart and Riddell's best book yet (it is the second of their "Far-Flung Adventures"; the first, Smarties Prize winner Fergus Crane, is now out in paperback). Completely satisfying as an adventure, the new book is full of amusing characterisation and is endlessly playful and inventive, right up to the witty sequence of Epilogue pages.

I read the start of it to a Year 2 class who had to have the word "smarmy" explained, but were otherwise immediately enthralled. They particularly enjoyed Corby's habit of writing in Hoffendinck's Guide, an old guidebook found on board the S. S. Euphonia, noting down the good and bad points of Jon-Jolyon Letchworth Crisp, one of her older sister's admirers.

When I returned a few days later to continue the story, they could remember the two sides of the list almost word for word, but had to be reminded that Corby was a girl (she does look rather androgynous on the cover, and Corby, they thought, sounded like a boy's name).

It is mainly children a little older (eight to 11-year-olds) who will enjoy reading this book on their own. At the start of every chapter a mysterious something trapped inside a wooden crate (the reader has to wait until the final page of the story to find out what) sings its sad song. There is additional sadness on the ancient, rusting liner. Corby's father, a builder of bridges, has suffered a major disappointment, which has been the occasion for the family joining the cruise ship.

The other passengers are a marvellous assortment of eccentrics (a group of clowns all named after font families: Mr Bembo, Mr Times-Roman, Mr Franklin-Gothic and so on) every bit as enduringly off-the-wall as characters described by Lewis Carroll and illustrated by Tenniel.

The choice of David Roberts as illustrator for Pirates, Plants and Plunder! (an Eden Project title) sets up expectations of anarchic wordplay ... la Philip Ardagh (Roberts is the illustrator of Ardagh's Eddie Dickens trilogy, among other titles). It's quite a relief to find Stewart Ross allowing the dramatic moments in these true stories about real-life explorers and plant collectors to speak for themselves.

Elizabeth Singer Hunt has stumbled on an appealing formula for her series about secret agent Jack Stalwart. In each new book Jack is sent on a mission by the GPF (Global Protection Force) to a different country. Every book begins with a world map highlighting the country in question. We're told a little bit about nine-year-old Jack and Whizzy, the magical miniature globe via which he receives his assignments. Then there are some facts about the country to be visited, with some common phrases. These are books that Year 2 children could enjoy on their own, but they are equally suited to older, struggling readers.

Freddy the Pig is a classic children's book character, having featured in a series written between 1927 and 1958, but he is far less familiar to British readers than he is to Americans and, even in the United States, copies of Freddy titles in reasonable condition are becoming hard to find.

So the Overlook Press has reissued them in facsimile editions (available here through Duckworth). They can be recommended for parents or teachers to read aloud to children aged between seven and 10.

I enjoyed Freddy The Detective for its strange amalgam of the Blackberry Farm series and Animal Farm. But I fear children reading it on their own would be just plain puzzled by the American phrase "train of cars". I doubt they would understand that it refers to a toy train-set and its carriages, or appreciate that train-sets at the time the book was written were much larger than modern train-sets, and that therefore a carriage could indeed conceal a rat.

Bravo Grace! is the fourth collection in Mary Hoffman's deftly-written sequence of stories about a girl who is brought up by her mother and grandmother, while her father has established a new family in The Gambia.

Life's an adventure in itself, and Hoffman evokes the manner in which children experience changes in their lives with an understated, poetic precision. Here Grace has to get used to the fact that she is uncomfortable when a best friend who has moved away returns for a short visit. She also has to get used to moving out of her grandmother's place, to her mother remarrying, and then to the announcement that a baby is on the way.

The Kazillion Wish is an energetic, Australian-written, British-illustrated, wish quest comic adventure. At the start of the book, brother and sister Ainsley and Harlan have had three years to get used to visiting their parents in separate houses and can see the good points: double the toys and double the pets. But they don't think their dad sees it that way, and set out to cheer him up.

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

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