An attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff among some of this year’s offerings to date. Pat Triggs looks at stories for new and developing readers.
Black Bear Baby
Berniece Freschet, pictures by Jim Arnosky, World’s Work, 0 437 41304 7, £3.95
Black bears may not be such an established part of the cultural stock of young children in this country as they are in their native North America where this book first appeared last year; but I dare bet there will be few who can resist the appeal of this little bear. Born in a dark warm den under deep winter snow Bear Baby and his sister grow up through spring and summer, feeding, playing, learning, watched over always by the mother bear. Four episodes, short lines, large wellspaced print and delightful pictures add up to a book that is easy to read and dispenses absorbing information with warmth and humour.
Jane Gardam, ill. Janet Rawlins, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 066 8, £2.75
A Present for Nellie
Anne Harvey, ill. Victoria Cooper, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 067 6, £2.75
Two more in the excellent Blackbird series. As usual Jane Gardam’s story tells more than it says. Susan and old Mr Grandly seem to be the only people in the village to notice that Horse on the hill who used to look `pressed out of the grass by a huge pastry cutter. Dazzling white.’ is now overgrown with bilberries and weeds. But when the Forestry arrives intending to plant Christmas trees all over him the whole village begins to take notice. Demanding and rewarding but not difficult. Lots to talk about with those who wish; but don’t be surprised if some want just to hug it to themselves.
A Present for Nellie is based on an incident from Eleanor Farjeon’s autobiography. Those who don’t shine at parties will share Nellie’s hopes, fears and disappointments and even perhaps be comforted by the heartwarming ending and Nellie’s grown-up realisation `that how you looked was not the most important thing about you’.
The Perfect Hamburger
Alexander McCall Smith, ill. Laszlo Acs, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10717 2, £2.50
The Dead Letter box
Jan Mark, ill. Mary Rayner, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10804 7, £2.75
Two from the Antelope series for those tackling longer stories on their own.
The Perfect Hamburger has an admirably clear and strong narrative line. Joe’s search for the ingredients for the perfect hamburger which will save Mr Borthwick from a take-over by the slick operators of the Hamburger House chain makes appetising (sorry!) reading.
`Glenda and Louie were best friends, but Glenda was Louie’s only friend, while everybody was Glenda’s friend.’ Louie’s imaginative plans for keeping in touch with her `best friend’ when she moves house don’t really work. But during the experiment she meets Jane whose ideas for exploiting the library far outstrip Louie’s modest scheme (picked up while watching a spy film) of using it as a dead letter box. Jan Mark’s devastatingly clear observation of human behaviour and her particular brand of humour blend to make a story which is accessible yet offers the developing reader something a bit tougher to bite on.
Lambing at Sheepfold Farm
Susan Williams, Gollancz, 0 575 03045 3, £3.95
A delightful and informative story of shepherd Jack Evans, his wife Betty and their children Polly and Tim at lambing time in Wiltshire. In late February the whole family move from their cottage to live until Easter in a caravan and shepherd’s hut at the lambing site high up on the Downs. This is Susan Williams’ first book and draws on her experiences as a shepherd’s wife. She was originally trained as an artist and her black and white illustrations are a beautiful complement to a simple text. Together they evoke a genuine feeling of a working family life – warm but matter-of-fact and in no way romanticised. Good for reading aloud or alone. (57 pages)
The Julian Stories
Ann Cameron, ill. Ann Strugnell, Gollancz. 0 575 03143 3, £4.95
Julian tells six stories about himself, his little brother Huey, his mother and his father – but especially his father. Full of humour and the amazingness of everyday happenings. The story of how Julian’s father makes a pudding that `tastes like a whole raft of lemons, like a night on the sea’ is pure delight. Read it aloud to younger listeners. Simple sentences and large print mean older readers can go-it-alone with confidence. (72 pages)
The Accidental Twins
Angela Bull, ill. Jill Bennett, Faber, 0 571 11761 9, £3.50
Susan Green and Sally Gray look alike and share the same birthday but they have never been friends and are less than delighted at being labelled `accidental twins’ by everyone else in school. As their ninth birthdays approach things seem to be getting even worse. A nicely observed home and school story. Eight chapters, 63 pages.
Warton and the Castaways
Russell E. Erikson, pictures by Lawrence di Fiori, Hodder and Stoughton, 0 340 28147 2, £3.95
Fans of the five previous books about Warton and Morton Toad will need no persuading to this one. It is well up to standard. In search of honey for Morton’s favourite (or in this case favorite – you have to excuse the American English) honey bread the two brothers get caught in a flood, narrowly avoid becoming lunch for a raccoon, take refuge with Cora and Hester, two elderly tree toads with a highly distinctive life style, and end up in a colony of herons (and you know what they like to eat for breakfast!). Amusing, exciting and highly diverting. Six sections, largish print, 112 pages.
Double Dare and Other Stories
Jamila Gavin, ill. Simon Willby, Methuen a (Pied Piper series), 0 416 21540 8, £3.95
Four longish stories (30+ pages each) with a multi-ethnic cast of characters and a taste of the supernatural in each of them. Lorraine, desperate for a pet, finds a box of silkworms and strikes up a friendship with an old lady with a mulberry tree. On a demolition site Charlie swings himself into the past and is mistaken for a runaway slave. Terry Singh from the children’s home in trouble with a double dare has some strange encounters with an old Indian man. And Maggie helps old Mr Winterbourne who seems to be haunted by a soldier from his past. Four nicely resolved endings to stories where the strange and the ordinary co-exist quite naturally.
