More and more publishers are bringing out books for the `newly independent reader’. Pat Triggs reports on how two new series are being received in the classroom.
Introducing children to the world of print, helping them to feel at home with books, to behave like readers, to begin to read: that’s Step One.
Step Two is about increasing independence, developing stamina, enthusiasm and flexibility, becoming a more experienced and confident member of the reading community. The books children encounter at any stage are crucial to their development as readers. Books for Step Two need to confirm and consolidate what readers already know about reading, they need to look ‘readable’ to the child who is choosing, they need to offer new reading experiences, new ways of telling, which developing readers can successfully take on, enjoy and carry forward.
I took Viking Kestrel’s Read Alone series and Orchard’s Orchard Storybooks into two lower junior classes (7-9s) to see how the children reacted.
Both first and second-year classes are in an inner-city school; both are taught by teachers who are enthusiastic about books and reading. The books enjoyed a very positive reception – their bright shiny covers, their very newness ensured this. All children wanted to look, feel, smell, browse – even those who are not yet really ready for Step Two. But then we all know the effect NEW books can have on any classroom. When the first excitement had passed, how did the books fare?
Viking Kestrel Read Alones are, they say, ‘ideal for first solo reading’; around 90 pages long, large clear type, and black and white illustrations on each page. Four titles made up the launch list, at £3.95 each:
Dragon Ride, Helen Cresswell, ill. Liz Roberts, 0 670 81918 2
Three Little Funny Ones, Charlotte Hough, 0 670 81494 6
Adventures of Zot the Dog, Ivan Jones, ill. Judy Brown, 0 670 81689 2
Lollipop Days, Margaret Nash, ill. Glenys Ambrus, 0 670 81673 6
All were read and apparently enjoyed at the time. Some were returned to, recommended with enthusiasm and talked about more. Lollipop Days contains five short stories about new neighbours Robyn and Sam who make friends and go to the same school. Girls read this more than boys; I suspect because of the youngish ‘soft’-looking cover illustration. They were mildly confused by ‘Robyn with a y’ who looks like a boy and her toy snake called Bannster. (Names chosen by writers for characters often create problems quite unnecessarily). The ‘lively escapades’ promised by the blurb they found rather ordinary – nothing much to grow on here, certainly not for second-years.
Zot the Dog with its bold cartoon-style illustrations had lots of takers – boys and girls. This was the shortest and simplest text of all but was read and enjoyed across the age-range. Its jokey, wildly imaginative stories offer some neat reading lessons and literary cross-reference; these were not missed.
Three Little Funny Ones has been around for a long time (Hamish Hamilton 1962, Puffin 1968). Here in a new incarnation its rural setting and rather dated middle-class ethos seemed to be no barrier to enjoyment. Naughty children, a little sister who gets into trouble and a direct storytelling style had welcome echoes for fans of Dorothy Edwards.
Dragon Ride disappeared on day one, spirited away by a first-year reader avid for dragon stories. This one apparently has not disappointed and is still circulating on the underground among the cognoscenti. When it comes back into the public arena we shall see what the others make of it.
Orchard Storybooks come from Orchard Books, a relatively new publishing house led by Judith Elliott who moved there from Heinemann where she developed the highly successful Banana Books. Orchard Storybooks are in a similar mould. Taller and slightly narrower they have a distinctive shape and at 64 pages are slightly longer than Bananas; but the two series have clear, medium-size, well-spaced type and full-colour illustration throughout on good white paper.
The first six titles from Orchard Storybooks are made up of the first two of three separate series:
The Jupiter Jane Stories by Sheila Lavelle, ill. Emma Crosby, are the shortest of the three and have a larger type size.
In The Apple Pie Alien (1 85213 081 4) Katy’s dad answers an advertisement seeking a family to take ‘a young female visitor from the planet Jupiter. Last two weeks in July.’ Jane duly arrives (from Jupiter) and this book and the second in the series, The Boggy Bay Marathon (1 85213 082 2), offer a sequence of (for me, slightly strained) ‘alien meets Earth persons’ fun and games. But I’m used to children showing me different and waited with interest. The Apple Pie Alien was snapped up on the basis of its intriguing cover. Unfortunately what intrigues in the cover illustration – a character with huge orange feet and webbed toes – gives away the best of what’s inside. Jupiter Jane’s feet were about all the children found interesting or memorable in these books and The Boggy Bay Marathon, which features a visit to Katy’s eccentric Gran, was considered ‘boring, nothing happens’. Readers also warned against reading Boggy Bay first -‘it’s easier if you know all about Jupiter Jane already’. Hard to see where this series can go.
