One of the most critical turning points in children’s reading lives comes when they are ready to make the all important move to longer stretches of text than those found in their early reading books. Before this point carefully selected picture books, whether they have been drawn from reading schemes or not, build up reading stamina to the point where children are ready to move to the more sustained challenge of extended texts. These first extended texts – often called ‘chapter books’ by children – have to be very special if they are to successfully scaffold the young reader’s efforts. Alison Kelly assesses the appeal of a new series of full text stories, ‘Nina Fairy Ballerina’.
What characterises such full text stories? The ‘chapter book’ label is a telling one as it speaks of the need for books that are significantly different: for ‘chapters’ read mature, ‘grown-up’ reader! They should be directly and unpatronisingly appealing. They need to hold the young reader’s hand and this they do through direct, linear plotting and straightforward characterisation; in other words, nothing too distracting. This is one time when getting through the words, covering the ground, reading the chapters are what matter. These are the books that give children confidence, telling them that they are readers through simple, need-to-know plots that power the page-turning.
Books in series, such as ‘Nina Fairy Ballerina’, have a crucial contribution to make. Clear signposting in the form of repeated encounters with the same cast in the same setting can provide the safety net needed at this transition point. Getting to the end of a book and longing to read the next is a hugely important and enduring lesson.
In truth, my heart sank slightly when confronted by pretty, hologram-strewn front covers of the first books in the ‘Nina Fairy Ballerina’ series. Is there really a place for more fairies, more ballerinas and yet another school setting? I think the answer is yes, because this series does all the jobs described above so well.
The books – six are published with many more planned – follow the adventures of scholarship fairy pupil Nina as she embarks on her ballerina training at The Royal Academy of Fairy Ballet. Each book offers a stock combination of rivalry, spells that go wrong, with the occasional rogue fairy and jealous baddie.
Books in series should offer comforting familiarity: the reader knows where she is and what to expect. To this end, the distinctive presentation of the series hits the spot as well: the font is large enough (but not patronisingly so) and each page of text is interspersed with Nicola Slater’s black and white line illustrations. These help with another part of this reading transition, the shift from reading picture books where text and image often unite in creating the plot to reading text where illustrations have only a minor supporting role. As well as the holograms, the covers are scattered with stars which also embellish the page numbers and chapter headings throughout. Silver spines announce the title and number of the books which, along with their tokens to be collected in pursuit of a free ballet bag, become the collectors’ items that children love at this stage. A website offers further opportunities to engage with Nina’s world.
Formulaic and predictable? Well, yes – but this is exactly what is needed at the stage. There are repeated encounters with the cast of main characters: Nina, the talented scholarship fairy, her chaotic room mate Peri, naughty younger sister Poppy and, in the early books, a veritable baddie in the form of Angelica Nightshade, Nina’s mentor. They pop up like old friends, reassuring the reader that she is on familiar, safe ground. Like any compelling soap opera, ongoing themes and relationships form the backdrop for the immediate plot of each book. Short chapters – no more than ten to a book – provide episodes with small tension points at their endings (hardly cliff-hangers but there is enough here to incite the reader to read on).
Girly? Well, yes again – unashamedly so. Each book literally sparkles, with pink featuring heavily in the colour design. As well as the obvious appeal of the ballet and fairy combination, the books offer shopping (Nina’s yearning for ballet shoes with daisy chain ribbons surely taps an early Manolo Blahnik tendency), parties, magical food moments and friendship tensions. These are all themes that will resonate for some girls.
Dumbed down? Not really: while the plots and characterisation may be simple, there’s plenty of technical language as the fairies perform pliés and jetés and pirouette their way through the stories. In their references to famous ballets such as Coppelia, The Nutcracker and Petrushka, these books also draw on quite specialised knowledge that young ballet fans are likely to have. There is word play too: Nina is warned against ‘getting your wings in a twist’ and admonished to ‘keep your wings on’.
Young children’s interests and preoccupations are at the heart of their being and any classroom collection needs to offer a range of texts that play to these. The tension between these interests and wider concerns such as sexism is one that has been amply explored over the years. Any instructional framework that ignores the social nature of children’s learning and the power of peer-driven interests within that does so at its peril. In a time of heightened prescriptivism in the early years curriculum, what better time to allow Nina Ballerina and her ilk into the classroom to greet and guide young readers?
Alison Kelly is Senior Lecturer in English Education at Roehampton University and co-author (with Judith Graham) of Reading Under Control: Teaching Reading in the Primary School (David Fulton Publishers).
The ‘Nina Fairy Ballerina’ series illustrated by Nicola Slater is published by Macmillan Children’s Books at £3.99 each pbk: New Girl (0 330 43985 5), Daisy Shoes (0 330 43986 3), Best Friends (0 330 43987 1), Show Time (0 330 43988 X), Flying Colours (0 330 44622 3) and Double Trouble (0 330 44620 7).