Steve Bowles finds only a few nourishing grains in his look at short stories and science fiction.
Black Eyes and other spinechillers
ed. Lance Salway, Pepper Press. 0 560 74523 0, £3.95
Probably compiled with top juniors in mind but it should keep a year or two without harm (Joan Aiken’s piece, in particular). Philippa Pearce’s title story might make an interesting experiment with younger kids too: a small girl scares a more fortunate cousin by claiming malevolent powers for her teddy bear. Touching, possibly a little gentle for some kids, but this standard is exceptionally rare. Of the others. I’d ignore Dorothy Ewards and Helen Cresswell but Jan Mark and Marjorie Darke could be handy when times are hard and Joan Aiken’s Finders Keepers (though wordy as usual) provides a good illustration of the use of weather and setting to create atmosphere. Particularly useful for the staffroom/department short story shelf.
A Whisper in the Night
Joan Aiken. Gollancz, 0 575 03105 0. £5.95
These stories of ‘horror, suspense and fantasy could be stored similarly, though for secondary only. I enjoyed Old Fillikin, with its open ending and country grandmother full of quaint old sayings, and The Birthday Party where the menacingly self-centred Juniper becomes possessed of a nasty way to wreak vengeance on her enemies. Finders Keepers reappears and ten more will promote your own understanding of short stories and spark ideas even if Ms Aiken doesn’t have sufficient knowledge of, or perhaps commitment to, the audience to adopt the right style, structure and content for generally-acceptable read-alouds. Keep for dipping into: don’t read it all at once.
Break of Dark
Robert Westall. Chatto & Windus. 0 7011 2614 0, £5.50
A less distinctive style and, consequently, less feeling of sameness. However, the five stories are similar to most of the Aiken in that they’re near-adult in viewpoint, theme and style. not really classroom read-alouds.
The three shorter stories lack originality and, despite some good moments, the humour and horror in Sergeant Nice mix a little uneasily but Blackham’s Wimpey shouldn’t be missed. Those who accuse Westall of ‘going over the top’ will bristle because the details of conditions in a W.W.II Wellington are even more horrific than the ghosts of burning German fliers which drive British crews mad. It needs its fifty pages for full impact, though, so even here reading aloud would be awkward.
Sweets from a Stranger
Nicholas Fisk, Kestrel, 0 7226 5759 5, £4.95
These stories would be no problem for class reading in terms of length but I can’t say there’s anything I feel desperate to share with my groups. The book’s publication shows the value of an author’s name – an unknown would have struggled to get this collection into print. (I notice that all the titles I’m reviewing are by well-known writers.) Fisk’s starting points are quite interesting, they just don’t lead to rounded, satisfying stories.
The next two titles, also SF, could conceivably have had trouble finding outlets, too, if editors didn’t generally ‘show faith’ with writers they’ve promoted in the past.
Monica Hughes, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 069 2, £5.95
Not one of Monica Hughes’ best books. With the Ice Age cometh idea as backdrop, Liza frets about women’s restricted life in a Canadian scientific community, part of the research effort to halt the glaciers. An impetuous escapade necessitates rescue by Ekoes, descendants of Eskimoes, who become her family for several months. Hereafter, her loyalties are torn, especially when the scientists’ first breakthrough proves fatal to the caribou upon which the Ekoes depend. Both characters and plot show little originality and there’s insufficient drama to grab many readers. Exclusively for fans of Monica Hughes and similar writers.
This Time of Darkness
H. M. Hoover, Methuen, 0 416 21770 2, £5.50
Helen Hoover’s new title also disappoints, and not just because of the too-young jacket. Their literacy allows Amy and Axel to outwit the authorities and battle to the underground city’s upper levels where the leisured-elite society shows signs of decadent decay. Hence, they traverse the Badlands – avoiding the savage inhabitants – to reach haven eventually with Axel’s family in a calm, honest, farming community. Once again, there’s insufficient excitement and, till near the end, the threat is too nebulous. Like the Monica Hughes, a minority read.
The Humboldt Effect
Delia Huddy. Julia MacRae, 0 86203 043 9, £5.95
A third unsuccessful SF novel, this time exhibiting that all-too-common lack of understanding of the audience. Perhaps it shouldn’t shock us here, though: Delia Huddy is ‘an editor in a London publishing house’ – no guessing which. This sequel to Time Piper, though ultimately absurd in its revelation that Jonah was swallowed by a submarine, not a whale, has a surface gloss in the detailed preparation for the reversal of-time experiment. Unfortunately, such details, allied to those dealing with the characters and their inter-relationships, are just the thing to send kids to sleep.
Douglas Hill, Heinemann, 0 434 94284 7, £4.95
Douglas Hill, by contrast, knows very well what the reader wants. For the opener of his new series, another super-hero on a quest fights massive odds with help from trusty, oddball sidekick. Finn Ferral, woodsman extraordinary, has his adventures on an Earth that’s reverted to primitive village society and been invaded by the cruel alien Slavers. The diminution, compared with the galaxy-wide Keill Randor stories, detracts a little but the jacket is effective and once you’re into it, the pace is fast, the fights plentiful. Sold on the back of Galactic Warlord et al., it should do quite well.