I'm going to begin this review with an anecdote, but bear with me. In 1994, I published two books in a Longman's reading scheme called The Book Project . Each book contained two poems about cats. They were called 'JOSEPHINE AND POBBLE' and 'MIMI AND APRICOT MAX' and telling these feline stories in verse was some of the most enjoyable writing I've ever done. I was also proud of the poems as poems...there, I've said it. I don't know how many writers will admit to liking their own books, but I'm happy to do so and I think, moreover, that there's a great deal of false modesty about and that most people are actually quite pleased with their own work.
The fact that the books appeared in an educational series meant that no one reviewed them. Not many people know about them, and yet I worked as hard on them as I did on my non-educational books. I think that many writers write very well for publishers whose books are not to be found in most shops, and they therefore have their light hidden, perforce, under a bushel, when it ought to be shining out all over the place.
Next, an admission. Sally Prue, the writer, is a friend of mine. We children's writers are a gregarious lot and I know an awful lot of people whose work I honestly admire and if I were to confine myself to reviewing books by strangers, I'd have very little to write about. And I do want to write about these two books, not because they're by her but because they put paid to the perception that all reading scheme books are boring/unreadable/unstretching of the imagination etc. Pearson in this case, just like Longman's in my case, have had the good idea of asking a real writer to write a proper book for those who still find long, difficult texts a little daunting. These two short stories are part of the very popular Bug Club which teachers will maybe know about but which very few ordinary readers will have come across. The wonderful Love Reading 4Kids website highlights them and I do recommend their site as being a repository of all kinds of good things.This is a rather long preamble to a discussion of the two stories. They are linked, although each of them can be read alone. They are - and perhaps I ought to have said this before I said anything else - proper historical stories, set at the time of the first Elizabeth and concerning young Edward, son of a glover (yes, just like Shakespeare, for anyone who cares to make the connection) and brother of the indomitable Bridget. He has a Great Aunt Anne and a father and he meets Ned Cobbley in the first book of the two, THE QUEEN'S SPY. Ned Cobbley is a goodie. He looks as though he ought to be a baddie but he isn't. He's funny, and crude and helps Edward in all sorts of ways. The story in this first book revolves around the downfall of a nasty teacher and it's full of humour, good sense, and fun. It's also (and this is the main thing) historically accurate and full of wonderful writing that's elegant without being fussy; humorous without being silly and altogether leads the young reader easily through a story that's so much fun she won't realize how much she's learned about Elizabethan customs and history by the end of the story.
THE VELVET THIEF starts in a a way that will appeal to any lovers of lavatorial humour: with Ned Cobbley cleaning out the jakes. Did you know that this was a word for the pit by the side of a house which caught the toilet droppings? You do now! Great Aunt Anne appears for a visit accompanied by Giles Pettit, who is briliantly named. You just know he's not what he seems and his unmasking by Edward, with help from Ned, is delightful. Along the way there are many incidental pleasures in these books. They are full of slapstick, of people falling over, getting wet, and generally landing in uncomfortable situations but throughout the language is fast and unfussy. While not being in the least 'pish-tushy', the words convey clearly a time that isn't our own. These books could easily lead to more children resding historical fiction, and that's surely a good thing. It's hard to imagine anyone not enjoying these books and if I can get them into the hands of a few more children, then I'll be very pleased.
THE QUEEN'S SPY illustrated by Alan Marks. Pearson Bug Club pbk. (no price printed. Order from firstname.lastname@example.org) ISBN: 9780435076207
THE VELVET THIEF illustrated by Alan Marks Pearson Bug Club pbk as above IBN: 9780435076252
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