CHILDREN'S BOOKS / Over-egging the omelettes: Nicholas Tucker on the joys and tribulations to be found in books for older children

PARENTS in children's literature are no longer taken for granted. Once they could be packed safely out of the way to enable their progeny to pursue adventures in peace. Today danger often comes from within rather than from outside the home, and it's the various marital adventures of mothers and fathers that are frequently the main issues in older children's stories.

Children's own adventures, by contrast, may finally be measured now by whether they lead to any improvement in conjugal harmony, as they do in Brian Keaney's excellent Boys Don't Write Love Stories (Oxford University Press, pounds 8.99). To begin with, Dad comes home smelling of perfume and big sister in retaliation gets involved with fire-bombing a local fur shop. Thirteen-year-old Matthew has to take all this on as well as bullying at school. His only relief is writing letters to an imaginary girlfriend.

This sounds grim, but Keaney is a skilful writer, inserting the odd wisecrack and telling much of his story in lively dialogue. The one moment of high emotion towards the end comes like a hard blow to the stomach. Matthew himself is not a paragon New Boy, son to his father's New Man. He struggles to express his emotions, and is usually inadequate to the situation. His angry animal rights sister is also an artfully described character: part urban terrorist, part unhappy adolescent. The story's conclusion is hopeful but not starry-eyed. Young readers may well gallop through this briefly told story in a couple of hours. But then they may want to read it again, as well as recommend it to their friends.

Cruelty to animals also crops up in Jean Ure's Seven For Secret (Blackie, 18.99). Dedicated to 'friends and colleagues in the animal rights movement', there is no pretence of objectivity in this passionate story. Young Penny is kidnapped when staying with her self-made uncle, who is big in the perfume trade, and then suffers daily lectures on the evils of animal testing from her student guards, while remaining bound and blindfolded. The details she hears are harrowing enough but also somewhat repetitive, with references to frying mice alive in tin foil as a test for sunburn cream coming up particularly often. But despite the fact that Penny is uncomfortable and in fear, she is gradually won over.

This story deals with a serious subject and should certainly make readers think. A pity therefore that the author so over-eggs her cruelty-free omelette. The uncle is a crude caricature, and Penny herself, after some early show of spirit, turns into such a Goody Two Shoes (mock-leather only) that she renounces a party for her release in favour of spending Christmas with an elderly, incontinent aunt. A better balanced treatment may have led to more converts and a more satisfactory book.

Not many laughs either in Lynne Markham's Getting It Right (Julia MacRae Books, pounds 8.99). The cover shows its 14-year-old hero, Peter, with a bloody fist, having just punched through the bedroom window of his saintly new foster parents' house. He does this because he is driven by terrible anger, following his abandonment by the mother he still idealises. Peter's subsequent despair is vividly described, but there is altogether too much of it, unrelieved by any spark of enjoyment in life. Adolescent trauma does not have to come over as unrelievedly depressing; other writers have managed to link it to black humour or entertaining social iconoclasm. There is one much-derided social worker in this book, but on the whole Peter is too unhappy and tongue-tied to cast his distress in any form other than dumb misery. What this talented author must now concentrate on is how to take her message to readers without alienating them.

Helen Dunmore's In The Money (Julia MacRae Books, pounds 8.99) begins well, with two children moving with their parents into a country mansion formerly well beyond their means. So where has all the money come from? A good question, which Paul and his sister answer by coming up with a terrifying explanation involving drug-dealing and dangerous gangs. As if this already loaded plot were not enough, the author then introduces a quite unnecessary time-shift, whereby Paul meets up with a little kitchen maid murdered a century before. This leads to some anxious cogitation about the difference between then and now, but little else, as this story dribbles away into the sands of time.

An equally disastrous time-shift also does for Giles Diggle's Badgerman And Bogwitch (Faber, pounds 9.99). Once again, the initial description of a village which has seen better days is well done, although credibility is strained when an otherwise normal juvenile voluntarily puts pounds 5 into a church collecting box in expiation for stealing the odd coin. But the introduction of evil magical forces from long ago first confuses and then irritates as unlikely events pile up to the exclusion of any remaining interest in the plot.

There are no problems maintaining interest in Robert Westall's The Wheatstone Pond (Viking pounds 8.99). This well-constructed story drops enough sinister markers in its first chapters to keep any reader turning the pages. A gloomy, rubbish-packed urban pond is drained, revealing some lovingly described model boats from the last century. But the finest model of all carries a dreadful cargo: three miniature skeletons. The hero in all of this is a middleaged antique dealer, but adolescent readers will not miss the presence of their own kind in such a good story. Its climax involves the devil himself, blown out of his street lair by some hastily acquired Semtex. At this late point the story lacks belief and also fails as a metaphor. Simply blasting evil away does no justice to the more complex moral vision hinted at earlier on. But although its ultimate destination is a sad cop-out, the journey there is sufficiently exciting not to cause too many complaints on the way.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum