Gill Roberts on new additions, at a lower age-range, to the popular Banana Books series
‘You’ve brought Blue Bananas, again,’ six-year-old Daniel shouted excitedly. Everyone knows ‘Banana Books’. Well, these are blue, from Heinemann Educational or Mammoth, and aimed at ‘Beginner Readers’ aged about six or seven (i.e. the age of my class). So far there are six in the series by André Amstutz, Tony Bradman, Chris d’Lacey, Susanna Gretz, Antony Lishak and Selina Young.
Each is a brightly coloured, A5-size book averaging 48 pages - no chapters, a maximum of nine lines per page (most usually three or four) and print that’s double-line spaced. Extra room is given to illustrations, too, than in the original ‘Banana Books’.
And more than ever, the pictures are a crucial part of the story. André Amstutz details the whirlwind adventures of Tom’s Hats; Susan Hellard’s illustrations of Tony Bradman’s Dilly and the Goody-Goody add brilliantly to the humour - the expressions of fun-starved Dodie being particularly hilarious; and Susanna Gretz’s The Nut Map illustrations beautifully depict wildlife and the transition from autumn to winter. Ian Newsham definitely develops character with his illustrations for Antony Lishak’s Baby Bear comes home by portraying a flamboyant pink - with spotty necktie - Father Bear who’s a mixture of strength, fear and clumsy vulnerability. Selina Young’s canines in Big Dog and Little Dog Visit the Moon are whimsically eccentric and Gus Clarke’s Jeremy, in Juggling with Jeremy by Chris d’Lacey, is frustratingly jovial to the end.
All the illustrations, in fact, are first-class. They’re valuable on their own terms, but are particularly welcome to the beginner reader who’s been used to picture clues as part of reading strategies. Fun, danger, adventure, pathos, determination and retribution are very much features of all the stories. Each is exciting and each held every child’s interest.
In Big Dog and Little Dog Visit the Moon the two characters do just that, ‘Lumpily, bumpily through the night sky - past the stars and through the clouds’, in an amazing rocket they built themselves, and all because ‘Poor Moon’ looked so sad. Now they go every Monday - though young Daniel in my class insists he saw them last Tuesday...
Hat-happy Tom is immediately endearing because he suffers embarrassment thanks to Fred Potter and his gang, but the kindly, cap-clad lollipop man silently encourages him to wear his helmet regardless. ‘Tom’s Hats is my best,’ seven-year-old Stefan volunteered, ‘because I like all these things happening.’ He’s referring to escaping from monsters thanks to the magician’s hat, being saved from pirates because of a space helmet and riding on an elephant wearing a zoo-keeper’s hat.
Nothing and nobody could save well-behaved Dodie from Tony Bradman’s naughty Dilly. After visiting Dilly and his family, Dodie’s meek countenance is disturbed drastically and forever. All the bad behaviour left my class feeling quite exhausted!
Baby Bear comes home held very popular appeal. The parent bears must search for Baby Bear... past the monster-like cat napping in the kitchen, paddling hard across the pond on their empty bottle of a boat... while ‘the silver face of the moon quivered like a jelly in the puddles.’ Once rescued from the night-time magic of a classroom, Baby Bear can’t wait to return to school and we’re left optimistically wondering if Jessica will feel the same about her second day there. This led to an effusion of protective kindness, which was soon diffused by cringingly confident Juggling Jeremy. Many of my children fancied developing muscles like Tiny Tom, who quite rightly gives Jeremy a dose of his own juggling juice.
Katie and Sarah reacted immediately to The Nut Map with ‘It’s like Jack and Vera in Coronation Street.’ Actually, it’s not, and they still liked it. Jack and Vera are squirrels busy collecting and storing their winter supplies. Jack ridicules Vera’s nut map idea, but by the time Dickie Shuffle (great name for a hedgehog) appears and adds his ‘It’s a stupid map’, Jack can no longer agree. The present tense throughout provides a great sense of involvement as we’re led through the changing seasons, while the hiding and searching out of nuts (via the map) is dictated by hunger and the need to survive.
This story is original, informative and entertaining and is virtually unique in its relevance to the Geography Curriculum at KS1 which requires children to ‘use maps’ and ‘make maps or plans of real and imaginary places’*. What’s more, Jack’s very real need of the map is appreciated by the children. (Though children’s books are primarily for children, teachers are thrilled to find QUALITY books which have a relevance to a curriculum which must be taught.)
‘Blue Bananas’, then, are highly readable and relevant. They were lapped up at class storytime and approximately one-third of a very mixed ability class, who are building reading confidence, enjoyed tackling them alone. The sentences are simply structured, facilitating understanding of the straightforward plots and characterisation. Though an unnecessary link between text and quality illustrations, the speech bubbles were popular. Occasionally some of the speech bubble humour, particularly in Juggling with Jeremy, was not understood and did confuse. Interestingly, many children used the pictures, read the print and then went back to read the bubbles... seven-year-old Lisa loved ‘hearing what the bears are saying’.
In all, this is a quality new series which is, so far, successful with beginner readers. However, as the books are written for children and hopefully not for a ‘curriculum’, my only real grumble is with the publishers for that needless back cover label - National Curriculum Key Stage 1. Why must they be associated with school? And more importantly, though they’re aimed at six- and seven-year-olds, why risk excluding the slightly older beginner readers of 7+ for whom the interest level of Dilly, Jeremy and Co. is still appropriate?
‘Blue Bananas’ come in hardback from Heinemann Educational at £5.99 each and from Mammoth in paperback at £3.99 each.
Tom’s Hats, 0 434 97456 0 hbk, 0 7497 1830 7 pbk
Dilly and the Goody-Goody, 0 434 97459 5 hbk, 0 7497 1863 3 pbk
Juggling with Jeremy, 0 434 97460 9 hbk, 0 7497 2631 8 pbk
The Nut Map, 0 434 97458 7 hbk, 0 7497 2347 5 pbk
Baby Bear comes home, 0 434 97461 7 hbk, 0 7497 1828 5 pbk
Big Dog and Little Dog Visit the Moon, 0 434 97457 9 hbk, 0 7497 1871 4 pbk
* Geographical Skills 2- p. 108. Key Stages 1 and 2 of The National Curriculum, HMSO, Jan 1995, 0 11 701 821 X, £9.95