The Woodside School Stories, Jean Ure, ill. Beverley Lees.
The Fright (1 85213 087 3) and Who’s Talking? (1 85213 088 1) deal with themes of friendship, belonging, getting into trouble, coping with the supply teacher and, in Pavindra Patel’s case (Who’s Talking?), the pressure to succeed academically. The stories are mainly concerned (so far anyway) with girls – so for the most part the boys weren’t interested. Many were put off by the first chapter of The Fright – ‘too many names, too many characters, I got confused’. They found few points of connection, either, between the style of school organisation and behaviour in the books and what they knew. I thought it more 9+ in ‘feel’ and will try the books with older children.
The Clipper Street Stories, Bernard Ashley, ill. Jane Cope.
Calling For Sam (1 85213 076 8) and Taller Than Before (1 85213 075 X) are concerned with a street and a primary school in Greenwich, London. Readers are introduced to the street and the school through the eyes (and feelings) of two newcomers. These are quite demanding reads but had much to offer the second-year juniors who took them on. Either book provides a starting point.
In Calling For Sam, Billy, his mum, his sister and his cat Sam are moving from a high-rise flat in Dockyard Buildings to one of the terraced houses – with garden – in Clipper Street. Ashley catches it exactly – the pain of leaving, the anonymity of new paint, preoccupied adults, irrational anger. The children found the characters believable and noticed them all – a tribute to Ashley for many are created with amazing economy: Billy’s mum, the friendly uncles he barely knows struggling with the fridge freezer and tuning in to ‘Grandstand’. The story is simultaneously simple and complex – Billy loses his cat, but finds it again along with new understanding and fresh optimism.
Taller Than Before introduces Roberta Richards, a talented violinist, one of the star pupils of Regent Primary, daughter of an actress who is ‘getting known on the telly’, and black. A move to Clipper Street Primary brings her up against an unsympathetic teacher and the ignorant racism of Slade Bendix and his dad. Ashley’s low-key treatment is very effective and Roberta and her mum are well-drawn in words and in the illustrations. There’s no easy optimism here though – and the children wanted to talk about it, to share responses, reactions, ideas. With shared talk (perhaps preceded by shared reading) here are two books to grow on. Clipper Street (unlike Woodside School) and its inhabitants are ‘real’ to the children now and they are ready to use this familiarity as a framework in which to fit the new stories they hope are coming.
- interest that the black and white illustrated books proved as attractive as the full-colour ones.
- speculation that the Woodside School and Clipper Street stories might be useful to third and fourth years provided the format wasn’t off-putting.
- despair that each book we tried out was priced at £3.95.
Update on Banana Books
There are now 24 titles available. Still £2.50 each. Of the most recent I’ve noted positive reaction to
The Not-so-Clever Genie, Rose Impey, ill. Andre Amstutz, (0 434 93041 5) which plays around nicely with gender stereotyping and storytelling convention. Its direct voice and predictable structure are very supportive to the developing reader.
Crocodile Dog, Gene Kemp, ill. Elizabeth Manson-Bahr (0 434 93043 1) – episodes in the life of a troublesome stray dog. The children liked the bits at home and the idea of a dog with crocodile-type teeth best. The overdrawn school bits, especially the flamboyant new teacher who predicts ‘a simply super fun time’ and asks them all to imagine they are tiny seeds, left them looking rather puzzled.
Conker, Michael Morpurgo, ill. Linda Birch (0 434 93044 X) is made for dog lovers. Once past the rather dull cover and the opening paragraphs which are confusing to the inexperienced (try starting on page five first time out), this is a beautifully paced, manageable story which packs a lot into its 42 pages.
But Snotty and the Rod of Power, Floella Benjamin, ill. Francis Mosley (0 434 93045 8) never got off the ground for one class. They were so put off by the repeated accounts of Snotty wiping his nose on his sleeve – the origin of his name – that they didn’t get to chapter two to meet Vince and Lorna, hero and heroine who will save the universe.
Banana Books are now available in school packs of six titles from Heinemann Educational. There are three packs available: Set One (0 435 00100 0), Set Two (0 435 001019), Set Three (0 435 00102 7) – £14.95 per Set.