Books: Mums, Mafia and magic

Between tattoos, thongs and thugs, Nicholas Tucker (below) enjoys both tough and gentle yarns for older children. And forget the adults who make a fuss of Harry Potter: 10-year-old Matti Coleman (right) gives the real fans' view
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The Independent Culture
Jack Straw as well as teenage readers should certainly consider reading the outstanding novel of this batch of new fiction: Jacqueline Wilson's unforgettable The Illustrated Mum (Doubleday, pounds 10.99). Written with affection and wit, it concerns a manic-depressive young mother and the tribulations that she visits on her two daughters. This could have been a sad story, but somehow it manages to sparkle as brilliantly as the mother's own numerous coloured tattoos.

Punches are not pulled. Mum ends up in a mental hospital after a period that includes stolen credit cards and alcoholism. Far more immature than her daughters, she is also intermittently loving, touchingly optimistic, and transparently damaged.

The message is that some people are never going to fit in, simply because they can't rather than because they won't. Anyone, including government ministers, should after finishing this story come out understanding a little more and condemning a little less, whatever their preconceptions.

It also manages to achieve a happy ending of sorts. If this sounds unlikely, read the book and discover how it is done.

The reason for the brackets surrounding Mary Hooper's (Megan) (Bloomsbury, pounds 4.99) becomes clear after the first chapter. Idling her way through a Personal Development lesson, Megan hears her teacher mention that it is possible to continue having periods even after you have become pregnant. This little-known fact leads her to do some urgent re-thinking, with the result that she realises she is already five months gone.

Mum is furious, Dad is separated and away, and the schoolboy father is out of his depth. Time for a friendly social worker to intervene, and those who come to Megan's aid are depicted as sensible, caring people rather than as the humourless stereotypes of so much popular imagination.

As she feels the first stirrings of the baby enclosed within her - hence the brackets - she finally decides to keep it rather than go for adoption. What happens next is going to be the subject of a sequel, (Megan)2. Like this story, it will deserve plenty of readers.

Gillian Cross is a fine author, but Tightrope (Oxford University Press, pounds 5.99) suffers from a plot that moves from the unlikely to the unbelievable. The atmosphere of foreboding found in the worst areas of contemporary terror towns is well described: so why then invent a local gang leader who is so magically omniscient that he makes the Mafia look like blundering amateurs? Local little Caesars in real life usually seem less mysterious and more openly obvious in their methods than this.

Young Ashley, living with her neurotic mother (where have all the ordinary, coping parents gone to in today's teenage fiction?) combines a demure exterior with the risky life of a nocturnal graffiti artist. She finally thwarts wicked Eddie Beale in a dramatic confrontation but nearly dies in the process.

All is distinctly grim, but this in itself is no criticism - Robert Cormier, after all, has made a career writing extremely depressed and depressing stories for teenagers. But in this case, there is the feeling by the end that so much writing talent, energy and emotion could have been better spent on something more credible.

Those who want to escape all contemporary realities may prefer Michael Morpurgo's dreamy Kensuke's Kingdom (Heinemann, pounds 8.99). Illustrated in black and white by the excellent Michael Foreman, it tells the story of yet another Michael who ends up on a desert island after losing both yacht and parents at sea. But there is one other inhabitant: an ancient Japanese soldier left over from the last war.

He resents Michael's arrival, but they gradually form a relationship based on painting sea shells and generally getting by.

They shelter a colony of orang-utans from an invasion of cruel hunters, and when Michael is eventually rescued he leaves behind someone who has by now become a beloved friend. This is a thoughtful, elegiac story; the author's many fans will not be disappointed.

Joan Bauer has taken over from Betsy Byars when it comes to depicting hard-bitten, smart-talking American adolescents somewhat adrift in their own culture. Rules of the Road (Dolphin, pounds 4.50) describes how awkward, five-foot-eleven Jenna Boller delights above all else in selling shoes after school. The cantankerous 73-year-old female boss of the store decides to employ her as temporary personal assistant, in a fight to stop her dishonest son from taking over and then abusing the company's good name.

Old lady and adolescent girl hit the road together and eventually they win through. This story could make a good movie; like Vikram Seth's novel A Suitable Boy, it also tells readers much more about how to make and select shoes than they could ever have guessed at before.

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson (Piccadilly Press, pounds 5.99) sounds as if it wants to take on the few remaining taboos still left in teenage reading. But in essence this is a pleasant, unshocking account of a lively 14-year-old's daily life in the style of a Bridget Jones-type diary.

Angus is a cat, as it happens, the thong proves uncomfortable, and the snogging stays firmly at that. Other characters include a baby sister, friends who occasionally turn at lightning speed into enemies, and a succession of boys always promising more than they seem able to deliver.

It is not a profound story but a very jolly one, with plenty of laughs for those willing to be amused.

All illustrations from books shortlisted for the Greenaway Medal. This page, main pic: Anthony Browne, Voices in the Park (Doubleday). Top and centre left: Emma Chichester Clarke, I love you, blue kangaroo (Andersen); above and bottom left: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe illus. Christian Birmingham (Collins); left:Quentin Blake, Zagazoo (Cape). Facing page, main pic and centre right: Helen Cooper, Pumpkin Soup (Doubleday: the winner); centre and bottom left: Shirley Hughes, The Lion and the Unicorn (Bodley Head); bottom right: Jane Simmons, Come on, Daisy! (Orchard)