CHILDREN'S SUMMER SPECIAL / An ear for class: Fiction: under 12s

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The Independent Culture
A SENSE of story is the first thing to develop and the last to go. We tell a baby the story of its day, just as a nurse tells a frail patient the story of the next blanket-bath: 'Once you've got a clean nightie on you'll be more comfortable and then it'll be time for your pills . . .' And in between, so many stories. Reading aloud to children who are learning to read is like lifting them above the crowd so that they can see everything. The sheer difficulty of making sense out of word-shapes blurs the delight of story for a beginning reader, just as a forest of legs crowds out the child's view.

Publishers can ease the journey towards confident reading by producing 'read aloud' storybooks alongside well-designed books for early independent reading. In this way the child's technical reading limitations are respected, yet he or she hangs on to the hope that books are about pleasure. Even the simplest story needs pace and imaginative grip. Howard Helps Out by Colin West (Young Lion pounds 2.99) shows how it can be done. Howard is a dopey, greedy hippo who polishes off a jar of mustard thinking it is smooth peanut butter (he prefers crunchy, but eating the smooth means his sister won't get it). Howard blunders through these stories making mistakes which children will enjoy feeling smug about. The text uses repetition skilfully so that it is easy on eye and ear.

Robert Leeson says what he thinks stories are for in Karlo's Tale (Young Lion pounds 2.99): 'Stories are memories which talk . . . a bridge from yesterday to tomorrow. Stories are about growing up.' This imaginative continuation of the tale of the Pied Piper ends with the children back home and the manipulative Mayor drinking with the foxy Piper.

Simon & Schuster is another publisher which has put a lot of thought into its Storybook series. The overall design is good, the books are tough enough to cope with re-reading, and the writers and illustrators in this series for early readers know what they are about. What happens when a haunted house gets demolished? Lou, the ghost in Robert Swindell's entertaining Sam and Sue and Lavatory Lou (Simon & Schuster pounds 3.50) becomes a refugee in a public lavatory. But it's hard to scare people who have their minds on lower things, and Lou is miserable until Sam and Sue find him a new job as the ghost in a funfair ghost train. Lugubrious Lou brings humour to this crisply told story. Anne Forsyth's Mandy's Mermaid (Simon & Schuster pounds 3.50) is no fairytale creature. Moody and hard to please ('Mandy had never heard anyone say 'I want' quite so often'), the mermaid offloads her boredom with undersea life on the tolerant Mandy. Young children with teenage siblings will know all about this kind of mermaid. Resourceful Mandy engineers a treat for her mermaid friend, who ends up as the star of a procession in her borrowed tiara. The story is wittily illustrated by Thelma Lambert.

Mark Spark in the Dark by Jacqueline Wilson (Gazelle pounds 3.99) is a gentle treatment of a child's fear of the dark, again for early readers. Mark's Great Gran lifts the story above the predictable, but the dialogue creaks along, painfully out of touch with the way children really talk. By contrast, the people in Rachel McAlpine's Maria in the Middle (Young Lion pounds 2.99) use vigorous, authentic speech. Mrs Koninski, Maria's 95-year-old Russian emigree neighbour, is 'so old she had started to wilt like a weed, bending over forwards so she could hardly look up at the sky'. An unusual friendship grows between her and Maria, and Mrs Koninski's jumble of stories and secrets turns out to be as valuable as the icon she gives Maria to hang in her garden hut. Compelling, unsentimental stories for 7- to 9-year-olds.

Ann Pilling is another writer who won't compromise on quality when writing for young readers. The Baked Bean Kids (Walker pounds 4.99) is fast-paced but full of detail. Its off-hand funniness is very appealing, and the text is matched by Derek Matthews's dynamic cartoon-style illustrations. This hardback is great value, with the kind of cover which will make it walk off shop and library shelves. Mr Majeika returns in Mr Majeika and the School Inspector (Viking pounds 5.50) by Humphrey Carpenter. Is he getting tired? Perhaps a little. The plot of 'A Fishy Business' is shaky, and the rout of the school inspector with his Official Curriculum in 'It's not in the book' seems to be talking to teachers over the heads of the children. But the tediousness of Hamish Bigmore, class wit and death-ray specialist, is conveyed with real feeling.

Betsy Duffey's A Boy in the Doghouse (Viking pounds 7.99) is a more sustained story for confident 7- to 9-year-olds. Alternate chapters tell the story from the viewpoints of George, who imagines he is training his puppy, Lucky, and of Lucky, who knows that he is training George. Here is Lucky sizing up his potential owner: 'Lucky checked his shoes. Yes, they were just about worn out. The boy would be good for walks.' A story for a dog-loving child who likes accuracy in text and illustrations. Alison Prince's A Dog Called You (Young Piper pounds 2.99) is an underdog's scuffle through the British class system. You the dog meets plenty of stereotypes as he searches this map of smells and tastes for his owner, but the story is raised above average by the good-humoured energy of its telling. Dick King-Smith's elegant animal fantasy, The Swoose (Viking pounds 5.50), invents a rare cross between swan and goose, which gives Queen Victoria something to smile about for the first time in a quarter-century of widowhood. Judy Brown's enchanting black and white illustrations capture the spirit of both swoose and sovereign.

Two novels for slightly older children (10 upwards) deal explicitly with morality and metaphysics. Nigel Hinton's The Finders (Viking pounds 8.99), which dramatises a struggle between good and evil, is slow to get going but builds to a tense climax. Will Rosie be able to resist her possession by the spirit of the Djinn? With the help of angels Iqbal and Sidri, she does, and just about manages to remain a convincing character as well. Michael Morpurgo's The War of Jenkins' Ear (Heinemann pounds 9.99) is more resonant. Set in a boys' boarding-school in 1952, it recreates a vanished world. Toby's new-boy friend Christopher heals wounds, calms raging crowds, sets up an altar in the school grounds and refuses to eat the skin on rice pudding. He believes himself to be Christ reincarnated and is, of course, expelled. On one level it is obvious enough, but Morpurgo's subtle writing creates distinctive individuals who battle with themselves as well as across divides of class and belief. Well worth reading for the character of Matron alone.

For a novel where story is little more than a vehicle for the author's beliefs, turn to Jean Ure's Seven for a Secret (Blackie pounds 8.99). Penny, niece of a wealthy cosmetics manufacturer, is kidnapped by an animal rights group. She is held for days in a room by a young man who lectures her ceaselessly on his cause, while lending her his underpants because her own are dirty. Penny is 13, so we are on dodgy ground here, I should have thought, but presumably not so in the eyes of Jean Ure, or her publishers. Fortunately a leaden prose style means that the novel is unlikely to inspire other young men to emulation.

Finally, Wildflower Girl by Marita Conlon-McKenna (Viking pounds 8.99) takes up a story begun in The Hawthorn Tree. And no doubt there's more to follow: there seems no particular reason why Wildflower Girl ends where it does. We meet Peggy when she is about to emigrate from Ireland in the mid-19th century, and we leave her in service in a wealthy Boston household. Vivid historical detail is well assimilated, and Conlon-McKenna captures something of 13-year-old Peggy's lonely courage as she sets out to make her way in the New World.

(Photographs omitted)

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