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

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The Independent Culture
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.