There is no short cut to choosing the right books. First, know the child. A book that demands too much may be worse than no book at all, and that smart boxed set of Narnia stories will remain untouched if its recipient still expects an illustration on every other page.
Don't even think of trying to be politically correct. Girls and boys decide very early on what's suitable for each. The exotic-adventure writer Willard Price has dozens of novels in print (Red Fox pounds 3.50) because he has managed to pinpoint precisely what makes a nine-year-old boy's pulse- rate soar. If it takes close encounters with whales, elephants, ice-floes and volcanoes, go with it. Once the book habit is established there's a lifetime to experiment in. Of course, there are books that succeed in appealing equally to girls and boys, but in the upper age-ranges they are harder to find: Berlie Doherty's The Snakestone (see below) is a rare example.
And how to ease the transition from reading-practice to bookwormdom? Reading schemes have come a long way since the dull, rigid publications that once passed as fiction in schools. Ask a seven-year-old about his favourite books and the answer will as likely as not be "Colour Jets" or "Kites", the series favoured in his classroom. Reading-scheme books tend to be cheaper than "real" books, and nowadays are often written by unquestionably real writers, of the calibre of Dick King-Smith and Penelope Lively.
The Terrible Trins by Dick King-Smith, Viking pounds 9.99. Every year produces another clutch of titles by this prolific ex-farmer and schoolteacher. He is one of the most reliable bridgers of that tricky gap between mere fluency and real understanding. What's more, his animal stories never descend to fluffiness. Here a family of mice are beset not only by two vicious cats but by a one-eyed farmer given to laying down poison bait and traps. It begins : "At six o'clock in the morning of her birthday, Mrs Gray's husband was killed and eaten. It was her first birthday and he was her third husband." When Mrs Gray gives birth to triplets, she vows that they will grow up bold and cunning. Age 7+
Wizziwig and the Weather Machine / Wizziwig and the Crazy Cooker by Geraldine McCaughrean, Orchard pounds 6.99. These books (pricey for their size) are perfect for new readers who still need the reassurance of an illustration per paragraph. Each introduces Wizziwig, a lady "inventor" who sports a flowing wizard's cape and "one day will be famous. She invents things to make the world a better place." McCaughrean's prose is frisky, racing off down the byways of imagination. When Wizziwig invents the perfect weather machine (sunny days, rainy nights) she is harangued by umbrella salesmen and Michael Fish lookalikes; when she invents a cooker that cooks by itself, it can't stop churning out delicious food because "it had plucked off its shiny silver knobs to pay for the shopping".
Invisible Stanley by Jeff Brown, Methuen pounds 7.99. Accidents happen to young Stanley Lambchop, as those who enjoyed Flat Stanley will remember. In the original story he was squashed to half an inch thick by a falling noticeboard, and stayed that way until his father had the presence of mind to plump him up with a bicycle pump. Now, in the fifth sequel, Stanley disappears while eating raisins in bed during an electrical storm; Lambchop pere displays his usual sangfroid. It is deliciously unhinged from the everyday, yet written with a cool simplicity.
Wilbur and Orville Take Off by Jeanne Willis, Macdonald pounds 3.99. Imaginative retellings are a sneaky way of imparting a bit of history. They only work if the writing is utterly convincing, and this series just about passes muster. The protagonists are the Wright brothers, and their story takes us through boyhood pranks with Chinese flying spinning tops through experiments with double-decker kites to the launch of the first aircraft. Hearty stuff, but it might well strike a chord where the topic ties in with the school curriculum. Others in the series tell the stories of Florence Nightingale, Prince Harry, Guy Fawkes and others.
Tingleberries, Tuckertubs and Telephones by Margaret Mahy, Hamish Hamilton pounds 9.99. Mahy writes with the fearless exuberance of a nine-year-old with a thesaurus programmed into its brain. Saracen Hobday is "a limp lettuce leaf in the great salad of life" who lives on a secluded island with his wacky grandmother. When Granny ups and leaves for the Antarctic, Saracen is forced to overcome his lifelong fear of using the telephone. Once in contact with the world, things begin to happen: he falls in love (hilariously) with two telephone operators and becomes the world's sole producer of tingleberries. Weird and wonderful.
Escape from the Temple of Laughter by Jerome Fletcher, Deutsch pounds 6.99. These episodes from the life of J Rathbone Fish owe more than a little to the adventures of an earlier literary eccentric, Professor Branestawm. Mr Fish is not only an explorer and inventor (of mechanical vest-warmers and such like) but also a purveyor of tales. When an archaeologist announces that she has discovered the whereabouts of the world's oldest joke (courtesy of a gardener in a convent near Montevideo - no stinting on detail here) our unlikely hero takes off in hot pursuit. When a character called the Grand Phooey is introduced, you begin to think you've been had. A most unusual book, disturbingly funny. 10+
How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell, Orchard pounds 3.99. The yukky-disgusting genre has been done to death by the Bogeyman books and their many imitators, but this book stands out. And it is quite a feat to string out one gag (a boy bets his friend $50 he can't eat 15 worms in 15 days) for the duration of a full-sized paperback. Ingenious good fun (the hero Alan tries them fried, boiled, in sandwiches...), but only the most perverse little horror would want to read it more than once.
Stonestruck by Helen Cresswell, Viking pounds 10.99. There's nothing like a brush with death for galvanising a narrative. The year is 1939 and only- child Jessica is happy enough until her London street is fire-bombed and she is sent to Wales as a "vaccy". Powis Castle, where she lives with two elderly caretakers, is meant to be a safe haven, but when Jessica starts to investigate queer whispering in the misty castle ground, mere physical dangers pale. Cresswell's writing is demanding: even advanced readers will need staying power, but those with a gothic imagination will not want to put it down.
The Parsley Parcel by Elizabeth Arnold, Heinemann pounds 11.99. To ballet books and horsey books can perhaps be added the sub-genre of Romany books. The "glamour" of the gypsy life is prefigured on the cover by a tousle-haired girl in embroidered shawl; Romany words (chavo = boy, chriko = bird) are explained in a glossary. To fulfil a promise the clairvoyant Freya, a "chime child", is abandoned by her gypsy family on a railway platform and taken into the household of "posh" Emma and Jack, who have everything except a baby of their own. Inevitably, good flows two ways, and everyone ends up better and wiser. 10+
The Snakestone by Berlie Doherty, pounds 10.99. James, who has always known that he was adopted, can't help wondering who his real mother was, and why she gave him away. The only thing he has of hers is a strange-shaped stone in a tattered envelope, but he is convinced that the illegible address is where he will find her. The first-person narrative (a perspicacious account of a boy's world) is interspersed with the diary entries of his teenage mother, during her secret delivery of the unwanted baby. Doherty rarely uses words of more than two syllables, yet the story has sophistication and depth. 10+